QUESTION TIME It’s tough doing business in Malaysia, and especially so if you have strong political opinions which are different from mainstream ones, particularly those espoused by the newspapers which claim to represent certain sectors of the community.

It’s even tougher if you are an outright supporter of the opposition in which case you may not only be ostracised and condemned by large sections of the mainstream media, you may even have contracts denied to or pulled out from under you.

The great pity is 56 years into independence there is so much fear from the business community that they may be seen to be supporting the opposition that support, if any, that they may have for the opposition is done under as much secrecy as possible. There is scarcely anyone in business who has the guts and gumption to voice any kind of opposition to the ruling party and government openly.

Some events just before and post the recently concluded election offer an illustration of how bad the scene is.

dap johor jaya rally ceramah 030513 supermax owner stanley thaiTake Supermax for instance. Its founder and CEO Stanley Thai (right) built up the group into one of the largest manufacturers of rubber gloves in the country. Before the elections, he openly aligned himself to the opposition and he had to pay the price

When it came to light that he had funded an opposition function, the shares of Supermax took a beating. Coincidentally or not the Employees Provident Fund sold down Supermax shares while the Inland Revenue Board commenced an investigation.

There was share price weakness for a while as Thai sought to defuse the bad publicity and denied that neither the EPF sell-down nor the IRB investigation was related to his support for the opposition. 

But the fact of the matter was that the share price remained weak for a bit and that was related to the publicity surrounding his support for the opposition. Even the market perception was that it does not pay to support the opposition publicly.

That is yet another reflection of the lack of political maturity in the country. Businesses must not be held to ransom for the political beliefs and support of their major shareholders and executives. Other executives such as CIMB group CEO Nazir Razak and Malayan Banking CEO Wahid Omar came out with expressions of support for the ruling party.

Surely it’s only fair

If they can verbalise support for the government of the day and the party behind it, surely it is only fair that others should be able to freely support the opposition or comment on the shortcomings of the government without adverse effect.

That very few of our corporate leaders do that, and pay for it when they do that, is lamentable and reflects the hold the ruling party has on them. if we are to progress as a nation we need to divorce political beliefs and support from business. Easier said than done of course.

And then there was another case where a business leader voiced his opposition to the extreme racist comments made by Utusan Malaysia in the wake of the general election, raising unreasonable questions and making provocative and unsubstantiated remarks over the motives for Chinese support moving away from Barisan Nasional.

NONEAzran Osman-Rani (left), CEO of AirAsia X, not only incurred the wrath of the editors ofUtusan Malaysia, but the airline had to face a series of negative articles on the low-cost, long-haul airline by the newspaper and a threat that the newspaper will no longer run AirAsia advertisements.

On top of that AirAsia X’s chairperson Rafidah Aziz came out to say that Azran’s statement was personal and distanced the airline from his statement.

Azran had described Utusan Malaysia as ‘racist’ because of its crude front page headline ‘Apa lagi Cina mahu?'’ (What more do the Chinese want) on May 7. He also said that Malay rights group Perkasa is narrow-minded and had caused the Malays to be left behind.

Azran got some support and came in for praise from an unexpected quarter when AirAsia X launched its initial public offering last week,  from CIMB group CEO and the prime minister’s brother Nazir Razak, who had before the elections supported Barisan Nasional and its policies.

Nazir described Azran’s statement against Utusan Malaysia and Perkasa as the hallmark of a great leader.

“Azran - some people think he is a little bit outspoken, but what would you expect if you have someone who is guided by a chairman like Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz. It is this trait, speaking his mind, that makes him a great leader from my perspective - and (he) has done a great job of running this company.”

Nazir was however not spared Utusan Malaysia’s barbs when an article by former information minister Zainuddin Maidin, also a former editor at the newspaper, described him as “seperti kacang lupakan kulit”, literally peanuts forgetting their shell or a person forgetting his origins.

But it is clear that Nazir at least is one corporate leader who believes that it is all right to speak your mind no matter which side and which view you support. One hopes that more corporate leaders and owners will have the courage to state their views and the politicians accept that as right without targeting revenge at those who voice their thoughts.

It’s really part of the political process of growing up, and after 56 years, we are taking a long time doing just that.

P GUNASEGARAM is founding editor of KiniBiz.

~ Malaysiakini