(Petaling Jaya, Thursday): Primary Industries Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Lim Keng Yaik should be suspended as Cabinet Minister for the height of irresponsibility in failing to clarify the RM600 million "missing" Risda Replanting Funds for a full week.
For a week, Keng Yaik shook public confidence in Risda when he was quoted in the press as alleging that RM600 million was missing from the Risda Replanting Fund due to unprofitable investments and the purchase of non-beneficial assets, resulting in smallholders unable to apply for loans for the replanting of rubber trees as the fund had been exhausted.
Keng Yaik was also reported to have told reporters after officiating the Pesta Koko in Subang on May 29 that as a result of these losses, Risda could now only plant trees on 20,000 ha of land annually in sharp contrast to the increasing number of old rubber trees which now stand on 200,000 ha of land.
On June 2, the Minister for Rural Development, Datuk Annuar Musa dismissed Keng Yaik’s allegation as unfounded and said Risda could not have mismanaged the monies as the fund had never reached RM600 million.
Annuar also expressed his disappointment that that such an allegation was made by a Cabinet colleague on an issue which affected the livelihood of some 300,000 families.
What certainly raises eyebrows is the public refutation by Annuar of Keng Yaik’s contention that the matter of the "missing" Risda funds had been discussed several times in the Cabinet.
Keng Yaik was reported to have told the press on May 29, as reported in Utusan Malaysia: "Saya sudah bangkitkan perkara ini di kabinet dan merayu agar sesuatu dilakukan samada menswastakan RISDA atau membuat suntukan kewangan bagi memulihkan operasinya.
"Saya tidak bermaksud ada orang yang melesapkan wang itu. Penggunaan wang tabung ini adalah salah beberapa tahun dulu kerana ia digunakan dalam beberapa skim pelaburan yang mengalami kerugian."
Annuar refuted Keng Yaik when he told the press on 2nd June: "I have been a member of the Cabinet for the past seven years and not even once, (was) the matter brought up." (NST 3.6.97).
Now Malaysians are told that at its meeting yesterday, "the Cabinet accepted the explanations of two Ministers that a newspaper’s reports on the issue were unfounded."
Yesterday, at a press conference in his Ministry, Keng Yaik dramatically held a photocopy of last Friday’s Utusan Malaysia ( 30th May 1997) with the headline "RM600j wang tanam semula RISDA lesap" and declared:
"I did not say lesap. I don’t even know the meaning of the word. How could I say it when I do not know the meaning of the word?"
It must come as a shock to Malaysians, particularly the new generation, that a senior Cabinet Minister of some three decades experience does not know the meaning of the word lesap. Even more shocking is his failure to check to find out the meaning of lesap the very day the Utusan Malaysia report appeared and his failure to correct the report instantly, allowing the missing RM600 million Risda funds scandal to swirl around the country for a full week.
It is unfair on the part of Keng Yaik to pin the whole blame on Utusan Malaysia, for other newspapers had also carried the same report.
For instance, Nanyang Siang Pau of 31st May 1997 carried the story as a page lead with the headline "RISDA - RM600 million lost and gone" while China Press of 30th May 1997 carried the story under the headline "Lim Keng Yaik - Fund mismanagement - rubber replanting obstacle", which quoted him on the losses suffered by Risda Replanting Fund as a result of unprofitable investments. Sin Chew Jit Poh of 30th May 1997 also reported Keng Yaik’s remarks about RM600 million Risda Replanting funds as "almost gone" and that it had been discussed in Cabinet several times.
This is not the first time that Keng Yaik had made the press the scapegoat for his errors, whether for some wild allegation or even for some mishap suffered by him or his party, as evidenced by the recent Teluk Intan by-election result.
Gerakan suffered a traumatic defeat in the Teluk Intan by-election on May 17 losing a seat everyone in Barisan Nasional regarded as totally safe and "invincible", and his immediate reaction was to look for a scapegoat, and he found it in China Press blaming it for a misreport which he alleged was the major cause of the Gerakan defeat in the by-election.
What is more reprehensible is that he put pressure on China Press and imposed a new form of press control and censorship forcing the newspaper management to undertake not to carry any articles or comments critical of Barisan Nasional leaders for six months on pain of closure of the newspaper.
It is fortunate that Utusan Malaysia has powerful political backing and Keng Yaik dare not give it the same treatment he gave to China Press.
The whole episode represents the height of irresponsibility of Keng Yaik in his attempt to blame the mass media for his notorious "trigger-happy" remarks. It is fortunate that Keng Yaik is a Minister in the government enjoying unfair immunity from prosecution, for if he is in the Opposition, he would probably create history for having the most number of charges preferred against him for the offence of publishing "false news" under the Printing Presses and Publications Act.
Keng Yaik should be gentleman enough to admit that he had made a mistake if there is no basis in the story about the "missing" RM600 million Risda Replanting funds scandal, and apologise to RISDA and all the Risda employees, as demanded by the Risda Senior Officers Union and Peninsula Risda Workers’ Union, and to Utusan Malaysia as well.
As further amends, Keng Yaik should also apologise to China Press and remove the new form of press control and censorship imposed on it for the next six months as a consequence of the Gerakan defeat in the Teluk Intan by-election.