Former Malaysian minister acquitted of corruption charges in billion-dollar port scandal

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A former Malaysian transport minister was acquitted Friday of cheating the government in a billion-dollar port deal that sparked a major financial scandal.

The High Court said that prosecutors had not proven their case against Ling Liong Sik, who was transport minister between 1986 and 2003.

Ling was charged with misleading the Cabinet in 2002 in a land deal for the Port Klang free trade zone, a 1,000-acre (400-hectare) industrial and trading hub that suffered massive cost overruns. The project was initially estimated to cost less than 2 billion ($634 million) ringgit but ballooned to 4.6 billion ringgit ($1.5 billion) in 2007.

The scandal erupted when the government approved a loan in 2007 to rescue the country’s main port authority from debts exceeding $1 billion involving the port project.

Opposition lawmakers said the court ruling was a setback to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s battle against corruption.

“Until such big fishes are caught and punished by the Najib administration, all the bells and whistles attached to the reform programs such as the war against corruption will just be mere rhetoric without action,” said lawmaker Tony Pua.

The cost overruns further eroded public confidence in big state projects following bailouts of prominent companies in the 1980s and 1990s.

Corruption was among the voter grievances that caused the National Front ruling coalition to suffer its worst election result ever in May polls following five decades in power. Najib’s ruling coalition won the most seats but lost the popular vote to the opposition.