‘You’ll have to talk to the UK staff’: can global water investors be held to account?

The Guardian, 30 November 2022

Will Malaysia’s YTL, US-based BlackRock and Hong Kong’s CK Hutchison Holdings answer questions about environmental damage?

Most Malaysians know the YTL Corporation. Take the high-speed train from Kuala Lumpur International airport to the centre of the capital – YTL built it. Make a phone call in the country and it could be on YTL’s network. Its subsidiaries run luxury resorts, develop land, and manufacture cement. But tell them it supplies water to south-west England and that may surprise some in the south-east Asian nation.

In 2002, the bust US energy trader Enron sold 100% of Wessex Water to YTL Power International, a YTL Corp subsidiary, for about £545m plus £695m of Wessex debt. The Malaysian company saw its investment as the start of an expansion into Europe, although for its chair, Francis Yeoh, it was something more.

When the then Prince Charles awarded Yeoh a knighthood in 2019, the businessman credited his time studying civil engineering at Kingston University in the late 1970s for the growth of YTL. “In Britain, there is a real premium transparent, coherent regulatory framework, where the rule of law is the order of the day,” Yeoh was quoted as saying in the 2018 book Power Talk: Insights from Asia’s Leading Entrepreneurs. At a Malaysian government forum in 2014, Yeoh explained his preference for operating in countries such as Britain, Singapore and Australia. “The good thing about these three territories, I do not have to kowtow to the prime minister before I do a deal, I do not have to see them even, even after I have won the deal,” he said.

However, when the Guardian tried to reach Yeoh, 68, to ask about the pollution of English waters, his daughter Rebekah Yeoh Pei Wenn, a YTL director of corporate finance, said he was unavailable to discuss this topic “as we draw closer to our quarterly board meetings”.

After making an approach by phone, the Guardian went to the YTL Power offices in Kuala Lumpur – a stone’s throw from one of YTL’s numerous hotels, the Ritz-Carlton, to ask if it would be possible to speak to anyone there about the water company. A receptionist confirmed that “YTL is the owner of Wessex Water, but the staff are based in the UK, you will have to talk to them”.When the Guardian followed up via email, it was politely but firmly told that the chairman was unavailable, adding: “We wish you all the best for the article.”

Yeoh took over the running of YTL in the 1980s from his father, the late billionaire Yeoh Tiong Lay, whose initials form the company name. Forbes ranked him 17th on the list of Malaysia’s 50 richest people in 2022, with a net worth of $1.25bn (£1.04bn), which he shares with his six siblings.

An evangelical Christian, his apparent Twitter account posts biblical scripture, family videos and nods to the late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who enjoyed the Malaysian coast.

In February 2021, he tweeted: “YTL listed in the KLSE [Malaysia’s stock exchange] in 1986, we had total assets of USD20m. Today we are blessed with global assets of USD20b. This is miraculous!”

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