The Az-man in the arena
In Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar’s world there are only two types of people – those who fight “in the arena” and those who don’t (read: critics and detractors).
The erstwhile managing director of Khazanah Nasional Berhad officially left Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund (SWF) on July 31, after 14 years and two months at the helm.
Two days later Azman released a five-page long Farewell Note to his ex-colleagues and fellow Malaysians.
In it he lifted the Man in the Arena passage from a speech titled “Citizenship in a Republic” that US President Theodore Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in April 1910. It is a lengthy but stimulating lecture and we encourage Malaysians, especially politicians, to read and digest it.
Azman’s missive was more or less to highlight his achievements during his 170-month tenure (mid-2004 to July 2018). He wants to ensure Malaysians are aware of what he and his team had achieved, from the financial, strategic and societal perspectives.
He reminded us that, like any other SWFs, making and losing money is par for the course, “part and parcel of investment operations”. In other words, it’s a bit like gambling: win some, lose some.
Khazanah made gains of about MYR100 billion (USD24.5 billion) in the last decade and its losses were just a fifth of that; using soccer as an analogy, Azman likened it to a 5-1 triumph.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad created Khazanah in 1994, and the SWF received an initial endowment of just MYR7 billion; today its assets have grown to over MYR157 billion. Kind of like Donald Trump getting a few million bucks from his dad to kick-start his business and then turned it into a multi-billion empire.
We wouldn’t want to take anything away from Azman’s and his colleagues’ achievements, so Malaysians must give credit to Khazanah where it’s due.
However, we feel it is only fair to put some things, as Azman said, into “a sense of perspective”.
We appreciate his candour and honesty in clarifying the MYR1.7 billion losses in UBS and Indian online women’s underwear company Zivame.
But one thing remains puzzling.
Azman took great pains – devoting some 300 words – to explain and justify Khazanah’s 22%, MYR80 million investment in Zivame, yet could muster barely 60 words on our flag carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS) – whose losses were MYR8.4 billion and where Khazanah is the sole shareholder.
He wrote, briefly: “There were companies where we have failed or not been able to turn it around completely thus far for various reasons including MAS/MAB in particular…”
How was this figure arrived at? Between 2011 and 2013 alone MAS lost over MYR4 billion. And we have yet to take into account the estimated USD1.2 billion (MYR5 billion) “investment” on six Airbus A380s, an aircraft whose residual values are laughable.
The mystery of PMB’s losses
Since we’re on the subject of aviation, can Azman please explain the MYR2 billion losses at Penerbangan Malaysia Berhad (PMB), the leasing company Khazanah established over a decade ago – see the front-page cover and excerpts from the Focus Malaysia article (above).
That article is almost four years old (Dec. 6, 2014) and Khazanah has never bothered to respond to the questions raised.
That’s not all. What about the MYR6 billion bailout of MAS which Khazanah concocted in 2014 – shouldn’t that be included as losses, too? Or is that money recoverable?
Azman noted Khazanah’s investments in Alibaba made over MYR6 billion gains – that’s the same amount that was dumped to save our national airline, with no guarantee of success! So, plus, minus, we’re back to square one.
Aviation aside, why did Azman get all worked up on July 11 when The Star published a photo taken at a Khazanah event in San Francisco way back in September 2013?
He quickly informed the media that the two people who were with him and former PM Najib Razak in the photo – ex-Goldman Sachs banker Tim Leissner (currently being probed by the US Department of Justice) and wife Kimora Lee – were in fact uninvited guests.
Why did it take Azman five years to set the record straight when the photo had been widely circulated on the Internet in Malaysia since September 2013? Would Azman have made the clarification if there were no change in government on May 10?
Man in the Arena
Azman said he found the Man in the Arena passage inspirational and we couldn’t agree more.
What we find disappointing is that Azman used it to exhort his former colleagues to pay scant attention to Malaysians who are not “in the arena” as if (constructive) criticisms from working class folks do not matter to the gladiators in Khazanah.
He reminded them: “It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood…”
But the critics do matter. Brushing aside (constructive) criticisms and ignoring questions from the media is rude and unprofessional. It comes across as haughty; belittling fellow citizens deemed unfit to question those who sit in high office (33rd floor of the Twin Towers, no less).
Criticism arises as a result of differences in thoughts, and thought processes. Malaysians are giving Khazanah their opinion although some may be, admittedly, baseless and unworthy of replying.
Whatever it is, (constructive) criticism helps our SWF to improve. Most Malaysians may never understand what Khazanah actually does or how it works or appreciate the sacrifice, toil and torture its employees have to endure, being “in the arena”.
All they know is that many employees of Khazanah, a government-owned company where all Malaysians are stakeholders, are very well paid and that its CEO gets a handsome MYR7 million salary, according to Tun Mahathir.
Have a good rest, Tan Sri. We hear Azman has invested in a swanky waterfront property in Iskandar Puteri, Johor Bahru. It makes sense given that he was one of the architects of the Iskandar Malaysia project and will have a vested interest in its long-term success (or God forbid, failure).