KUALA LUMPUR, June 2 — It was a launch of an art exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum.
In a rare public appearance, Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, the billionaire tycoon who is also the gallery’s patron, delivered a speech to thank Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for taking time to grace the event.
In his speech, Syed Mokhtar repeatedly addressed Anwar as “abang”, Malay for “elder brother”.
Anwar, sitting at the time, was stoic and appeared unmoved as the tycoon reminisced about how Anwar, as then deputy prime minister, had helped set up a meeting between him with then prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The favour would have marked the start of a long business relationship between Syed Mokhtar and the government.
When it was his turn to speak, Anwar briefly went off the cuff to address the billionaire. The prime minister joked that he had always been a “stern brother,” and that he never backed down from his criticism that the National Rice Company (Bernas), under the corporate stewardship of Syed Mokhtar, has profited handsomely from monopoly of rice import.
“He’s very kind in reference to calling me abang, but I’ve been very tough with him with regards to Bernas, which has a major contract (to import rice) because of privatisation,” he said.
“And I’m very concerned, or disturbed not necessarily against Bernas but at the state of poverty of our paddy farmers,” Anwar added.
During his time as the federal Opposition leader, Anwar often cited Bernas’ domination of the rice market as emblematic of the abuse and crony capitalism that flourished under Barisan Nasional rule.
Anwar alleged the company had raked in billions of ringgit in profits because previous administrations favoured Syed Mokhtar and gave Bernas the sole right to import equipment and other crucial raw materials to grow the crop, while the most paddy farmers remained poor.
Syed Mokhtar holds close to 92 per cent of Bernas through four of his companies. The Edge, a business paper, reported that Bernas accounts for 30.6 per cent of the local rice market in which it imports rice from countries such as Thailand and Myanmar to meet local demand
In 2014, the same year the billionaire secured the needed shares to control Bernas following a failed first bid, the BN administration at the time admitted in Parliament that the takeover had effectively given Syed Mokhtar monopoly over rice import.
The tycoon rarely appears in public or speaks openly about his relationship with politicians, despite being regularly linked to top Umno leaders.
According to the billionaire, today was the first time he made his ties with Anwar known.
“I’m sorry if you guys are bored but I think it’s important that I tell this untold story,” Syed Mokhtar joked.
Today also marks the first time the two figures have appeared publicly together since Anwar became prime minister. Anwar claimed in December last year that he had “reprimanded” Syed Mokhtar during a private conversation about Bernas after the new government was formed.
Anwar’s political coalition had vowed to dismantle existing monopolies over supply chains by politically-connected elites, including reviewing Bernas’ contract, but later conceded that he cannot rescind the 10-year import concession extension for the rice company because it could “spook” other companies.
However, Anwar directed Bernas to pay out RM60 million of its net profits to paddy farmers.