Vinod Sekhar on Hungary ventilator deal and why cashing in on pandemic ‘is not for me’

Companies supplying medical equipment like ventilators, face masks and gloves, registered record profits in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which devastated much of the world last year.

However, Datuk Vinod Sekhar admits the pandemic business is something he just cannot stomach – having learnt from the sale of ventilators to Hungary last year.

The Petra Group chairman and chief executive, who has raised eyebrows with a wide range of acquisitions in recent times despite the sluggish economy, spoke to Twentytwo13 about his past that often haunts him, his political affiliation, and his end game.

From Green Rubber to buying over hotels; Petra Group has raised eyebrows with its series of acquisitions. But why won’t you invest in the pandemic business?

Vinod Sekhar (VS): People told me to set up a glove factory, to sell personal protective equipment and even test kits in the early days (of the pandemic) as there was a huge market.

There was a European country I assisted, in purchasing test kits and ventilators. It was during a crazy period. If you can remember in March and April last year, doctors in Italy were making decisions to see who lived, and who had to die.

The country I was working with was anxious. Also, they (officials there) were no strangers as I have business interests there.

They needed ventilators, and they reached out. What do I know about ventilators? I asked people here and they were asking for high prices. I got my trust company in Singapore to source out for ventilators as well, but what was happening was that people were going directly to China with loads of cash and buying them in large quantities.

Through a friend, we managed to secure some ventilators. I didn’t like the price, and even told the European country about it, but they were only interested in saving their people.

If it happened (a spike in Covid-19 cases) and they didn’t have the equipment, they would be blamed. They would rather be overprepared. I admire their tenacity; putting their people first.

And this European nation is Hungary?

VS: Yes. They (the Hungarian government) wanted someone they trusted to be the safety valve. They needed the ventilators. That’s my involvement.

Everything was above board.

The contract has been completed. The Chinese side has delivered (the ventilators) although there were some logistical issues. Will we make money? It’s the normal percentage (in commissions). People gave their time and energy to secure it, and they should be paid.

Eventually, I’ll get the commission and I’ll make a donation to Hungary.

Some people claim the commission is RM2 billion. That’s nonsense.

Why did you stop with Hungary?

VS: The deal taught me one thing … that I can’t go into this business. It’s making money by taking advantage of a bad situation. I know this is business, just like glove prices, when there was a demand, the prices went up.

But I don’t need to be in this business. I just don’t feel comfortable with it. Everyone is jumping on the (pandemic business) bandwagon and there will be an oversupply.

If you want to make serious money, this problem must continue. If everything was better and we went back to normal, the business won’t make money. So yeah, it (the pandemic business) isn’t for me.

You had offered free vaccines to the Malaysian government earlier this year. What happened to this pledge?

VS: We wrote to the government (in March) that we wanted to support to the national vaccination process by donating 200,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine. Our reason was, if the private sector could do it, even if it was for their own staff in the B40 group, it would ease the pressure on the government so that they could focus on those truly at risk. If I started the ball rolling, then other companies would surely do the same.

Our aim was to bring the vaccine and put it into the existing system. Nothing more. But we didn’t hear anything. We even gave the government the contact details of the people we were dealing with. We received a reply from the government that read “not necessary”.

In a very politicised atmosphere, perhaps certain people believed there was an agenda. To me, the only sound way out of the Covid-19 pandemic is to vaccinate everyone. I said this in March, and I’m saying it now; vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.

There’s no other agenda.

I must give credit to the government for ramping up the vaccination rate, although I felt this should have been done earlier, like in February, or March, itself.

Don’t you think your links to opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will only hurt you?

VS: I’ve known Anwar since I was 13. He knew my father (Tan Sri B.C. Sekhar).

My friendship with Anwar has surely hurt me during (former prime minister Datuk Seri) Najib’s (Razak) administration … even now (under Perikatan Nasional). Pre-Pakatan Harapan, if you were a business leader, you didn’t speak out against the government or its policies.

I was against him (Anwar) being jailed, against the farce that led him to be jailed.

I’m surprised why people just single out Anwar. I’m close to (former prime minister) Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He’s Uncle Abdullah to me.

(Prime Minister) Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is a friend. When I was unwell, he spent an hour-and-a-half with me at the hospital.

I can’t decide based on their political party as they (politicians) change their political alliances. I treat individuals based on who they are. I take the word ‘friendship’ very seriously. I have thousands of acquaintances, but very few friends. And I have friends across the political divide.

Do I agree with all of Anwar’s political positioning? No. But I know not many agree with my views, too. So, we try and find the middle ground.

Your past continues to haunt you – especially claims of unfulfilled sponsorship deals and pledges. Some people have distanced themselves from you. Your thoughts?

VS: I ignore the claims. I’m just a simple businessman. I care enough to help people along the way. Sometimes, things happen and prevent me from carrying on. But it won’t stop me from trying.

It’s not as if I have a public-listed company. Why do they always have something negative to say? What is their fixation? Why don’t they talk about Renong or Perwaja Steel?

The most you can accuse me of is losing my own money. None of my ventures involved the Malaysian government’s or taxpayers’ money.

Have I hurt people? If a business fails, investors lose money and people lose their jobs. So yeah, I have hurt people. I have to live with the failures. There were certain things that were beyond my control. But I’ve also achieved success.

I’ve also been accused of keeping quiet, and the stories just keep getting bigger and bigger. You will hear ‘Vinod did this and that …’ but it’s just talk.

Will you consider working with the government?

VS: Anything the government does, any government… if it is good, I will support it. Politics does not come into play. In my business, politics plays no role.

What’s your end game?

VS: I’m a businessman and I want to do as much as possible.

I’d like to leave a legacy for my daughters so that they will be proud of me like how I am proud of my father. That’s setting the bar very high.

I’ve passed the stage of looking at petty things. Legacy is all there is.