Are Johari Ghani and Syed Mokhtar just friends?

By Emmanuel Samarathisa

DATUK Seri Johari Abdul Ghani has always been a grapevine favourite: He was second finance minister (2016-2018). He is still an Umno baron. And he is making headway in Corporate Malaysia. 

The latest story comes by way of The Edge in its Dec 16-22 issue. Here, the business weekly asked Johari to clarify so-called “market talk” speculating he was a substantial shareholder of Tradewinds Corporation Bhd and a proxy for Umno’s shares in Media Prima Holdings Bhd. 

This was “big news” The Edge said, as Tradewinds and Media Prima are controlled by Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, the magnate closely linked to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. 

But Johari denied such links. “Syed Mokhtar is my friend, nothing more. We are not business partners or anything like that [but] I do advise him sometimes on business matters. I am a corporate player [and] I’m good at restructuring companies… Similarly, he advises me on issues he is more familiar with. He is an experienced businessman,” he told The Edge in an interview for its Dec 16-22 issue. 

Strong business links

Company filings as at Dec 20 confirm that Johari has never been a shareholder, directly or otherwise, in Tradewinds and Media Prima. Still, it is undeniable there exists a nexus between Johari and Syed Mokhtar that points to a strong business connection beyond a merely advisory role (see chart).

The clearest point of reference stems from Johari’s directorship in bread maker Gardenia Bakeries (KL) Sdn Bhd (GBKL), which also lists Syed Mokhtar’s son Syed Danial as a director. 

GBKL is owned 50:50 by Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas) and Gardenia (S) Pte Ltd. Bernas is almost wholly owned by Perspective Lane. The remaining Bernas shareholder is the Ministry of Finance which has one nominal share. 

Conduits for a strong business relationship

The relationship then becomes a complicated web of cross-directorships. For example, Megat Joha Megat Abdul Rahman is a director of Johari’s JAG Private Equity Sdn Bhd and Syed Mokhtar’s Bernas, Central Sugars Refinery Sdn Bhd (CSR) and Kampung Baru Equity Sdn Bhd. He is also group managing director of C.I. Holdings Bhd. 

Johari controls C.I. Holdings through JAG Capital Sdn Bhd which has a 32.72% stake. He is also C.I. Holdings’ chairman. 

Megat Joha and Johari’s relationship go way back. When Johari was appointed deputy finance minister in 2015, Mega Joha succeeded him as managing director of C.I. Holdings. As an aside, while Johari did relinquish his post in C.I. Holdings, he remained a substantial shareholder of JAG Capital, which raises tricky questions around conflict of interest. 

Further, in Megat Joha, a strong case emerges for Syed Mokhtar’s supposed acquisition of a chunk of FGV Holdings Bhd’s 51% stake in sugar refiner MSM Malaysia Holdings Bhd. Syed Mokhtar is believed to be using Johari, who had been identified as among the four bidders for that strategic stake. And as Megat Joha is a director of CSR as well as JAG Private Equity, a wholly-owned unit of JAG Capital, he seems to be the right conduit for Syed Mokhtar to enlarge his sugar business. Industry sources, however, say JAG Capital has not been selected for the MSM stake purchase.

Not Tradewinds

Also, The Edge in the same article stated: “Via Tradewinds, Syed Mokhtar controls Central Sugars Refinery Sdn Bhd (CSR).” A more accurate picture begins with Syed Mokhtar’s wholly-owned private vehicle Restu Jernih Sdn Bhd which in turn controls Perspective Lane (M) Sdn Bhd. It is Perspective Lane that owns CSR and Tradewinds.    

As for Syed Mokhtar’s involvement in Media Prima, it begins yet again with Perspective Lane which owns Sutera Bakti Sdn Bhd, which in turn controls Aurora Mulia Sdn Bhd. Aurora Mulia has a 31.9% stake in Media Prima after purchasing blocks of Umno’s stakes in the media group. 

Market participants believe that Johari is Syed Mokhtar’s “most trusted and influential adviser” despite the tycoon being flanked by an armada of deputies and stand-ins.

“The question is what is the extent of Johari’s role in Syed Mokhtar’s businesses? Is it, as Johari says, all about advising or is there something deeper? That is the one to watch” says an industry source. Indeed, only time will tell how this business relationship will crystallise in the near future. – Jan 1, 2020

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