PM’s choice whether CEP lives beyond 100 days, minister says

Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah speaks to Malay Mail during an interview at his office in Putrajaya. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah speaks to Malay Mail during an interview at his office in Putrajaya. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, July 30 — Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has the prerogative to decide whether to extend the advisory Council of Eminent Persons (CEP), Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has said.

When it was formed, it was announced that the quasi-official body will exist for the new administration’s first 100 days in an advisory capacity to the Cabinet.

With less than 20 days left, questions are being asked if the council should extend its service to the government past then.

“That is up to the prime minister. But let me underline something that people have forgotten.

“We came in as a new government; Tun was sworn in as PM [and was] for two weeks without a Cabinet. If we understand that situation, one will be more understanding as to why the CEP was established in the first place,” Saifuddin told Malay Mail in an exclusive interview.

The CEP is headed by former finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin and includes Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz, Tan Sri Hassan Marican, economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, and “Sugar King” Robert Kuok.

Their qualifications are not in doubt, but the secretive nature with which the CEP operates has invited criticism about its true powers and purview.

Among their critics is Umno’s Khairy Jamaluddin, who used Daim’s visit to China — ostensibly to renegotiate questionable contracts and loans — to question why such efforts were not led by Saifuddin instead.

The former Umno Youth chief also cited the CEP’s reported summoning of former Chief Justice Tun Md Raus Sharif and Court of Appeal President Tan Sri Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin to brief the council as evidence that its powers are greater than stated.

Saifuddin told Malay Mail that while Daim’s trip was focused on revisiting “lopsided” deals, his official visit there alongside Dr Mahathir next month would have broader, more diplomacy-oriented goals.

“We want to enhance our relationship. We treasure the history as far as having good ties with China and want to bring it to greater heights,” he said.

Up to RM100 billion in infrastructure contracts awarded to Chinese state firms were stalled after Putrajaya said it needed to rein in government debts and liabilities of more than RM1 trillion.

The new administration also said the terms of these agreements awarded without open tenders were questionable, such as payments based on time instead of progress of construction.

One of the most notable projects, the East Coast Rail Link, would eventually cost RM81 billion, far in excess of the RM55 billion quoted by leaders of the previous administration.

The ECRL joins the ports of Klang in the west and Kuantan in the east before heading north to the Thai border.

The Finance Ministry also recently disclosed that a Chinese contractor building two gas pipelines worth over RM10 billion was paid 88 per cent of the fee despite completing just 13 per cent of the project.

Saifuddin said the visit would also be an opportunity for Malaysia to find out China’s stand on its current trade war with the US.

“What we know is China is not happy. We are concerned because it affects us. There are many Malaysian businessmen doing business in China.

“If there is a sanction on China products as a result of the trade war, we will be affected,” he said.