There was much mirth in Malaysia the other day when the US Justice Department filed civil lawsuits alleging a $3.5bn embezzlement of a Kuala Lumpur fund and diplomatically referred to one of the alleged villains as ‘Malaysia Official 1’. Everyone knew who that was – their prime minister, Najib Razak. It concerns the long-running scandal of the state investment fund known as 1MDB which Najib himself set up. He denies any misappropriation of funds, resorting to the traditional defence of sweating political leaders that it’s nothing more than a smear campaign.
No it’s not, says Malaysia’s former long-time leader, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. In an interview with the ABC in July, he said other nations, including Australia and the US, should name and shame the prime minister, who he said was behind the embezzlement scandal. ‘I know most foreign countries are rather reluctant to come out straight and say that the prime minister is the one who is guilty of all of these things’, Dr Mahathir said. In a statement, DFAT said it would be inappropriate to comment while investigations are continuing.
As much as Najib might wish it, the matter won’t go away despite his best efforts at home to silence the media. It has reached the ‘tipping point’, says Prof. James Chin, the director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. He believes Najib will be gone soon. He will either quietly negotiate a retirement package for himself – which no doubt will include an exemption from any prosecution – or call a snap election to take advantage of an opposition in disarray and enact his own retirement arrangement.
Najib’s political endurance in the face of detailed evidence against him is impressive. He has had to tough it out because he lives in fear of arrest, say Clare Rewcastle Brown, editor-in-chief of the Sarawak Report, the whistle-blowing thorn in the side of the Malaysian government. It has called Najib ‘a desperate thief and a liar…personally associated with a string of murky, half-solved murders’. The country’s attorney-general last year put in place a plan to lay criminal charges against Najib. The PM’s response was to sack him.
His latest move to shore up his defences is the National Security Act which came into force last week. It was introduced on the last day of parliament and Najib overrode the king’s objections to make it law. His excuse was the need combat Daesh, not that the so-called Islamic State has been making threats against Malaysia. The NSA gives Najib sweeping powers. It allows him to designate anywhere as a “security area”, where he can deploy forces to search any individual, vehicle or premise without a warrant. Malaysia’s police chief said he would use the NSA to shut down rallies that demand that Najib quit. The NSA also allows investigators to dispense with formal inquests into killings by the police or armed forces in those ‘security areas’. According to Reuters, Najib in recent months dusted off the old Sedition Act and other draconian laws to arrest government critics, jail opponents and stifle free speech by suspending media groups and blogs.
On top of all this is the proposal to introduce a tough Islamic penal code known as hudud law. It will replace current provisions in Malaysia’s Sharia courts – which govern the majority Moslems – with harsher punishments, such as amputation of limbs and stoning. The bill, to be debated in October, was introduced by the opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party. It has Najib’s backing for no other reason that he needs Malay Moslem support if he does call an election. Two non-Malay members of his cabinet have threatened to resign if it becomes law.
Former law minister, Zaid Ibrahim, said it was a clear sign that the idea of democracy and rule in Malaysia was changing. ‘Islam is defined by those in authority and they define it however they want’, he told CNN. ‘There is a growing conservatism in the country and it is driven by politics. It used to be very subtle, but now it is getting bigger’.
Chin told ABC’s Radio National that, as Malaysia is mostly a trading nation, its leader must be able to deal with those from all countries, especially the West. But now they were ‘side-lining’ Najib, he said. His current reputation had sullied Malaysia’s standing. He thought ‘the final nail in his political coffin’ was the US investigation, which included seizing $1bn worth of assets in America. In addition, there are investigations by Switzerland and Luxembourg.
It is unlikely that Najib will be threatened by actions of Malays themselves, who make up 61% of the population. Dr Mahathir said they were ‘very timid people’. Why would they risk arrest when they have priority over other ethnic groups for government jobs and academic scholarships. What’s more, says Chin, such corruption is associated with recent SEAsia history when you recall the avarice of Marcos and Suharto, never mind Myanmar’s generals and Thai politicians. It is as if no one should be surprised.
Whatever happens, Najib’s legacy will be a disreputable one. The US indictment and claims against ‘Malaysia Official 1’ and others associated with Najib are there for all Malaysians to read. They refer to looted money spent on paying gambling debts at Las Vegas casinos, renting luxury yachts, spending millions on property and buying a jet. The Wall Street Journal reported additional spending on clothes, jewellery and cars. The International Business Times this month said leaked documents claimed that Najib and his wife spent US$238,000 on hormone therapy to combat signs of ageing. Then there are the claims that misappropriated millions went towards funding the Hollywood film the Wolf of Wall Street. How apt that it’s a story of greed, high living, vanity and crime.
FOOTNOTE. If Najib is forced from office, it will not be through any brutal party room action in the Australian style. Prof. Chin says it will be done in ‘a very opaque manner’. What happens is that senior former UMNO members will invite Najib to ‘afternoon tea’ for a chat. They will politely mention that he’s done his bit for Malaysia and perhaps it’s time for a new leader. Chin says he understands there have been at least three such gatherings this year. With Washington expanding its investigations, the UMNO elders will be pushing for more afternoon teas with the promise for Dr Mahathir to back off and, of course, that Najib will be protected if he goes quietly.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.