Political ownership of the media is back in vogue owing to Johari Abdul Ghani’s latest corporate gambit.
The Umno businessman is now the second-largest owner in Media Prima Bhd, after raising his direct and indirect stake in the listed media beast to 20.08% on Tuesday, through investment vehicle JAG Capital Holdings Sdn Bhd.
This puts him behind tycoon Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, a long-time ally, who owns 31.9% in Media Prima through Aurora Mulia Sdn Bhd.
With a market value of RM760 million, Media Prima is a huge media and entertainment group, comprising a wide range of businesses, from print to digital to television and radio, in various languages to boot.
Among others, it owns the newspapers New Straits Times and Berita Harian as well as news aggregator SAYS.
Sources close to Johari raised two reasons for his media stratagem: a return to federal politics and a possible consolidation of businesses with allies.
By controlling media assets, Johari has at his disposal “powerful tools”, an insider said, whether it is in the promoting of business interests or even friendly politicians. “It may not be a good investment but still a good strategic asset.”
But Media Prima is not the only one that Johari has an interest in as his name has been surfacing in FMT Media Sdn Bhd, the holding company of multilingual news portal Free Malaysia Today.
Johari is believed to be the portal's beneficial owner, despite not directly showing up in company filings, through FMT Media’s major shareholder, Pameran Istimewa Sdn Bhd.
Pameran Istimewa, incorporated in 2012, is an investment holding company, that historically has been in the hands of Johari and his trusted corporate partners, according to company filings.
Its first shareholders were Megat Joha Megat Abdul Rahman and Zaharen Zakaria. Megat Joha is the current managing director of C. I. Holdings Bhd, which is controlled by JAG Capital.
Then a change of shareholding ensued with JAG Capital’s wholly owned unit, JAG Private Equity Sdn Bhd, assuming control of the company, until September 3 last year, where Al-Ishal Ishak and Daniel Heng Si Zhong emerged as both directors and owners.
Ishal is the former Malaysian Communications and Multimedia chairman while Heng was the special officer to then legal affairs minister, Liew Vui Keong.
The duo served under the Pakatan Harapan government, which collapsed in February last year. Ishal and Heng are FMT Media board members but the former also serves as non-executive chairman.
Pameran Istimewa would surface as a shareholder of FMT Media from October last year after it bought a few tranches of shares from various owners.
At the time of writing it has a majority 51% stake in the company. Pameran Istimewa’s business address has also remained the same with both JAG companies.
But Johari may not be acting alone, sources said, since the businessman does seek out partnerships in executing major deals.
The Sapura link
Checks across other shareholders of FMT Media reveal that there might be a link to Sapura Energy Bhd founder Shahril Shamsuddin.
Company filings show that aside from Pameran Istimewa, FMT Media’s owners are: Dyal K. Balasingam (15%), Sandra Marie John (24.97%) and Belekuiti Sdn Bhd (9.02%).
Belekuiti, incorporated in August 2017, initially had as directors, lawyer Rosli Dahlan — who is currently representing 1Malaysia Development Bhd and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin — and a certain Norulhuda Abu with Rosli being the sole shareholder.
In September last year, Intrepid Bricks Sdn Bhd took over from Rosli as shareholder, which saw the lawyer no longer being Belekuiti’s owner and director. Mohamad Arif Abdullah is Rosli’s successor.
Intrepid Bricks, however, has Mohd Nabal Mohd Zin and BVI company Aranea Web Inc as shareholders with directors being Nabal and Zainol Hady Hassan.
According to LinkedIn, Nabal and Zainol are employed with Sapura Secured Technologies, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Sapura group, as general manager and chief financial officer, respectively.
When these changes in directorship and shareholdings happened, Shahril was still at the helm as Sapura Energy group chief executive. He resigned on March 22 this year after announcing he would do so on Sept 21.
Despite stepping down, Shahril remains an influential figure as his family’s investment vehicle Sapura Holdings Sdn Bhd, still owns 12.8% in the group.
Consolidation on the horizon?
The other personality that works together with Johari is Syed Mokhtar. While the latter dominates Media Prima, Syed Mokhtar also owns a majority 70% in Media Mulia, the holding company of Utusan Malaysia, through Aurora Mulia. The remainder being held by delisted Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd.
What has fuelled chatter for a consolidation of media assets between the two men are that not only Johari was instrumental in helping the tycoon wrest control of Media Prima and Utusan but some of these outfits are housed in the same building.
For example, FMT and Utusan are headquartered on different levels at the Quattro West building in Petaling Jaya.
Previously both men have also been seen working together when bidding for strategic companies such as plantation group FGV Holdings Bhd and sugar refiner MSM Holdings Bhd.
While Syed Mokhtar surfaced for the former and Johari for the latter, market participants said the duo were working in a partnership of sorts, since acquiring these companies would help enhance an already existing synergy between companies controlled by the two men. Syed Mokhtar and Johari’s offers for FGV and MSM were rebuffed.
But a lot is riding on Johari, who was former finance minister II, returning to government as that might be the condition for a continued relationship with Syed Mokhtar, said a seasoned corporate familiar with both men.
(See the Johari Ghani-Syed Mokhtar nexus infographic at the bottom of the article for more.)
“I don’t think Syed Mokhtar will continue working with Johari if he doesn’t secure a place in government.”
Politicians on both sides of the divide believe Johari might make a comeback and try to wrest the Titiwangsa federal seat, which he lost to Women, Family and Community Development Minister Rina Harun during the 14th general election.
Having some of the hottest media brands in his arsenal will certainly bolster Johari’s chances of winning the election, said a source close to the businessman. “Losing this time may come with a heavier price than the previous election.”
On paper, Johari is a director of bread maker Gardenia Bakeries (KL) Sdn Bhd which also lists Syed Mokhtar’s son Syed Danial as a director.
GBKL is owned 50:40 by Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas) and Gardenia (S) Pte Ltd. Bernas is almost wholly owned by Syed Mokhtar’s Perspective Lane (M) Sdn Bhd while the Finance Ministry owns a nominal share.
There is also a complicated web of cross-directorships that connects Johari and Syed Mokhtar. Megat Joha, for example, is not only a director on the former’s companies but also the latter’s Padiberas Nasional Bhd, Central Sugars Refinery Sdn Bhd (CSR) and Kampung Baru Equity Sdn Bhd.
Johari certainly has some advantages going into the next general election. He is an Umno supreme council member, and has some grassroots support.
His family investment vehicle, JAG Capital, which is a private exempt company, is tightly held with 99.99% owned by Johari while his wife, Zurwati Haslinda Zainal Bahry, holds a nominal share.
Johari and Zurwati are directors but so are their sons Amir Rasydi Johari and Amir Rashdan Johari. The other director is close associate Azlan Ahmad.
The same goes with JAG Private Equity, which is wholly owned by JAG Capital. Its directors are Azlan, Amir Nashrin and Megat Joha.
He has enough dry powder to undertake sizeable corporate plays or even run a political campaign. At one point he was the largest depositor in pilgrim’s fund Lembaga Tabung Haji with RM198 million.
He is also the chairman and largest shareholder of diversified group, KUB Malaysia Bhd. What KUB, Media Prima and C. I. Holdings have in common is that Johari took over companies either related to or have been owned by Umno.
“So, these acquisitions have to count for something because he bought these companies when the party needed funds following its defeat during the last general election,” said an observer. The question is whether he can pull off an election victory or not.