WRITING a book linking the work of your father to your own values and career and what you think the future path your country should take is a rather tall order, especially when your father is one of the nation’s founding fathers, its first deputy prime minister and its second prime minister. And when you were a mere nine years old when your dad died.

Well, that’s exactly what Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, a well-known corporate icon in Malaysia and the youngest son of Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, has succeeded in doing with his book, What’s In a Name, which is available for sale at bookshops today at RM89.95.

It’s a bold, brave and, most of all, admirable effort considering the pitfalls and potholes such a path would come with, and the amount of disagreement and controversy that such an undertaking would generate even in the best of times due to its complexity.

If it was Nazir’s intention to generate discussion, debate and decisions about this country of ours – currently directionless and mired in a whole lot of problems without the kind of leadership it needs – then he has succeeded on some counts, even if you can’t agree with all of his prescriptions.

While the links with Razak’s life, aims and achievements may seem tenuous at times, the book overall is a rollicking read, even if one is not so concerned with the country and its future fate, and peppered as it is with many revelatory incidents during his career, which are likely to engage keenly the corporate observer. Three books in one It’s as Nazir himself says, three books in one – one about his father, Razak, and what he did, and importantly, what he did not; his own life and times in the corporate world that is quite a roller coaster of a ride; and finally, his passionate desire of finding a way that would put Malaysia back on the path of harmony, unity and prosperity to give every Malaysian a rightful place under the sun. Nazir’s life is complicated by his father’s name, which, while it opens doors, requires proof that Nazir is not where he is entirely because of his name and pedigree but has the necessary ability to boot. In fact, Nazir talks about times when the door may have been closed because of that very name itself, and the conviction that he does not need to be given an opportunity mainly because of his name. Harking back to the Razak era, the focal point is the May 13, 1969, riots, which forever changed policymaking in Malaysia, resulting in the Razak-inspired New Economic Policy or NEP, which was announced in 1970 and implemented from the following year. This has caused much abuse and distress. Nazir addresses the issue of the first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj who “sympathised with those who believed that the declaration of a state of emergency was, in effect, a coup and that the riots were premeditated by Abdul Razak or his supporters. After 50 years, no evidence has ever been produced to support this thesis”. He follows this up by saying that former attorney-general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas, in his memoir My Story: Justice in the Wilderness, claims that the May 13 riots were conceived as a coup to depose Tunku. Nazir says: “He then produces no evidence at all to substantiate the wild claim…” The issue remains contentious, however. Those who lived close to where the riots started in Chow Kit Road know that it originated from then Selangor menteri besar Datuk Harun Idris’ house in Kg Baru – from an Umno rally. There are conflicting accounts of what happened and Malaysiakini gave a controversial account, 50 years later. Time for another NCC? Nazir points out that Razak headed the National Consultative Council (NCC) of 67 members representing the country’s communities and faith to start the dialogue on systemic failures and possible reforms post the 1969 riots. Nazir suggests that something like this be done now to move the country forward. He says: “Modern Malaysia needs a national recalibration as far-reaching as the one he (Razak) led in 1970. With the benefit of ample hindsight, not all of his decisions were right. Some initiatives didn’t succeed.
…Abdul Razak left us a dual legacy. The other part of that legacy was a less visible set of values and beliefs, principles and methods which guided the way he exercised his power. To understand that legacy, we have to look not at what he did but at how and why he wielded power for the public good.”

For a fuller understanding of what Nazir is trying to postulate, it would be necessary to read the book. But perhaps another extract would help make it a bit clearer: “Eventually I came to see that in the name of the values my father had left us with, I needed to advocate the overhaul of the system he had created. For the sake of my father, I risked my relationship with the older brother (former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak) I so admired and who had looked after me on the night of his (Razak’s) death. But all that comes after.”

For the sake of his father, Datuk Seri Nazir Razak says he risked his relationship with older brother, former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak (pic), who he so admired and had looked after him on the night of their father’s death. – Bernama pic, November 8, 2021
For the sake of his father, Datuk Seri Nazir Razak says he risked his relationship with older brother, former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak (pic), who he so admired and had looked after him on the night of their father’s death. – Bernama pic, November 8, 2021

From the section on remembering his father, the book moves to his time as an investment banker and then on to his part in making the CIMB Group a universal banker in all the Asean countries. But this is no dry account – for an astute corporate observer, there are many interesting details along the way.

Read the inside story for instance on how former stockbroker and market player Tan Sri Chua Ma Yu played a crucial role in CIMB;s successful bid to take over Southern Bank Bhd. Oh, how the blatant misuse of rights issue proceeds with one-time high-flyer Ekran Bhd (yes, the constructor of the ill-fated Bakun Dam) going unpunished by the authorities.

Halim and the two-hour wait

There are other great snippets – how CIMB got the mandate to do the initial public offering for Tenaga Nasional Bhd, and how CIMB helped structure a deal which would ensure the success of a merger of three largest plantation companies in Malaysia under Sime Darby. For the latter, you may not agree with the methods, but he got the job done for his clients.

Nazir also tells how he was made to wait two hours for a meeting with Tan Sri Halim Saad, the high-flying Tun Daim Zainuddin protege of the Renong Group. 

Years later, Halim asked for a meeting and said: “Don’t make me wait for two hours like I made you.”

And then there is the story of how he drove part of the 420km across the Saudi Arabian desert himself to meet Halim on time – yes, it’s true.

On a personal level, CIMB – as in Commerce International Merchant Bankers Bhd – was also Nazir’s passport to immense riches. Nazir became its CEO on June 1, 1999, at the age of 32. The success of the merchant bank in its listing and the multifold appreciation of the share price in subsequent years gave him a gain on an option scheme he inked in 2002 of at least RM200 million, according to my calculations. This vindicated his turning down of lucrative offers from international investment banks earlier.

It’s all pretty compelling stuff and makes for great reading. It also gives the measure of the man that Nazir is first as an investment banker and then subsequently a person who builds CIMB Group into one of the largest banking groups in Asean, leading to the eventual persona of someone who wants to do something for the country.  

Incestuous links between profit and politics

Nazir observed some worrying trends during his time as a banker. “I could not help but ask myself about the incestuous links between politics and business being created by the way the NEP was being used to justify all sorts of nefarious purpose.

There was already ample evidence that the first of my father’s legacies – the institutions and programmes he created to lift up the Malays – were now being used to line the pockets of the few rather than the many. The abuse of the system my father initiated nagged away at me.”

Section 4 of the book deals with one of the most thorny issues that has faced Nazir – 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), his brother Najib’s baby, which eventually was one of the major causes of the downfall of the Umno/Barisan Nasional-led government at 14th general election (GE) in May 2018.

Nazir explains his role in cashing cheques and handling some of Najib’s transactions for the 2013 GE, involving in all RM25.7 million. On Najib’s policies, Nazir puts it thus: “But the failure of his moderate, modernising transformation agenda to generate electoral results (in the 2013 GE) led him to double down on divide-and-rule, cash-and-carry politics. The scene was set.”

Remembering my father

Nazir goes into detail of the events that led to major differences between them, and talks about an article he wrote on the 38th anniversary of his father’s death in January 2014, “Remembering My Father”, where he said: “I have never wavered from being enormously proud of his selfless dedication to our young nation. I did not get the time to know him. But imprinted in me are the values he imparted, the integrity he insisted upon above all. Yes, above all; including his family.”

Datuk Seri Nazir Razak says he has never wavered from being enormously proud of his father’s, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein (right), selfless dedication to the young nation. – Nazir Razak Instagram pic, November 8, 2021
Datuk Seri Nazir Razak says he has never wavered from being enormously proud of his father’s, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein (right), selfless dedication to the young nation. – Nazir Razak Instagram pic, November 8, 2021

He writes in the book: “The piece was a shot across my brother’s bows, a public plea (publicity being the politician’s currency) to live up to our father’s values. I didn’t mention him or 1MDB to make the point: I did not need to; Najib would know.” 

There is more in the book of how retribution arrived for what he wrote in just a couple of weeks.

Nazir details a number of moves, including many with The Edge owner Datuk Tong Kooi Ong to get 1MDB into the open. This included an “extraordinary meeting” with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in London, not least because both Tong and Nazir had a history with Dr Mahathir – Tong because of his friendship with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in the 1990s. There is much more on 1MDB, which is an interesting read.

The last section of the book is Conversations on Malaysia. It starts with a stinging rebuke of some of Pakatan Harapan’s changes after GE14, which resulted in some wrenching changes at government-linked companies. 

Nazir had to give up his chair at CIMB, extensive changes were made at Khazanah Nasional – where the entire board, including Nazir, resigned – and at Petronas, among others. Nazir reveals much of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, which would be too long to tell here.

This and other things lead Nazir to say that a three-headed monster rules Malaysia – identity, money, and centralisation of power. He details each and makes the case for recalibration of the system. He drew a parallel with Razak’s NCC in 1970, saying: “The NCC saved Malaysia by recalibrating the system; perhaps we can do the same again.”

But the devil will be in the details of course. Who would sponsor the new NCC? Where will the political will come from? Which political party will agree to something like that? But, at least, Nazir is trying.

This is a book that traverses a lot of ground. It is a relevant and welcome one for those who care for the fate of the country. They hear the views, stories and experiences of one who was in the thick of the corporate sector and who is the scion of a very political family. That’s valuable.

It is my hope that Nazir’s book will spur more writings by people similarly placed, both in government and the private sector, to help open up a space for reasoned discussion and debate publicly in all matters for the common benefit of this country we all share. – The Vibes, November 8, 2021

P. Gunasegaram is chief executive of research and advocacy group Sekhar Institute and senior editorial consultant of PETRA News