Foreign Visa System trial: Endorsement, orders from Zahid hindered ministry officials from properly evaluating contractor’s performance, court told

SHAH ALAM : Endorsement and orders from then home minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in expediting the contract extension approval for the government’s Foreign Visa System (VLN) between 2016 and 2017 hindered ministry officials from evaluating the performance of its appointed contractor effectively, the High Court heard today (Sept 28).

Former Home Ministry deputy secretary-general (Policy and Enforcement) Datuk Suriani Ahmad testified that ministry officials had insufficient time to properly evaluate Ultra Kirana Sdn Bhd’s (UKSB) performance in deciding whether to offer a contract extension to the company when their proposal was ultimately endorsed by Ahmad Zahid.

At the material time, UKSB was the appointed operator of the One-Stop Centre (OSC) in China and the VLN as well as responsible for maintaining the agreement to supply VLN integrated system paraphernalia to the Immigration Department under the Home Ministry.

Suriani recalled that she had received instructions from her superior, then ministry secretary-general (KSU) Tan Sri Alwi Ibrahim, on matters concerning the contract extension in the form of a minuted letter dated October 24, 2016 from Ahmad Zahid’s ministerial office.

The aforementioned letter was accompanied by another letter penned by UKSB on October 17, 2016 to Ahmad Zahid on its application to seek a six-year contract extension on the VLN from October 2019 to the end-2025.

“This UKSB letter was also minuted by Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid on October 18, 2016 where he wrote ‘Datuk Seri KSU/Datuk PUU, I have no objections to the six-year contract extension until August 31, 2025 as stipulated in the agreement. Please prepare a Supplementary Agreement for it to be realised at once.’

“This letter was then minuted by Alwi who wrote to me asking for the matter to be followed up immediately,” Suriani, who is also the fourth prosecution witness, testified.

Suriani also agreed that the exchange between Ahmad Zahid and UKSB within a time span of 24 hours in negotiating a contract extension despite not being an urgent matter accorded the ministry insufficient time to properly evaluate the company’s performance.

“Zahid is the deputy prime minister, maybe he had engagements with individuals in the field which we have no access to, so maybe he has his own views as to why the contract extension needed to be executed with haste,” she said on whether UKSB’s contract extension followed protocols.

Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi arrives at the Shah Alam High Court September 28, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi arrives at the Shah Alam High Court September 28, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

To another question as to why the ministry went ahead with the contract extension despite not having sufficient time to evaluate UKSB, Suriani said the final authority was vested in Ahmad Zahid who at the time was the deputy prime minister and her superior.

She also told the court she felt it was “too early” for UKSB to be applying for a contract extension since the existing agreement was still far from its expiration.

“According to the agreement, the company may apply for contract extension no less than six months before its expiry.

“But for this application, UKSB applied too soon, that is October 2016, roughly three years before the contract expired,” she said.

According to the initial agreement, the company’s service contract for the VLN management ran from November 2013 until October 2019 over a span of six years.

During examination-in-chief, Suriani was asked to define what Ahmad Zahid meant by “to be realised at once”, to which she replied that the contract extension process needed to be executed immediately without the Cabinet’s approval.

This was affirmed in a June 15, 2017 letter minuted by Ahmad Zahid addressed to Alwi on UKSB agreeing to a three-year contract extension instead for the VLN system.

“Datuk Seri KSU, please extend the VLN/E-Visa contract until 2022 and not required to go through UKAS and Cabinet. Please expedite” the minute read.

UKAS is a central agency with the role of facilitating and ensuring compliance of strategic partnerships between the public and private sectors, through the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) programme.

She was also asked to state the significance of a performance evaluation, to which she replied that the matter involved foreign visitors that UKSB must demonstrate the system is managed in accordance with the agreed terms and for the government to ensure the process runs efficiently.

Early contract renewal at risk of inheriting existing legacy issues, implications to ministry

Earlier, former deputy secretary of the Home Ministry’s Immigration Affairs Department Siti Jalilah Abd Manap also testified that the contract extension sought by UKSB felt “too early”.

Siti Jalilah, the third prosecution witness, explained that there was a need for a complex and extensive system such as the VLN to reach “full maturity” after implementation before any consideration could be taken into account for a contract extension.

“I felt that it was too early (for the contract extension to happen) as it involved such a large system which needed to mature.

“What I meant is that we needed to identify any hiccups and issues within the original six years contract period so we can request for changes (to the supplier).

“If we extend the contract too early, we are afraid that we will inherit persisting ‘legacy issues’ within the existing contract,” she said during re-examination.

As a civil servant, she also testified she was concerned if the early contract renewal on the VLN with proper protocol compliance would lead to future implications to both ministry and its Chinese users.

She later insisted that any forms of contract extension or amendments needed to be referred to UKAS as it was the government’s designated central agency on policies concerning private partnerships with the government.

The hearing before High Court Judge Datuk Mohd Yazid Mustafa resumes on October 22.

In this VLN case, Ahmad Zahid pleaded not guilty to 33 charges of receiving bribes amounting to S$13.56 million (RM42 million) from UKSB as an inducement for himself in his capacity as a civil servant then as home minister to extend the contract of the company as the operator of OSC in China and the VLN.

He allegedly committed the offences at Seri Satria, Precinct 16, Putrajaya and in Country Heights, Kajang, between October 2014 and March 2018.

The Bagan Datuk MP also pleaded not guilty to 33 alternative charges under Section 165 of the Penal Code as home minister for receiving bribes amounting to S$13.56 million in relation to the VLN system between 2014 and 2017.

For another seven charges, Ahmad Zahid was charged as home minister for accepting S$1,150,000, RM3,000,000, €15,000 and US$15,000 in cash from the same company which he knew had a connection with his function as then home minister.

He was charged with committing the offences at a house in Country Heights, between June 2015 and October 2017, under Section 165 of the Penal Code which carries a maximum jail term of two years, or a fine, or both if found guilty.

By : KENNETH TEE – MALAY MAIL

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