The Rosmah Judgement – understanding the misrule of Najib and Rosmah co-prime ministership

On 1 September, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, wife of former Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak, was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine amounting to RM 970 million. Rosmah was guilty of all three charges under Section 16(a) MACC Act 2009.

I encourage all Malaysians to read the 116-page judgement by Judge Mohamad Zaini Mazlan to understand how Najib and Rosmah audaciously co-ruled Malaysia in a way that plundered the nation and caused the dismay of not just civil servants but also ministers from UMNO itself, and what we should do to prevent the repeat of such misrule.

𝙄𝙣 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙣𝙖𝙢𝙚 𝙤𝙛 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙥𝙤𝙤𝙧

There were 369 rural schools in Sarawak that had no connection to the public electricity grid due to their remoteness. These schools depended on generators for electricity, which were managed and operated by 30 contractors appointed by the Education Ministry of the Federal Government under the “Genset” project.

One of these thirty contractors, Jepak Holdings Sdn Bhd, got greedy. The company was originally responsible for generators in 16 schools in Daro/Mukah zone and another 12 schools in Baram II zone. But now it wanted to have the entire cake to itself. A solar project which would cost the government RM 1.25 billion over a period of five years was proposed by Jepak Holdings.

Saidi bin Abang Samsudin, Managing Director of Jepak Holdings was a personal friend of Dato’ Seri Mahdzir Khalid, who took over as Minister of Education from Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who was sacked by Najib from the cabinet on 28 July 2015.

Saidi approached Mahdzir but the latter doubted Jepak Holdings’ capability to carry out the project. Mahdzir also refused to break rules and circumvent established processes, especially when the Education Ministry already had plans to connect some of those schools to the public electricity grid and the existing contracts for generators would only expire in December 2016.

Jepak Holdings and Saidi found their way around this: to enlist the help of Rosmah to get Najib to do its bidding.

Jepak Holdings offered to pay Rosmah 10 percent of the RM 1.25 billion contract value as commission. Rosmah’s greed was of the highest order. She asked for 17 percent and eventually settled at 15 percent, i.e RM 187.5 million. RM 187.5 million just for telling Najib to approve this project.

𝙏𝙤𝙩𝙖𝙡 𝙙𝙞𝙨𝙧𝙚𝙜𝙖𝙧𝙙 𝙤𝙛 𝙡𝙖𝙬𝙨, 𝙧𝙪𝙡𝙚𝙨 𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙧𝙚𝙜𝙪𝙡𝙖𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨

This solar project was exactly like other vendor-driven projects during the time of the Barisan Nasional government, such as the Littoral Combat Ship project in which the vendor decided everything against the actual needs of the end users, which were ignored and sacrificed. In the case of LCS, the Navy was ignored.

In the Rosmah-Jepak Holdings solar case, the following attempts to safeguard the public interest by the Education Ministry and the Treasury were trampled by Najib and Rosmah.

First, despite Minister Mahdzir’s doubts of Jepak Holdings’ capabilities, on 1 December 2015, Najib minuted on a letter by the company dated 23 November 2015 “𝘉𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘦𝘵𝘶𝘫𝘶 𝘥𝘪𝘭𝘢𝘬𝘴𝘢𝘯𝘢𝘬𝘢𝘯 𝘴𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮 𝘣𝘢𝘳𝘶 𝘪𝘯𝘪 𝘥𝘢𝘯 𝘣𝘢𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘬𝘢𝘯 𝘴𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘮 𝘭𝘢𝘮𝘢” (Agree to execute this new system and terminate the previous system).

Mahdzir and Tan Sri Madinah Mohamad, the then Secretary-General of the Education Ministry, tried to ignore Najib’s minutes as there would be financial implications to terminate the existing contracts.

Second, in May 2016, the Education Ministry’s technical team proposed to Minister Mahdzir to get Jepak Holdings to do a pilot test in the 16 schools in Daro/Mukah zone and the 12 schools in Baram II zone which were under the company’s purview under the Genset contract.

Saidi and Jepak Holdings weren’t happy and wanted a letter of award for the entire 369 schools straightaway. Rosmah’s aide told off Mahdzir. Through her aide, Rosmah also told Madihah to look into the project.

Jepak sent a letter to Najib on 2 June 2016 and Najib replied on 7 June 2016 with the minutes that reads “𝘚𝘪𝘭𝘢 𝘭𝘢𝘬𝘴𝘢𝘯𝘢𝘬𝘢𝘯 𝘴𝘦𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘪 𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘪𝘵 𝘴𝘢𝘺𝘢 𝘥𝘶𝘭𝘶” (Please execute according to my previous minute).

Mahdzir told the court that this was the first occasion that Najib sent two signed minutes enforcing his will on a single project. He felt compelled to instruct his Ministry to act in accordance with the Prime Minister’s wish.

Third, the vendor continued to harass the Minister and the Secretary-General. The judgement says that “Mahdzir had the opportunity to speak to Najib sometime in June 2016. He tried to convince Najib to use an open tender for the project and not through direct negotiations with Jepak. Najib was however adamant and told Mahdzir to carry out his instructions.” (Paragraph [42]) Rosmah further instructed Mahdzir brazenly to “look into the Jepak project.”

Fourth, Dato’ Othman Semail, Secretary of Government Procurement Department in the Treasury, was another victim of Najib’s highhandededness in favour of the vendor, Jepak Holdings. Othman chastised Jepak for its attempt to bypass proper procedures. He said he served the public, not politicians. Najib wrote another minute specifically directed to Othman to allow for the Education Ministry to carry out direct negotiations with Jepak, “𝘠𝘉𝘩𝘨 𝘋𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘬 𝘖𝘵𝘩𝘮𝘢𝘯, 𝘉𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘦𝘵𝘶𝘫𝘶 𝘥𝘪𝘭𝘶𝘭𝘶𝘴𝘬𝘢𝘯 𝘙𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘢𝘯 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘶𝘴 𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘥𝘢𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘬𝘢𝘯 𝘱𝘦𝘯𝘫𝘪𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘢𝘯 𝘬𝘰𝘴. 𝘚𝘪𝘭𝘢 𝘶𝘳𝘶𝘴𝘬𝘢𝘯 𝘴𝘦𝘨𝘦𝘳𝘢” (Honourable Datuk Othman, Agree to approve Direct Negotiations to save costs. Please arrange immediately).

The attempts of civil servants who wanted to safeguard the government and nation’s interest, such was the case with Dato’ Othman and Tan Sri Madinah, were futile and disregarded by the greedy Najib and Rosmah.

𝗪𝗵𝘆 𝘄𝗮𝘀 𝗡𝗮𝗷𝗶𝗯 𝘀𝗼 𝗿𝗲𝗹𝗲𝗻𝘁𝗹𝗲𝘀𝘀 𝗶𝗻 𝗽𝘂𝗿𝘀𝘂𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗮𝗽𝗽𝗿𝗼𝘃𝗮𝗹 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝘀 𝘀𝗼𝗹𝗮𝗿 𝗽𝗿𝗼𝗷𝗲𝗰𝘁? 𝗜𝘁 𝘄𝗮𝘀 𝗯𝗲𝗰𝗮𝘂𝘀𝗲 𝗥𝗼𝘀𝗺𝗮𝗵 𝗱𝗶𝗱 𝗵𝗲𝗿 𝗺𝗮𝗴𝗶𝗰: “𝘼𝙠𝙪 𝙙𝙖𝙝 𝙘𝙖𝙠𝙖𝙥 𝙙𝙚𝙣𝙜𝙖𝙣 𝙡𝙖𝙠𝙞 𝙖𝙠𝙪 𝙙𝙖𝙝” (𝗜 𝗵𝗮𝘃𝗲 𝗮𝗹𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗱𝘆 𝘁𝗼𝗹𝗱 𝗺𝘆 𝗵𝘂𝘀𝗯𝗮𝗻𝗱).

The Finance Ministry approved the Education Ministry’s request to conduct direct negotiations with Jepak.

Fifth, the Education Ministry was only agreeable to issue a letter of intent but not a letter of award. On 8 November 2016, Najib responded to a letter by Jepak dated 6 November 2016 by instructing Minister Mahdzir “𝘚𝘪𝘭𝘢 𝘬𝘦𝘭𝘶𝘢𝘳𝘬𝘢𝘯 𝘚𝘚𝘛 (𝘭𝘦𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘰𝘧 𝘢𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘥) 𝘶𝘯𝘵𝘶𝘬 𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘫𝘦𝘬 𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘥𝘢𝘴𝘢𝘳𝘬𝘢𝘯 𝘴𝘶𝘳𝘢𝘵 𝘑𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘬 𝘏𝘰𝘭𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘦𝘤𝘢𝘳𝘢 𝘴𝘦𝘨𝘦𝘳𝘢” (Please issue a letter of award for the project based on Jepak Holding’s letter immediately).

Sixth, on 9 November 2016, Mahdzir complained to Najib that Jepak Holding harassed him and was disrespectful towards him as a minister. Najib ignored Mahdzir’s grievance and told the latter to execute his order.

Seventh, on 10 November 2016, a letter of award of RM 1.25 billion was given to Jepak Holdings with a condition that the Ministry reserved the right to terminate the contract or to reduce the number of schools involved once they were connected to the public electricity grid. Once again, Rosmah got her aide to harass and told Mahdzir off. The latter relented and removed the clause.

Eighth, in July 2017, Saidi complained to Mahdzir that the finance department of the Education Ministry had withheld payment due to incomplete documentation. Mahdzir told Saidi to follow procedures. “Saidi was not amused and belittled Mahdzir. He told Mahdzir that he would complain to Najib, Rizal (Mansor, Rosmah’s aide) and the accused (Rosmah).” (Paragraph [69])

Rizal, presumably carrying out Rosmah’s instruction, told Mahdzir to write to Najib the Finance Minister to seek the Treasury’s exemption of documentation. Najib minuted on the letter “𝘉𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘦𝘵𝘶𝘫𝘶 𝘥𝘪𝘣𝘦𝘳𝘪 𝘱𝘦𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘤𝘶𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘢𝘯 𝘴𝘦𝘱𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘪 𝘥𝘪𝘱𝘰𝘩𝘰𝘯. 𝘚𝘪𝘭𝘢 𝘶𝘳𝘶𝘴𝘬𝘢𝘯” (Agree to provide exemption as requested. Please arrange). The Finance Ministry, through its letter to Datuk Seri Alias bin Ahmed, the new Secretary-General of the Education Ministry who succeeded Tan Sri Madinah, instructed the Education Ministry to make a RM 63 million interim payment to Jepak within 24 hours.

At every turn, ministers and civil servants were trampled by Najib and Rosmah. To put it simply, every time there was a setback for Saidi and Jepak Holdings, Rosmah would come to their rescue by instructing her husband to enforce their will.

As Judge Zaini said in the judgement, “it is indeed amazing that a contract worth RM 1.25 billion could simply be awarded by penning minutes without going through the expected procedures that will serve to check and balance.” (Paragraph [235])

𝙄𝙢𝙥𝙚𝙧𝙞𝙖𝙡 𝙥𝙧𝙞𝙢𝙚 𝙢𝙞𝙣𝙞𝙨𝙩𝙚𝙧𝙞𝙖𝙡 𝙥𝙤𝙬𝙚𝙧

The judge had effectively alluded to Rosmah being the co-Prime Minister by pointing out that she asserted huge influence on Najib. “I say this with the greatest of respect, but it is apparent that the accused (Rosmah) dominates Najib. She has control over him. She had no business interfering in Najib’s duties or the government’s affairs, but she did.” (Paragraph [237])

Rizal Mansor, according to the judgement, claimed that the accused (Rosmah) influenced the government agencies and the civil servants, who would often accede to her demands. The civil servants would do their utmost to please her. Rizal claimed that civil servants feared her as she was fierce and could influence Najib to transfer them or simply put them in ‘cold storage’ should they dare to oppose or disobey her instructions.” (Paragraph [78])

Both Najib and Rosmah acted with impunity with the notion that they would be in power forever and would not have to answer for their crimes. The dates of the Rosmah-Solar case indicated that these incidents took place at the height of the 1MDB crisis and yet they were not afraid to continue taking bribes and break the law. It is truly shocking how brazen and arrogant the Najib-Rosmah duo can be.

Unfortunately, the solar project scandal is most likely to be just the tip of the iceberg in Rosmah’s money frenzy.

11,991 items of jewellery, 401 watch straps and 16 watch accessories, 234 pairs of spectacles, and 306 handbags as well as cash in various denominations amounting to more than RM 100 million were confiscated in 2019. It would have taken more than this single solar project for her to afford all these luxuries.

Essentially, the one-party state with an imperial prime minister with unfettered powers allowed Najib and Rosmah to act the way they did. The Prime Minister was given immense discretionary powers in which the check and balance mechanism was also corroded by Najib who took on the Finance Minister post, a practice that started in the late 1990s after the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim.

𝙈𝙤𝙫𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙛𝙤𝙧𝙬𝙖𝙧𝙙

Time and again, we have seen that in Malaysia, an extreme form of centralisation of powers serves to benefit only the cronies. Projects for the benefit of our society such as electricity supply for schools could be more effectively dealt with by the state governments. I have been pushing for the decentralisation of powers including in education as the state governments may be in a better position to assess the needs of the people and we should not be waiting for the federal government to dictate it all.

In the name of the underprivileged school kids in Sarawak, Rosmah and Najib used the solar project to feed their insatiable greed. What they did was a heinous crime of denying these children a chance to receive education and thus a chance to have a better future.

The education sector as a whole also suffered as ministry funds were diverted to a paper project when the money could have gone into better uses.

The Malaysian government must overhaul its procurement processes to eliminate vendor-driven projects, whether for war ships or solar panels for geographically remote schools. Systems and mechanisms must be put in place to tackle corruption especially in these big ticket projects, as Judge Mohamad Zaini Mazlan puts it, “corruption has reached almost every level of society. It must be curtailed before it becomes pandemic. If corruption is left unbridled, our society will come to accept it as a way of life or business”. (Paragraph [248])

The 2018 general election ended the imperial prime ministerial power, and with the jailing of Najib and the latest conviction of Rosmah, wrongdoers were finally brought to justice. The old order has crumbled and a more democratic political order with sufficient checks and balances would have to be built in its place.

Liew Chin Tong

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