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This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on May 17, 2021 - May 23, 2021

MAJLIS Amanah Rakyat (Mara) began life in 1953 as the Rural Industrial Development Authority (RIDA) to oversee the development of rural areas in the then Malaya.

In 1966, RIDA had its name changed to Mara, became a statutory body and had its role expanded to oversee the development of the bumiputera community.

It is a very powerful entity, in the sense that the Majlis Amanah Rakyat Act 1966 allows for Mara’s council “to promote, stimulate, facilitate and undertake economic and social development in Malaysia and, more particularly, in the rural areas thereof”.

This means that Mara can do whatever is necessary for the development of the country.

While it is assumed that Mara was set up to benefit the bumiputera community, the Mara Act did not specify that the agency was founded only for the enhancement of this community.

Nungsari: Mara is an example of an institution that was created at a time for a particular purpose. But after over 50 years, it has evolved into something like Frankenstein’s monster. (Photo by Suhaimi Yusuf/The Edge)

Nevertheless, Mara has been instrumental in the development of the bumiputera professional and industrial community since the launch of the New Economic Policy in 1970.

Today, 55 years after its official establishment, Mara finds itself at a crossroads. Some parties argue that Mara has lost its focus as it became bigger, venturing into businesses and commercial investments — areas in which it arguably lacks expertise.

However, others say the Act itself provides for Mara to get involved in commercial activities, with the approval of the Minister of Rural Development as well as the Minister of Finance.

Regardless, the education and training function is undoubtedly Mara’s most effective strategy to develop the bumiputera community. The billions of ringgit of funds that have been channelled towards the development of education and training institutes under the agency have created a thriving professional and industrial bumiputera community.

Since 1966, as many as 523,940 students have been sponsored by Mara to further their education locally and abroad. This has created a steady flow of talent in the engineering, medical, accounting, surveying, architectural and other professional fields in the country.

But times are changing, and more talent is needed in the digital sector, such as data analysts, and coding and programming technicians. While Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) — no longer run by Mara — does offer programmes in the digital field, it might be best if talent in this sector is developed right from secondary school.

Another challenge that Mara is facing is the declining standard of its educational institutions, especially Maktab Rendah Sains Mara (MRSM). The secondary education institution — the equivalent of the national boarding school system, Sekolah Berasrama Penuh (SBP), run by the Ministry of Education — nurtures the crème de la crème of bumiputera students.

According to Dr Nungsari Radhi, an economist and a former member of Mara’s council, while the standard of the top MRSM is equivalent to that of the top SBP, the gap between the top MRSM and the bottom MRSM is very big, whereas the gap between the top SBP and the bottom SBP is not that big.

“This is because they expanded too fast; they only focused on expanding the campuses. Originally, MRSM was unique because it was outside of the Ministry of Education. But when they expanded too fast, the teachers’ training and curriculum development could not catch up.

“They do not have the support, like in the Ministry of Education — the support is huge. So, Mara had to do it all by itself. Therefore, when Mara expanded MRSM, the quality dropped. What has happened to the Mara education model?” says Nungsari when interviewed virtually by The Edge recently.

Given all the challenges that Mara is facing — whether it should be in business or not, how does it play a role in the digital era through education and training, the quality of its education system — some are calling for a comprehensive review of the agency by the government.

Among them is Tun Arshad Ayub, the founder of UiTM and its current pro-chancellor.

In the express bus industry, there are many bumiputera owners and operators who might have to compete with Mara’s Maraliner (Photo by Zahid Izzani/The Edge)

Speaking to The Edge at his residence in Section 7, Shah Alam, Arshad says it is time for a review of Mara and for a master plan to chart out what it should be and do over the next 25 years for the development of the country.

“The time has come for a royal commission to look into it. What are you going to do over the next 25 years? There must at least be a review, even if it takes five years to conduct the review. We must be brave enough to relook at Mara,” says Arshad.

Arshad was the director of UiTM’s predecessor, Institut Tecknologi Mara, from 1967 to 1999, before it was upgraded to the current university status and transferred to the Ministry of Higher Education.

Should Mara be in business?

The first question that comes to the mind of a Mara observer is whether it should be in business, or whether it should just assist bumiputera entrepreneurs with loans and grants and trade promotions.

To be clear, the Mara Act does provide for the agency to be involved in business and to own commercial entities, including investments in commercial properties and other forms of investments and commercial activities.

However, the question arises whether being in a business that might compete directly with bumiputera entrepreneurs is the best way to help them. For example, in the express bus industry, there are many bumiputera owners and operators who might have to compete with Mara’s Maraliner.

Meanwhile, Mara is also involved in the private education sector. While it cannot be said that the private education sector is something that bumiputera entrepreneurs are involved in, the private education sector of Mara is akin to taking from the left hand and giving to the right hand.

Says Nungsari: “For example, UniKL. If Mara does not provide sponsorships for students to go there, it will be closed, because open enrolment from outside, that is, not under Mara sponsorships, is not that high. But you have a campus right in the middle of KL, the potential (to attract students who want to live and learn in the big city) is great,” says Nungsari.

The presence of Mara in the commercial sector has also led to rent-seekers and the politically connected taking advantage of its business ventures.

In June 2015, Australia’s The Age newspaper exposed a financial scam involving a top Mara officer, a senior government official and former politicians in the acquisition of an apartment block in Melbourne.

In an exclusive report, the newspaper said “a group of super-rich Malaysian officials” overpaid by A$4.75 million for an apartment block in the city in 2013. The trio had allegedly “overbid” for Dudley International House, and paid A$22.5 million instead of A$17.8 million, with the difference pocketed as bribes back home.

The revelations led to investigations by the Malaysian ­Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the arrest of a former Mara Incorporated Sdn Bhd chairman, who was charged with 22 counts of bribery and money laundering totalling RM33.45 million.

Besides properties in Melbourne, Mara also owns properties in London, in addition to those in Malaysia.

Another epic fail of Mara’s venture into business is the Mara Digital Mall. Created to provide an avenue for bumiputera traders in the digital technology space, it has become a showcase of Mara’s ineptitude in business.

“The Mara Council and the Ministry of Rural Development do not have the expertise to manage and monitor the investments. Mara has evolved and become this monster and because you have to keep feeding the monster, it is not sustainable. The time has come when the government can no longer afford to allocate to one agency a budget of billions of ringgit. So, we have to relook at Mara,” says Nungsari.

Arshad concurs that Mara should not be in business, as that was not its original objective.

When Mara was created, its aim was to develop professionals and talent among the bumiputera community and to promote the development of businesses and industries, not to conduct business, he says.

“That (promoting businesses and being involved in business itself) is a conflict. To promote business is different from being an entrepreneur. If they say they want to be in business, then the staff must know how to run a business. Unfortunately, most of them don’t.

“I was once responsible for promoting industrial development when I was in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry — but the ministry didn’t get involved in business. We promoted businesses — tyre manufacturing, textiles and other industries,” says Arshad.

Nevertheless, there are Mara investments that are successful. For example, there is Med Bumikar-Mara Sdn Bhd, the largest shareholder of MBM Resources Bhd, which in turn is a major shareholder of Perusahaan Otomobil Kedua Sdn Bhd — the largest car manufacturer in Malaysia.

Asia Aerotechnic Sdn Bhd is also said to be a leading maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) provider in Southeast Asia.

What is Mara’s raison d’être?

Mara was iniatially set up to spearhead development in rural areas. It was then transformed into an agency that oversees and promotes the development of the bumiputera community in professional fields and entrepreneurship.

When it was started in 1966, Mara was the only agency that focused on the development of the bumiputera community. However, as time went by, almost every ministry set up its own agency or department to uplift the bumiputera community.

This led to the overlapping of roles and functions between Mara and other ministries’ agencies.

Should Mara be in business, or should it just assist bumiputera entrepreneurs with loans and grants and trade promotion? (Photo by Bloomberg)

“When Mara’s role in the development of the bumiputera community was recognised by the people, other ministries wanted to copy that and be part of it. That is why there is a lot of replication. Everybody wants to be in because they see how successful Mara is, and everybody wants to have a finger in the pie.

“So they started their own [set-up]. Almost every ministry has what they call a “bumiputera unit”. Everyone wants to get the recognition for helping to develop the bumiputera community. There should be proper coordination. There are too many people doing it,” says Arshad.

For example, in the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sector, there is Mara’s Kolej Kemahiran Tinggi Mara, the Ministry of Higher Education’s Politeknik and the Ministry of Youth and Sports’ Institut Kemahiran Tinggi Belia Negara.

Sometimes, in one constituency, there would be all of these establishments.

Mara is also involved in TVET through GiatMara, Institut Kemahiran Mara, Mara Japan Industrial Institute and the German-Malaysian Institute.

When it comes to funding for bumiputera entrepreneurs, Mara’s funding programmes are also replicated in other ministries’ programmes such as Teraju at the Prime Minister’s Office and Tekun Nasional under the Ministry of Entrepreneurial and Cooperative Development.

With so many entities involved in the uplifting of the bumiputera community, the question arises as to whether there is a need for Mara any more.

“Mara is an example of an institution that was created at a time for a particular purpose. But after over 50 years, it has evolved into something like Frankenstein’s monster — an amalgamation of the original objective of rural development and new objectives such as bumiputera equity participation.

“The question is: Who is Mara for? Why does Mara exist? Is it for bumiputeras only? Or is it for rural areas only? What impact has it had on these people? I must say that it has had the most impact in education, but it can do much better,” says Nungsari.

Items highlighted in Mara’s 2018 annual report include unrecognised loans for bumiputera entrepreneurs to own equities

As a statutory body, Majlis Amanah Rakyat (Mara) is required to present its annual report to parliament to be vetted. However, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to the Emergency Proclamation being declared, Mara has not been able to present its 2019 annual report to parliament.

So, the most recent annual report available is for 2018. According to the report, the auditor-general (AG) had issued a qualified opinion on the accounts of Mara, emphasising several matters, including unrecognised loans given to bumiputera entrepreneurs to own equities under a programme called “The Baron”.

According to the audit report, the AG states that, up to Dec 31, 2018, Mara had not reported a total of RM290.86 million in loans owed by 93 debtors under The Baron programme in its statement of financial position.

The Baron programme was specially set up to create, develop and increase business opportunities for bumiputera entrepreneurs in strategic industries. Its main objective is to help entrepreneurs acquire equity interest, gain management control and then lead those companies. Debtors must repay the loans according to their respective terms.

Apart from the issue with The Baron programme, Mara had also overstated its loans to its subsidiaries by RM136.26 million as well as understated its cash and bank balances by RM56.9 million during the year.

In 2018, Mara as a group received a total of RM4.26 billion from the government for its operations and development expenditure. Of this amount, RM2.33 billion went to educational sponsorship, which was higher than in 2017, when RM1.89 billion was allocated for this purpose.

In 2018, Mara’s income from operations amounted to RM965.26 million, lower than the RM1.02 billion it recorded in 2017. At the group level, which includes its subsidiaries, grants and budget allocations from the government, its income was RM5.4 billion, higher than the RM5.13 billion in 2017.

On the flipside, Mara spent RM5.77 billion on its operations and development expenditure, including loans and sponsorships, resulting in a financial deficit of RM296.6 million in 2018.

Mara had RM20.9 billion worth of assets on its balance sheet. It had RM663.76 million in cash and short-term funds and RM1.7 billion in bank deposits. Its cash level was lower than in 2017, when it had RM1.06 billion. However, it had more bank deposits in 2018.

Mara owed creditors a total of RM450 million in 2018, much lower than the RM815 million in 2017.

On the other side of the balance sheet, Mara had RM18.8 billion in liabilities in 2018, of which RM9.38 billion was its outstanding educational sponsorships and RM8.6 billion was its outstanding development expenditure.

Of the RM2.33 billion allocated to education and training, RM797 million was for technical and vocational training — the largest portion of the budget — while RM630 million was for secondary education.

In 2018, RM2.18 billion was allocated to education sponsorship, up RM175 million from 2017.

Meanwhile, Mara received RM115 million from the government for business financing, up from RM65.5 million in 2017.

Mara continued to receive billions of ringgit from the federal government from 2019 to 2021. In Budget 2019, the agency was allocated RM3.705 billion, and while it is not clear how much it received from the government in 2020, at least RM1.3 billion was allocated to its education institutions.

The higher allocation of RM5.9 billion for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) programmes in 2020 may also mean a higher allocation for Mara, as it runs TVET institutions such as Kolej Kemahiran Tinggi Mara, Institut Kemahiran Mara, GiatMara, German-Malaysian Institute and Mara Japan Industrial Institute.

The bulk of the RM445 million allocation for bumiputera entrepreneur development under Budget 2020 also might be channelled through Mara.

For Budget 2021, the allocation for bumiputera development programmes rose to RM11.1 billion from RM8 billion, of which RM6.5 billion will be channelled to bumiputera-based institutions such as those under Mara and Universiti Teknologi Mara. The other RM4.6 billion was allocated to bumiputera entrepreneurs.

There is no shortage of funding allocated by successive governments for the development of the bumiputera community. However, the programmes may need to be re-examined and refocused on economic development in the 21st century and the digital era.

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