KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 28 — Datuk Seri Najib Razak had signed off on a RM2 million cheque to a private agency in 2013 to manage his public image and social media accounts, the High Court heard on the first day of the ex-prime minister’s 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) trial.
Noorhaina Hirawani Mohd Noor, former CEO of the digital agency Orb Solutions Sdn Bhd, said the RM2 million cheque had been cashed in.
“I can confirm it was banked in according to the last bank statement,” she testified, confirming that the signature was Najib’s.
Noorhaina Hirawani is the fourth prosecution witness in Najib’s trial involving four counts of abusing his position for his own financial benefit totalling almost RM2.3 billion and the resulting 21 counts of money-laundering.
Among the 21 counts of money-laundering brought against Najib last September, he was accused of having used illegal funds by issuing cheques totalling RM22.649 million to five recipients, including a RM2 million sum to Orb Solutions Sdn Bhd on August 12, 2013.
Najib was accused of committing these offences when he held the three positions of prime minister, finance minister and chairman of 1MDB’s advisory board at the same time.
Today, Noorhaina Hirawani said she had eight years of experience with media group Media Prima, before being recruited by consultancy firm Ethos’ Omar Mustapha via “personal connections” to provide the digital communications services.
Noorhaina Hirawani said she helped to set up Orb Solutions, adding that she and Najib’s special officer Amhari Efendi Nazaruddin were co-directors of the company. Amhari Efendi was also the company’s liaison with the prime minister’s office.
“I was introduced to Amhari in December 2008 when I was engaged as an independent contractor to run a team of contractors to perform digital communications services for Datuk Seri Najib,” the mass communications graduate said.
She said Orb Solutions only had one client, namely Najib.
“It was set up to serve as a digital agency to Datuk Seri Najib and manage his presence online communications and online assets,” she said, listing the digital assets as including Najib’s personal website, his social media accounts and other online and offline activities conducted by the company.
Najib already had a website, and accounts with video-sharing site Youtube and photo-hosting site Flickr when the company was engaged, she said.
At that time, Najib was the deputy prime minister and only became the prime minister under the Barisan Nasional administration on April 3, 2009.
She explained that the purpose of Orb Solutions’ services was to help Najib engage with the public in a “less formal manner” as the government of the day in 2008 was “quite cautious about online communications and social media”, and that no such activities were being done by the “official channels” such as the deputy prime minister’s or prime minister’s office.
“I was tasked as CEO of the organisation so I ran the day-to-day operations, planned the communications strategy and also communicated those strategies to the prime minister and also the prime minister’s office,” she said, confirming that her job brought her in contact with Najib since his deputy prime minister days.
Noorhaina Hirawani said Orb Solutions was typically paid via cheques for services provided to Najib, and that such payments including the RM2 million sum are usually for day-to-day operations including salaries, utilities and other activities conducted in discharging the company’s services as a digital agency.
When asked by Najib’s lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, Noorhaina Hirawani said she was engaged in 2008 after the Barisan Nasional coalition experienced a “reduced victory” in the general elections that year.
“I think there was a belief at that time that part of it was because the opposition had used the online sphere more effectively than the government.
“At the same time, the government also looked at social media and online communications with a lot of suspicion and distrust at that time, and therefore it was believed that in order to harness the potential of online communications, it had to be done outside and in a personal capacity rather than government capacity,” she said.
She said it was made clear on Najib’s online accounts that he was prime minister, agreeing with Shafee that she viewed the social media platforms as being for government agenda and not for Najib’s personal purposes.
She added however that a “human touch” is given on social media “even with other government leaders, world leaders”, agreeing with Shafee that the RM2 million paid to Orb Solutions was not for the prime minister’s benefit.
“We were able to provide people with the sort of understanding and appreciation of context, whether policy or actions and decisions made by the government in ways that perhaps mainstream media would not have achieved in similar fashion,” she said, having also confirmed that she would seek Najib’s approval for social media content that were “sensitive” or related to policy.
She confirmed that both she and Amhari Efendi had not been charged over funds received by Orb Solutions, leading to Shafee to remark: “Not all of us are like you. Some have been charged.”
Noorhaina Hirawani also said she was seconded from Orb Solutions to the Prime Minister’s Office in August 2013, where she took over the role of being the main liaison between the two.
She confirmed that she was appointed to the digital press secretary role by Najib’s chief of staff Tan Sri Abdul Aziz via an August 7, 2013 letter of appointment, a position which she held until October 2014.
She revealed to the court that she had a RM24,000 salary as digitial press secretary to the prime minister, confirming that there were five to six other individuals serving in the press office of the prime minister’s office then.
She said the press office benefited from her services as there was no one there handling digital communications then.
When asked by 1MDB lead prosecutor Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram on whether there was “political advantage to be gained” by Najib on the online and social media presence management, she replied: “I think every world leaders do that, even for Obama to David Cameron.”
She also had a two-year stint as a consultant for PR1MA before her current role as a regional head of client engagement for a start-up.