JUNE 6 — In a nice — and naïve — world, where what is done rather than who does it matters more, actors become secondary to the deed.

Actors are judged by their actions. And only.

Alas, that is not the world we live in. Minister Hannah Yeoh is no neophyte, having won four consecutive times at the general election, she knows this too well. A constant riser, rep to Speaker, deputy minister to minister. Therefore, strategic along with intelligence.

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Neither is her husband, Ramachandran Muniandy, a novice. They took arduous steps together and cherished the victories through 16 years. It’s Yeoh’s name in the Cabinet, but it is a family effort.

As veterans of our politics they intimately understand optics.

For example, her first race. The Chinese majority N31 Subang Jaya seat in 2008. Sure, Hindraf and Bersih lent a huge hand to DAP but Barisan Nasional (BN) had yet to bleed Chinese votes wholesale then. Later in 2013, yes.

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If she was Hannah Iskandar or Hannah Subramaniam in 2008, she’d invariably lose to MCA’s Ong Chuan Song. She being Hannah Yeoh Tseow Suan of DAP helped her cross the line and that tells a larger picture.

Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh speaks during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur March 21, 2024. —  Picture by Firdaus Latif
Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh speaks during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur March 21, 2024. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

In the shadows, all parties and players ride the wave and manage the damn optics. For voters can be unforgiving.

That adherence got them here, turning around now to demand politics to be about truth and not perception is a bit rich.

This leads to the controversy, or to most a storm in a tedious teacup.

Ramachandran heads Asia Mobiliti and it’s one of two contractors delivering Demand-Responsive Transit (DRT) to the Selangor government. They get commuters home optimally, augmenting existing trains and buses. A company with tech and business credentials providing a noble goal for profit.

Objectively, there is nothing out of place. Proper legit. An actual service.

So how is it a quagmire?

Selangor gives a contract to Ramachandran via Asia Mobiliti.

This gives pause to consider his wife.

Yeoh is a senior DAP leader, the assistant national publicity secretary in the central executive committee. Two-time assemblyman who was Selangor’s first female and youngest Speaker. After a stint as deputy minister, she is now youth and sports minister.

So entrenched in the system, the furniture in Selangor government’s building in Shah Alam’s Seksyen 5 knows Yeoh, let alone the thousands of state employees in it and located all over the richest Malaysian state.

She is a visual of the change, a reflection of this reform generation.

And within that lies the rub.

How can any decision by the Selangor government in the present be unaffected by Ramachandran being Yeoh’s husband?

To ignore the moral dimension is hubris.

Regardless of the quantum, basis and process, in a nation deeply feudal synonymous with a kowtow culture it is incumbent on all actors to stay in their zones.

A nation of complicities

Mahathir Mohamad claims no influence was peddled to turn all his children wealthy, two of them extremely in the T1 bracket on rocket fuel.

Debate rages on five decades after Mahathir became minister in the 1970s.

When someone is so powerful, prime minister for 22 years during the height of economic prosperity, all doors open for him and those close to him.

Bending, not breaking the law.

A bit like empire builder Robert Clive in the 1700s, who bought a parliament seat in London using wealth amassed when he ruled the British East Indies out of Madras.

Clive was unapologetic, instead congratulated himself for his restraint. Defeated rajahs and sultans opened their vaults to him, and he only took less than he deserved.

Clive, what a man. Not enough poetry is written about the powerful restraining themselves. At least he killed himself with a penknife.

But in a young country like ours, institutions and democratic zeal are nurtured through the presence of trust and examples.

They are hard to build in the best of times, impossible when mistrust prevails.

The phrase Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion means exactly that. Those who wield power along with those closest to them must never let themselves be under scrutiny.

Michelle Obama left all positions associated with profit when her husband Barack Obama swore in as president of the United States in 2009. She embraced non-profit efforts as first lady, like healthy eating, nutrition and freeing young Nigerian girls from Boko Haram.

Business is not a pursuit when in political power — for the brand and his family.

Because which bank won’t lend to the president’s family? Which company won’t joint venture with the powerful for a highly speculative investment? Which regulator wants to stalk elected officials who manage his mandate?

I belabour the point because it seems to be strange in Malaysia.

Over here, the politicians line up to explain why their family members are given positions with high salaries, profit and equities. Or when awarded plum contracts.

They defend it is not them deciding, and not related to them.

On this land, individuals and their families, living and dead, have benefitted immensely by using cocktails of state secrets, closed tenders, direct negotiations, proxies and defamation to explain themselves and their families.

They always have good, if not great, excuses ready.

Forcing detractors back. Telling the accusing rakyat to submit evidence the protected accused exclusively hold, and thereafter label the people as petty and impetuous.

The last six years saw unprecedented trials and convictions of corrupt politicians. This is not comprehensive but sets a strong tone.

Parallelly, reformers should ensure their own backyard is solid. That they and their families are not in activities which invite scrutiny.

In this case, the CEO says he never hid his identity. Did everything in the open. Transparency personified.

Yes, very.

Which is why I feel awful to use him as the example to explain a wider and deeper malaise.

Families of leaders worldwide know they must step back from their own domestic financial ambitions because their family member is dominant domestically.

Otherwise, scrutiny is impossible to evade.

There are exceptions like Trump. If being grouped with Trump is a life goal, then no analysis matters.

Ramachandran claims political families benefit but hide behind the cocktails of reasons. Hidden hands and bodies. Dummy corporations and layers of ownership to the depths of the South China Seas.

Here’s a salient difference.

Unlike Ramachandran, those families do not care they are complicit, they just do not want to be found with a smoking gun.

Yeoh and Ramachandran advocated for change, to end the complicities, the questionable flow of favours, help and exemptions.

As a first-time assemblyman in the Noughties, Yeoh shared all donations and expenses information on her website. She set an example.

She should continue to lead on examples, even when it hurts the family.

After all, above the financial gains for the family, a young country looks to its leaders to prove we can be better.

Sacrifice is usually what’s needed. Unfair but unavoidable.

For by being examples, greater lessons are taught invariably to the people. Hannah means grace in Hebrew.

Restraint is sub-optimal. Like the DRT, abstinence is optimal, or rather graceful.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.