YOU don’t need to be a C-suiter to appreciate the challenges faced by Arul Kanda Kandasamy, CEO of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), the firm at the center of what’s been described as the world’s biggest financial scandal.
Since January 2015, the former investment banker has seen his name become synonymous with the state investment fund. Where once the mere mention of 1MDB would draw up images of its founder Prime Minister Najib Razak, today, pictures of Arul, suited up and smiling, would also come to mind.
But being the face of Finance Ministry-owned 1MDB was always a part of Arul’s plan, a plan he has been working feverishly to achieve.
With his appointment as CEO, Arul inherited the fund’s RM50 billion (US$12 billion) debt burden, inadvertently got caught up in its tangled web of politics, economics and rule of law, and suddenly found himself catapulted into the public spotlight.
“I came in after the mess had happened, and I was responsible for fixing it,” he tells Asian Correspondent in an exclusive interview this week.
But determined to turn the tide in the firm’s favour, Arul stayed the course and has been pulling out all the stops to control the 1MDB narrative in the public sphere.
He has appeared countless times in media interviews explaining 1MDB’s case, its rationalisation plan and the state of its debt burden.
His responses to opposition-led allegations against the firm have always been swift, deliberate and specific.
A articular speaker, he has headlined nationwide roadshows and given public talks (ceramahs), addressing as many concerns as possible about activities related to the fund, from how Marlon Brando’s Oscar ended up with Hollywood A-lister Leonardo Dicaprio, right up to the recent seizure of the US$250 million superyacht named the Equanimity.
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And with the country’s May 9 general election looming closer, Arul is now back on the ceramah circuit, again addressing difficult questions about the firm – especially concerning its links to Najib, who is seeking his third term in office.
“I’m not a rock star or a politician but sometimes it feels like that,” he says.
Before 1MDB, the UK-Qualified Barrister had stints in Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, a part of which was spent working on some of the world’s biggest corporate deals and restructuring initiatives during the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.
Despite his credentials and experience with successful multibillion-dollar corporate revamps in the Middle East, 1MDB proved to be a different beast altogether for Arul.
“I took on a job that no one wanted,” he says, recalling his appointment three years ago.
“I was then in a bit of a dilemma. But fortunately, the government made the right decision to come up with a rationalisation plan.”
1MDB’s problems grew when the US Department of Justice filed a series of forfeiture suits in 2016 and 2017, seeking the seizure of assets from certain named individuals linked to the company. These assets, according to the lawsuits, were allegedly acquired using funds siphoned from 1MDB.
The government’s apologist?
It was neither Arul’s job nor his intention to stand as Najib’s or the government’s apologist but the country’s opposition leaders, dogged in their bid to fell the prime minister, forced that to change.
The opposition, Arul says, began wielding the scandal as a political tool, exploiting the issue for political gain.
“It was a business issue that became a political one, and then it went on to become a geopolitical issue. But all that happened after I took on the role at 1MDB,” he said.
Arul pointed out the separate investigations carried out by the country’s Auditor-General department, Central Bank and police, and the findings from the Public Accounts Committee or PAC (which comprised nine parliamentarians from the government and five from the opposition), could not find any wrongdoing on Najib’s part.
But still the accusations continued, he said.
“It’s not fair to point the finger at Najib because as you know, 1MDB is a company which is subject to the Companies Act.
“The responsibility for decision-making and actions of the company lies in the hands of the management.”
He acknowledged that the firm is handled by the Ministry of Finance Incorporated (MoF Inc) which, by dint of him being Finance Minister, ultimately means it is Najib who oversees it. But drawing such a link is tenuous at best.
“There are people who designated to do that work within the civil service,” he pointed out.
Arul also pointed out that a senior opposition lawmaker – Dr Tan Seng Giaw of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) – had himself gone on record to confirm that Najib had not committed any wrong. Dr Tan, a parliamentarian, was the PAC’s chairman.
“And the result of him (Dr Tan) being open, honest and transparent? He has now been dropped by the DAP as a candidate in the upcoming general elections.
“So I think it shows you how the opposition spins things, and how the opposition dropped like a hot potato someone who spoke the truth and stands out for what is right.”
Arul says he finds it very disappointing how most opposition members or critics, including those on social media, and some bloggers, resort to personal attacks to draw attention to the scandal.
He said opinions on the issue should be backed by facts and not be clouded by politics.
Critics should take a leaf from the playbook of prominent opposition politician Nurul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of imprisoned leader Anwar Ibrahim and Najib’s nemesis, who Arul says “tries very hard” to direct her comments at policies, facts, and opinions, as opposed to persons or personalities.
“I believe that is the right way for any opposition member or any critic. When attacking the issue, stick to the issue, stick to the facts. Present it in a rational, calm, and sure way. Don’t make it personal. Learn from Nurul.”
While the criticisms may be personal and harsh, Arul said he has so far not received any physical threats.
A few weeks ago, Arul launched a personal website to serve as a repository of all things related to the firm.
“I think it’s important to clarify to the public in my own name on what did I do, so I came up with a plan to show that I have successfully implemented that plan.”
While he may have one of the toughest corporate jobs in the country, Arul believes it is important to find the right balance between work and personal life.
“You must not neglect your personal life – whether that’s health or diet, whether that’s exercise or whether that’s time spent with your wife or with your children, that’s very important.”
“I consciously make an effort… for example during weekends, I try to not do meetings or not do events.
“Unfortunately right now I’m caught up with ceramahs during nights and weekends, but generally I try to keep those (weekends) free and that’s family time,
“I don’t play golf, I don’t go out partying with my friends, I reserve my time for my wife and children.”
Equally, Arul says he believes in the importance of going on family holidays.
“It’s a time when we are exclusively together where I put the phone and emails aside, and I focus my time on doing things and on building memories and creating experiences for all of us,” Arul said, advising all young executives wanting to climb the corporate ladder to do the same.”