Malaysia’s embattled prime minister seems to be weathering the corruption allegations – and by some signs may even be going back on the offensive.
On Jul. 2, 2015, the Wall Street Journal “alleged” that $700 million had gone into the personal bank accounts of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.
On Aug. 3, 2015, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) reported that the alleged $700 million deposited into Razak’s accounts came from donations, and not from the debt-laden 1MDB.
If Razak is likened to a pharaoh – a term given to Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed, who is now the main protagonist in attempting to bring down Razak – one could say that the period between Jul. 2, 2015 and May 8, 2016 was a period where Razak was “mummified,” safe within the pyramid. Several defensive measures were later followed with the election triumph of the Barisan Nasional (the ruling coalition that the prime minister leads) in the Sarawak state election, suggesting that the “mummy” is now fully resurrected.
The defensive measure taken included steps taken toward three of the four senior civil servants appointed by the prime minister to investigate the 1MDB allegations. The Attorney General, Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail, who was tasked to lead this high-powered multi-agency team, and believed to be preparing charges against Razak, was sacked.
Razak also promoted four members (and in the process dropped another four ministers and a deputy minister) from the bipartisan parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that had been vigorously pursuing the 1MDB issue. And after replacing the chairman of the PAC, it performed to expectations with the final report taking the heat off the prime minister. Also, among those dropped was Rural and Regional Development Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal, an UMNO vice-president and a powerful politician from Sabah.
Meanwhile, the Bank Negara (Central Bank) Governor Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz, came under intense attack. Among those, a blog, The Recounter, at the time of the 1MDB investigations, alleged that the police were investigating Tan Sri Zeti on a water contract that had been awarded to a company which had several directors who were related to her. Another investigation was supposed to be focused on her husband, who received a commission on the takeover of Southern SO -0.55% Bank by CIMB that was approved by the central bank. Although Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police (IGP) denied this, there was no further query if indeed there was any merit to the allegations. Tan Sri Zeti has denied the allegations and threatened to sue those responsible for making them, but she still has yet to do so.
Kevin Morais, a senior deputy public prosecutor, who was believed to be working on the 1MDB case (and believed to have reviewed or prepared the charge sheet), was then found brutally murdered (Note: This video by the award-winning Four Corners team of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation pieces together all the available evidence on the 1MDB issue).
Tan Sri Abu Kassim, the MACC chief commissioner, had quietly gone on extended leave to recover from an operation after the investigation had begun. Only the Inspector General of Police, Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, remained active in the public eye, investigating officers to find the source of leaks that had embarrassed Razak.
His administration had also been clamping down on the already limited civil and political rights of Malaysians. The Director General of Immigration recently announced that Malaysians who criticized the government overseas could be banned from travelling for up to three years. All of these are designed to have a chilling effect, particularly among Malaysia’s middle class – one of the most vocal groups since the general election of 2008, both at home and abroad.
The Sarawak elections is likely a purveyor of things to come. Bridget Welsh provides some insight from the ground on what happened in Sarawak and its implications to Malaysia in general. Key to this is the fact that Razak has figured out how he can win at the next Malaysian general election – skew the electoral system further; break up the opposition; demonstrate that they are incapable of cooperation; ensure that Sabah and Sarawak remains in the BN orbit, win enough rural and marginal seats (where the opposition does not have a commanding majority through any means) on the peninsula.
After the recent Sarawak state elections, a triumphant Razak was in London for a two day working visit that includes the Malaysia-UK Investor Showcase. While in the U.K., Razak announced several high profile ventures.
Khazanah – Malaysia’s other sovereign wealth fund – had set up an endowment of 5 million pounds over five years to sponsor up to three Malaysian scholars to pursue postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford. The prime minister also announced that Khazanah would set up a Khazanah Residency Program that will sponsor up to 10 qualified Malaysians every year for short-term residencies and fellowships in locations around the world. These fellowships are focused on five areas: arts, culture and society, design, public service, journalism, and science and technology. One wonders if individuals critical of the government will be able to apply. Razak also officiated the opening of Khazanah Europe Investment Ltd office at London’s iconic The Shard. Richard Graham, David Cameron’s trade envoy to Malaysia possibly summed up the view of international leaders towards Razak:
“I think business with Malaysia is extremely important and that must carry on.”
These high profile events were designed to signal Razak’s return in a very public way. He is now back on the offensive. While in London, he publicly attacked former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed by stating:
“He has received so much through Barisan and Umno. Without the BN and the party, he would not have been a minister or the prime minister for 22 years. He and his family have benefited from his position as prime minister, and this is due to the strength of Barisan and Umno.”
Razak’s detractors have tried their best to shame him into resignation, but this has not worked. Instead, Razak has used the resources availed to him as prime minister of Malaysia and president of the BN and UMNO to effectively stifle any challenge. He has broken up Malaysia’s most successful and effective opposition, Pakatan Rakyat. The new opposition, Pakatan Harapan, is in disarray as key players in PKR are still hanging onto PAS. Razak has broken up the two major challenges to UMNO on the peninsula, the two other Malay majority parties, PKR and PAS. Several in PAS seek closer cooperation with UMNO, while several in PKR seek closer cooperation with PAS. Civil society shot itself in the foot when its leading lights, such as Bersih’s Maria Chin Abdullah and Ambiga Sreenevasan, joined (in their personal capacity) Mohamed’s “Save Malaysia” coalition. This has cast doubts among Malaysians who were genuinely seeking a root and branch culling of UMNO from Malaysia’s political landscape.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s economy continues to chug along. It remains a stable polity. Most Malaysians get on with their daily lives as they always have.
Najib Razak is back, and evidence suggests that the “mummy” is here to stay.
This article first appeared in Forbes