KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 31 – Ministry of Health (MOH) officials say that the idea to seek ventilators from China, at a time when over half of the world was in lockdown, did not originate within the ministry but rather came from then-Transport Minister Wee Ka Siong.
According to meeting transcripts published in the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) Covid management report released in Parliament yesterday, Wee surprisingly played an active role in every aspect of the ventilator procurement process from China in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.
This included getting contacts, identifying suppliers, presenting quotations, overseeing the transaction, and arranging the transportation of the ventilators to Malaysia.
Ultimately, 104 of 136 ventilators supplied by Pharmaniaga Logistics Sdn Bhd (PLSB) to Malaysia’s MOH during the pandemic turned out to be defective, according to the PAC’s investigation.
The bipartisan parliamentary committee did not hold anyone accountable for the supply of malfunctioning ventilators, citing the absence of a written contract between the MOH and PLSB on procurement of the crucial equipment that was meant to save lives.
Former MOH secretary-general Chen Chaw Min said many ministers provided valuable input during National Security Council (MKN) meetings, including Wee, whose connection with China and insights into repatriating Malaysians stranded abroad due to Covid lockdowns prompted him to step in and assist in the country’s desperate need for more ventilators.
“During MKN meetings, there were many different ministers present, including Wee. He was involved with MAS (Malaysia Airlines), as transport minister, to facilitate the return of the first Malaysians stranded abroad (due to lockdowns).
“From there, he (Wee) gave us a lot of input that if we were to purchase ventilators from China, we would have problems with transportation, which MASkargo could assist. That was where he stepped in.
“Then, he mentioned also that through – the Special Envoy to China, Wisma Putra, Matrade – we could get contacts.
“A lot of ministers during MKN [meetings] provided a lot of input to help. Then-Minister of International and Trade Azmin Ali pointed out that Pharmaniaga was also receiving a lot of donations. So, it was all fast-paced,” Chen told the PAC in a meeting on August 22.
In a separate meeting on September 14, PLSB chief operating officer Mohamed Iqbal Abdul Rahman said it marked the MOH’s first attempt to procure ventilators from China. PLSB is a fully-owned subsidiary of local pharmaceutical company Pharmaniaga Bhd.
“Normally, as far as my previous life, I was working in a maintenance company, most of the ventilators purchased by the Malaysian government are from the West. This was the first time that the Malaysian government was buying ventilators from China. So, we didn’t have any experience and all that,” Iqbal said.
He added that there were several WhatsApp groups created over the course of the procurement process, with the main group involving Chen, Pharmaniaga’s MD, and Wee’s senior private secretary Wong Lee Yen, representing the Ministry of Transport (MOT).
“Our contacts were via the transport minister at that time, who had good contact with China, and would provide instructions to the Health secretary-general, and the latter would then order Pharmaniaga’s managing director to make the payment and receive the order.”
Iqbal maintained that Pharmaniaga Logistics merely acted as an “agent” to the MOH. He said the company’s task was limited to payment, delivery, and facilitating the procurement process. The decision to “buy from where” and “at what price” rested on the Health Ministry.
Ex-Pharmaniaga MD Farshila Emran, in the same meeting on September 14, said that Wee would deal with MOH’s Chen, who would send specifications to the Health Ministry’s technical and specifications unit and, if approved, will proceed to make the procurement, with Pharmaniaga making the payment.
“That is where Pharmaniaga takes charge – only to make the payment. After that, we wait for the delivery. As Wee was transport minister at that point in time, he worked with MAS,” Farshila said.
Wee was summoned by the PAC on September 21 to explain his role in the ventilator procurement.
“At that time, on March 25, 2020, it was a critical moment. When that decision was made, we assisted because I saw it every time, every day, it was reported [in the news] that we wanted to purchase (the ventilators), but we didn’t know where to buy.
“At that time, I sought help from my friends in China, including China’s ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian, and I asked where to find them. His counsellor said, ‘Let’s try to see if we can get a contact’. At that time, there was no mention of Pharmaniaga yet.
“When we obtained the contact, I passed it on to the Health Ministry. I called Chen myself. It was not the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport (MOT) to initiate the process so we handed it over to Chen,” Wee said.
Wee, who had received a brochure from ventilator manufacturers in China, was questioned by the PAC about why the procurement process involved Hong Kong Smart Investment companies, a trading house, rather than dealing directly with manufacturers.
“The factories had no more stock, but the trading house did. That was the issue. At that time, the whole world was in search of ventilators,” Wee told the PAC. Wee said that even Chinese companies operating in Malaysia were inquiring about contacts to secure ventilator supplies.
“I inquired as well, and some gave (their contacts). We made calls to check if we could obtain the supply, and I handed over the contact to MOH. All of us were searching together (kita sama-sama cari).
“During that period, many established companies were closed (due to lockdowns) and European suppliers were also unavailable. The only country was China; you had no other choice. We had to proceed in this manner. If there had been other options, I would not have been a busybody, but I had to because we were under constant pressure every day,” Wee explained.
Despite Wee’s heavy involvement in the ventilator procurement process, the ultimate decision rested with the MOH.
During the August 22 proceeding, PAC chairperson Mas Ermieyati Samsudin asked about the authority responsible for the decision to proceed with the ventilator purchase.
Chen acknowledged that the final decision came down to his own judgement.
“When it came down to it, after all the specifications had been agreed upon, I was the one who made the call. I know it was very risky. I was also afraid, Chairperson, because the price was so high.
“Even as Pegawai Pengawal, I was fearful, but I had to make the call because the responsibility rested on me. But before I made the call, I did get all the policies approved.
“We would go to MKN and the Cabinet, informing them that we need to buy the ventilators. It’s not that I simply bought them, Chairperson. But when it came to implementation, it was myself as the leader, along with the team. We all worked together to procure them.”
When Mas Ermieyati once again asked if it was he, as Health secretary-general (KSU), who made the call, Chen said: “Yes, what to do. There was no one else. Who else would dare to, unless it was the KSU.”
The PAC chairperson also inquired about any involvement or directives from the government’s top leadership, particularly then-Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, in the procurement process. Chen said: “No. It was never like that.”