Oops! YTL boss steps on tender spot

PAINFUL LESSON: A recent gaffe swiftly turned Mr Yeoh into corporate Malaysia's favourite whipping boy.


    Jun 19, 2014

    Oops! YTL boss steps on tender spot

    MALAYSIAN tycoon Francis Yeoh, boss of conglomerate YTL Group, rarely wanders out on a limb in a public gallery to make "delicate" remarks about the Malaysian administration.

    In fact, the 60-year-old erudite entrepreneur is widely known for his political correctness. Why bite the hand that feeds you?

    But if one's rice bowl is largely replenished by overseas business - some 80 per cent of YTL's revenues come from abroad now - perhaps it should absolve him from scripted restraint, allowing instead for some candour.

    Not by a long shot, as Mr Yeoh himself has painfully discovered in recent weeks.

    It has been said that the first lesson in communication for chief executives is that "it's not what you say, it's what people hear - and see".

    That lesson came crashing down like an 800-pound gorilla on Mr Yeoh following a recent gaffe which swiftly turned him into corporate Malaysia's favourite whipping boy.

    Long perceived as a beneficiary of the handpicked business milieu of Malaysia's Mahathir era, not unlike tycoons of the Genting, Astro and Berjaya business empires, Mr Yeoh was recently reported to have called for Malaysia to be rid of crony capitalism so as to be globally competitive.

    Mr Yeoh has since alleged that his remarks were misrepresented and that he was merely responding to a perception that Malaysia practises crony capitalism, which was raised by the audience at a forum.

    At the forum sponsored by a government unit driving the country's reforms, Mr Yeoh praised Singapore - where his firm owns Power Seraya, has built luxury villas in Sentosa and has another project in Orchard Boulevard - Hong Kong, Britain and Australia, which make up the bulk of YTL's businesses, for their transparent and coherent regulatory frameworks.

    It's a message - one that is vigorously championed by reform-hungry Malaysians - that, ordinarily, would have resonated well with the populace seeking better governance and equitability.

    But Mr Yeoh, whose company has snagged some big government concessions in the power and construction businesses, was evidently not deemed the right candidate for that speech. The brickbats flew fast and furious from various directions - politicians, the business circles and some media outlets.

    Even former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, rather in character, weighed in on Mr Yeoh's remarks without directly naming him.

    "Recently, a public figure claimed that the situation in Malaysia is terrible because of cronyism and favouritism. This terrible country is the one that gave him the capital to move to other countries," said Dr Mahathir in his personal blog.

    The one-off remark by one of Malaysia's richest has resulted in a backlash against YTL's pact with the Sultan of Johor and Tenaga Nasional to build a gas-fired power plant in Johor.

    YTL said yesterday it will not take part in the RM3 billion (S$1.2 billion) power plant project.

    The deal had been slammed for being awarded on a directly negotiated basis, a decision that makes the Malaysian government's promise of a more open and transparent system ring hollow.

    That's the thing about closed tenders. Company credentials aside, they are more often than not awarded on a seemingly subjective basis. Mr Yeoh may know that only too well.

    For that reason, no one, not even a businessman who has built a thriving empire outside Malaysia after enjoying some lucrative contracts at home, should be sidelined in the debate on cronyism.