Deep-six: In an exclusive tell-all with Haris Hussain, the architect of the Scorpene submarine purchase, Jasbir Singh Chahl, speaks for the first time about the controversial deal. Here, he torpedoes Suaram‘s allegation of massive kickbacks and blows the Altantuya ‘connection’ right out of the water
Torpedoing the myth
IN 1984, an insurance agent from Baltimore, Maryland, published the fictitious story of a Russian submarine commander who tried to defect to the United States in his state-of-the-art Typhoon-class nuclear submarine.
The Hunt for Red October drew inspiration from a real-life account of the 1975 mutiny aboard the Russian destroyer Storozhevoy and became Tom Clancy’s first international bestseller with its tale of intrigue, skullduggery and deception. Then US president Ronald Reagan called it “a great yarn”.
Closer to home, the Scorpene saga has taken many twists and turns. In 2010, Malaysian human rights non-governmental organization Suaram lodged a complaint in the French courts, claiming that French naval firm DCNS had paid RM452 million as a bribe to Malaysian officials to obtain the contract. The allegations of massive kickbacks and payoffs in the RM4.2 billion deal for the two Perdana Menteri-class dieselpowered fast-attack boats have been topped only by the lurid accusations that Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu was murdered because she allegedly knew too much and wanted a ‘mere’ US$500,000 cut from the deal.
Over the years, a fascinating conspiracy theory had been woven around this episode and gained traction, linking the submarine deal with Altantuya’s murder. Hardly surprising since it had all the ingredients of a Hollywood techno-thriller — stories of alleged corruption, deceit, greed, sex and murder.
In April, reports in the Spanish and French mainstream media questioned Suaram’s almost fanatical obsession with the case, with one even suggesting that the French legal system was being taken for a ride to serve a greater political end.
Last Friday, Suaram held a fundraising dinner in Petaling Jaya to raise money for its activities, in which fresh allegations were made into the case.
After months of trying, the New Straits Times secured an exclusive interview with the central figure in the deal. It certainly wasn’t a cakewalk — this man guards his privacy jealously and with a passion.
As the architect of the Scorpene submarine deal, the last seven years have taken their toll on Jasbir Singh Chahl.
Before this meeting, Chahl had steadfastly refused to make statements regarding this case, worried that he might be accused of perverting the course of justice. Throughout, he had been in constant communication with the French authorities and investigators and has voluminous evidence to back his claim, despite assertions by the opposition to the contrary.
As he places the teacup on the fine china saucer in his home in the heart of Kuala Lumpur with a finesse that betrays his English education and upbringing, Chahl pauses for a moment and draws a deep breath.
“I am willing to swear on my holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, that I did not know this person, that she was never part of the team, had never met her, that she was never in France during the entire time we were there trying to close the deal and only knew about her when I read the papers in 2006 that they had found her body.
” One of the myths that has been “accepted” as gospel was that Altantuya had acted as a translator for Abdul Razak Baginda, who had helped Chahl broker the deal. Negotiations began in 2000 and were concluded in 2002.
If Altantuya was indeed Razak Baginda’s interpreter, she should have been present at all the meetings from 2000.And yet, in official French documents that were made available to the NST, the French police have stated categorically that Altantuya never entered France from 1999 to 2006, the year she died. Incidentally, all these meetings were held in France with some in Malaysia. And they were all in English.
“This is not what I am saying, you understand. This is what the French authorities, the French police and the French judicial inquiry are saying.” According to Razak’s Baginda’s evidence in court, he only met Altantuya in late 2004. The Scorpene deal was concluded in 2002.
Another fissure in the opposition’s argument seems to hinge on its so-called ‘understanding’ of Gallic pride and centres around the way DCNS conducts its business around the globe.
It assumes that just because DCNS is French, the negotiations would have to be in French when the fact is that the French defence industry does deals all over the world in English.
Add to that, the French team was initially led by an Englishman, Martin Hill, who was himself, also fluent in French.
So, if indeed the team needed an interpreter, it didn’t have to look very far, and certainly not in Mongolia, of all places.
In his deposition to the French authorities in 2010, former DCNS marketing manager for Malaysia and Singapore at the time, Fredric Faura, told investigators that there was no need for an interpreter since negotiations were in English and Malaysians were fluent in the language.
“You ask me why the blogs have gone around calling this girl Razak’s interpreter. You should direct that question to the blogs.
” Firing another shot across the bow, Chahl wonders why no one has stopped to question the credibility of the opposition that had readily admitted to doctoring a photograph to show Altantuya with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Razak Baginda, purportedly in a Paris restaurant.
“This whole affair was a personal matter between Razak Baginda and Altantuya. His dealings with her had nothing to do with the Scorpene deal. It’s unfortunate that it coincided with our timeline (the submarine deal). Razak Baginda was the only common denominator in this. He was the only link, and a tenuous one, at best.”
Who is Jasbir Singh Chahl?
JASBIR Singh Chahl cut his teeth in the defence and oil and gas industry at a very early age. He was twentysomething, in London, and working with a Middle Eastern defence and construction company putting together multi-billion dollar deals. The relationships he forged with defence
contractors in Europe and the rest of the world put him in good stead when he came home in 1981.
From 1996 to 1998, Chahl worked with Thomson-CSF International (M) Sdn Bhd, the wholly owned Malaysian subsidiary of France’s Thomson-CSF (now Thales), on the Royal Malaysian Navy’s Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) project, the Crotale man-portable SHORAD (shortrange air defence) system, and other projects of interest to Thomson-CSF and its subsidiaries.
Chahl’s relationship with Thomson-CSF was further enhanced by his development of strategies and provision of inputs that led to the submission to the Malaysian Government of other defence-related projects.
It was while working on these projects that he was told by Thales that it wished to focus on the sale of submarines to Malaysia. This was something Thales had been pushing for more than a decade but had not been unable to make much progress.
Thales felt that the timing for a concerted effort was now right — their various discourses with the RMN had led them to this conclusion. They then requested him to analyse, evaluate and to develop a proposal to supply submarines to Malaysia, which culminated in the Scorpene purchase.
‘Everything was audited’
ONE of the major issues in the Scorpene submarine deal has to do with the word “commission”.
Specifically, the Euro115 million (RM452 million) that was paid to Perimekar Sdn Bhd, the company in charge of the logistics and the training of the officers and men of the Royal Malaysian Navy’s Submarine Force. And Jasbir Singh Chahl has a big problem with that.
“The amount is actually a service management fee,” says Chahl, exasperation and irritation creeping into his voice. That the detractors have managed to turn it into a simplistic argument
and package it as an example of unfettered greed; that it had succeeded, to a certain extent, in painting a picture that the monies were paid to grease the palms of government officials and
corporations, makes Chahl’s stomach turn. For the record, Perimekar, which is an audited company, is owned by KS Ombak Laut Sdn Bhd, the pension fund of the Armed Forces, LTAT, and by the industrial company, Boustead. Both of them are also audited. The fees covered project management and project integration services, coordinating the involvement of Malaysian companies in the industrial participation programme in the provision of services during the construction phase and to monitor the performance of these firms, helping the main contractor comply with all local laws and procedures relating to the execution of the contract, coordinating
and monitoring the training of RMN personnel in compliance with the main contract and in accordance with Malaysian Government and RMN expectations, and providing monthly reports on all of the above. The biggest chunk of the fees went to the provision of accommodation and all the necessary services for the training of RMN personnel and their families in Brest, France, and Spain, for a period of six years, inclusive of health insurance premiums and per diem allowances of a minimum of Euro50 per person. Other costs include their return travel fares to Malaysia three times a year. In all, 145 RMN personnel, including 49 officers and dependents
were covered by this. “We’ve been made out to look like profiteers who just sat back and collected when in actual fact, there was a lot of hard, tangible work, that was done,”
Chahl says. For the record, Perimekar’s profit after tax was RM105,111,191. “The commercial offer was attractive because of the superior industrial participation programme that we put together. The countertrade and offset programme that we proposed as part of the overall proposal
also swung the odds in our favour. “Based on the strength and commercial superiority of the proposal, we didn’t have to lobby anyone to influence the commercial evaluation process. There was no need to. “The Scorpene was the best nonnuclear powered-submarine that we, as a nation, could have selected.”