The announcement last week by top Malaysian banker Nazir Razak of his intention to file defamation charges against bloggers believed connected to a close friend of his brother, Prime Minister Najib Razak, has laid bare what has been whispered about for months in Kuala Lumpur.
There is a growing, acrimonious rift in the Razak family, much of it over the deeply indebted government-backed investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd, and Najib's siblings' relationship with the prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, partly because of her ostentatious flaunting of enormous wealth. Rosmah, in addition to concerns about her behavior, is believed to have convinced her husband to initiate the 1MDB fund, which is backed by the Ministry of Finance.
One of the questions circulating in Malaysia’s business community is whether the family feud might result in problems for CIMB, the fast-growing Malaysia-headquartered bank that Nazir heads and which has become one of Southeast Asia’s leading financial institutions. Observers say CIMB owes at least some of its rapid growth to its connections to the family and hence to UMNO. “Its political connections are probably no longer a slam dunk asset for Nazir,” a business source with connections to the government told Asia Sentinel.
“The brothers openly criticize Rosmah at dinner functions and family events,” a well-wired source told Asia Sentinel. “I have heard them myself. Nazir’s family has moved to Oxford, where he spends 60 to 70 percent of his time. His elder brother Nizam spends time with his family in Boston. The two elder brothers Johari and Nazim also cannot get along with Rosmah.”
It was Nazim, according to two sworn declarations, one by a business associate of Rosmah and the other by the late private detective Perumal Balasubramaniam, who played a role in forcing Bala, as he was known, out of the country in 2008 after he issued an initial statement that Najib himself had been the lover of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian woman murdered in 2006 in one of Malaysia’s most notorious killings and who was peripherally involved in a massive bribery case involving the sale of French submarines to Malaysia. After Bala made the statement, he was told to get out of Malaysia and was given a hefty bribe to do so. Allegedly it was Nazim, a Kuala Lumpur architect, who took Balasubramaniam to the Hilton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur to write a statement recanting his version of the relationship between Altantuya and Najib.
The acrimony is so bad that some of the family have spent their Hari Raya holiday – the celebration at the end of the fasting month – in Phuket and Singapore to avoid going to the prime minister’s obligatory open house, the source said.
The squabble has broken into the open at a time when Najib is under attack from a wide variety of sources including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who pushed out Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in 2009 to replace him with Najib.
1MDB and the Penang-born tycoon whose brainchild it was – and his connection to the Najib family – were the subject of a long and critical New York Times article on Feb. 8. The article has since served as red meat to the Mahathir forces and Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy prime minister who is said to be eyeing Najib's job.
Hints of the rift began in January 2014 ,when Nazir wrote a long article in Kinibiz, the business edition of the widely read independent online publication Malaysiakini, which is highly critical of the government.
In the article, Nazir wrote a remembrance of his father, Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second prime minister, titled “Remembering My Father, Tun Razak.” Among other things the father was said in the article to have refused to use public funds to build a swimming pool for his children at the government-owned prime minister’s residence. He personally paid his family’s expenses on government trips, Nazir said, and was committed to national unity between the three major ethnic groups, the Malays, Chinese and Indians.
The article stood as an obvious public rebuke to the prime minister, who has been accused of remodeling the the prime minister’s residence at vast public expense at the urging of his wife, using the government’s public jet for private junkets and refusing to rein in Malay superiority NGOs such as Perkasa and ISMA, whose strident rhetoric has led to a poisonous racial situation.
“Nazir has long worried about the negative influence of Rosmah, in particular, on Najib and has complained to friends and associates about it,” said a longtime western political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. “Of course, Rosmah knows this and despises Nazir in return and badmouths him to Najib. So it goes.”
In another article, printed last week in Kinibiz, Nazir said that after the first article appeared anonymous attacks began on his family and his children from bloggers believed to be connected to Taek Jho Low, the flamboyant young Penang-born financier who has parlayed his UK school connections into what appears to be a vast fortune – and embroiled Najib in government debt generated by 1MDB, the subject of an extensive Asia Sentinel report on Dec. 8, 2014.
Jho Low, as he is known, became a friend of Rosmah’s son Riza Aziz during his school days in the UK at Harrow, while Riza was at nearby Haileybury. After first vainly approaching the Sultan of Terengganu to use the state’s oil revenues to start a sovereign investment fund, Jho Low turned to Najib, then the defense minister. On Jho Low’s advice, 1MDB appears to have invested vast amounts in a series of misguided adventures.
In Kinibiz last week, Nazir said the attacks, constituting “lies and slander,” cross the line. His statement follows a series of comments by businessman and publisher Tong Kooi Ong, who had also been subjected to anonymous blog attacks that Tong claimed were due to The Edge Malaysia newspaper's extensive and biting coverage of 1MDB.
The Edge Malaysia is part of The Edge Media Group, which Tong owns. On Feb. 6, Tong said he had ascertained the identity of the blogger going by the name ‘ahrily90’ and had served a legal letter to Jho Low, who has previously denied any links to the attacks.