Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar really wants to be the land transport King of Malaysia. He already owns the DRB-Hicom conglomerate controlling Proton, he has PTP in Johore, various bus companies, haulage truck companies, some port terminals and inland integrated terminals. He also manages the Senai Airport in Johore and now he wants to buy the near bankrupt KTMB, which has been affected by corrupt dealings in purchasing expensive but poor quality electric coaches.
KTMB is in bad shape because of bad management and corrupt practices. The late deputy prime minister Ghafar Baba at one time even offered to sell to anybody KTMB for RM1 only. But there were no takers because KTMB liabilities were just too high. There is no need to detail each and every corrupt deal KTMB has suffered at the hands of the corrupt UMNO elite as most of these have made it to the news - just like the losses plaguing the ever-losing MAS. Now do you understand, MAS is ever-losing!
But let us look at the motive behind acquiring the KTMB. Syed Mokhtar needs to have a complete network of transportation modes to really become the King of land transport. He has his business vision and is rightly working on that. Transportation seems to be a very profitable business for him, if not he would not have been so eager to be in this business.
We also know that his construction business is too dependent on the economy and politics. What he has managed to gain from the construction business had mostly to be given back to the powers-that-be who approved the deals. Otherwise, Syed can be sure the UMNO gravy train would never make another stop at his offices.
Also, in construction contracts, awards can be negotiated and re-negotiated. Prices could easily be marked-up or down and there are also many ways to disburse money, leaving Syed exposed to the vagaries of the powerful. But in the transport business, there is real competition and thus meddling by the UMNO politicians can be minimised.
Other tycoons also fed up
It is not only Syed Mokhtar who may feel fed up with the politicians who always ask for money - the majority of the business people are fed up too. Tan Sri Robert Kuok is believed to be one of these. So is Datuk Francis Yeoh of YTL. Francis may always be smiling but there have been times he has indirectly expressed his frustration. All human beings have a conscience, so too do these business captains - high and mighty though they may seem.
Some do care about right and wrong, but sadly not often enough to say 'NO' to the UMNO-BN barons, who are the ones who don’t have any conscience at all.
Hopefully, with political change in federal government, all Malaysians including the corporate captains will get to benefit from a healthier environment where oxygen is the major component in the air and not bribery or illicit outflows.
Famed KTMB internal sabotage
But coming back to Syed Mokhtar, he needs the KTMB to complete the set-up of his land transport network, so the story in the markets go. He can do it and of course there will be changes in the management. One thing though, Syed must make sure the workers’ welfare take priority or he will only be setting himself up for massive sabotage, headache and heartache.
Initially, there is not much he can really do with the passenger train services as it is not the most profitable part of the KTMB business. The existing coaches are bad, poor quality and require high maintenance. These simply have to be replaced with better coaches, but again this requires huge sums of money and careful planning. So chances are he may tackle this in a later phase of his takeover plan. But do so he must, or everyday Malaysians won't get to enjoy the benefit of privatization and they will grumble and complain.
Tapping the regional lines from China and even Europe
What Syed Mokhtar appears to be more interested in is the cargo train business. When the double-tracking is completed, more trains could run and the number of services both for the passenger service and cargo will increase. The cargo train haulage business will flourish since trains from China, Russia or even Europe will be connected to Singapore.
All along the way, inland containers can be loaded and unloaded and can reach their destinations much faster than by ship or even trucks. Anyway just imagine with the double-tracking network from Gemas to Johore being completed by 2017, the North South rail track should be able to withstand higher train speeds and more frequent schedules. The time taken from Johore Baru to Ipoh would be shortened by four hours and more containers can be transported.
Benefit of doubt
Hopefully with better profits from the cargo train business, Syed Mokhtar will be able to improve the overall passenger train service and even provide higher speed trains with greater comfort and affordable train fares better than some developed countries. This is what his corporate advisers are saying. Will they be able to make his vision come true?
Also, should Malaysians give Syed Mokhtar the benefit of the doubt and let him have a go with the already close-to-bankruptcy KTMB?
Sure, why not. So long as Syed Mokhtar understands he has to tender in an open and transparent way for KTMB and fight off others eyeing KTMB in a fair manner, why should he not be entitled to stake a claim?
Just another Malaysian
At the end of the day, the government choosing the candidate - whether UMNO or Pakatan - must ensure the party with both the best pricing, experience and track record should win. Then, no one could say Syed Mokhtar is a crony if he wins.
But Syed if he is wise, he should also start reviewing past deals sealed with the dastardly UMNO leaders. Those which are too obviously unfair and have over-marginalized the ordinary folk - really, as a man of conscience - he should volunteer to have a review done.
Then he can command the respect not only of the Pakatan but more importantly, his peers - who are the people of Malaysia without any racial or religious distinction or discrimination.