Having won decisive victories in two by-elections and a third in Sarawak state elections in May, Prime Minister Najib Razak has been picking off his political enemies one by one, possibly in preparation for a snap election that would ensure that he stays in power for another five years.
The latest is Lim Guan Eng, the chief minister of Penang and Secretary General of the opposition Democratic Action Party, who was arrested on June 29 on charges he had purchased his home in Penang from a Chinese businesswoman named Phang Li Koon for RM2.8 million (US$684,600), RM1.47 million below the market price. Phang, a friend of the Lim family, had rented the property to the chief minister since 2009. Both pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Both say they had no relationship by which Phang would profit through business with the Penang government. Lim was also charged with engineering the rezoning of a piece of agricultural land for commercial use, although it wasn’t clear who benefited. The land was sold under open tender.
The arrest came on the heels of an announcement on the same day that Mahathir Mohamad, the 91-year-old former prime minister who has become Najib’s most implacable foe, is being investigated for criminal libel charges for comparing Najib to the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada. Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of police, said it is the eighth case the police have been probing involving Mahathir. Given that the Malaysian government and Najib himself are embroiled in arguably the biggest scandal in Malaysian history, the charges against Lim and Phang have raised heated criticism of the government in Kuala Lumpur for selective enforcement of the law. Law enforcement agencies in seven international jurisdictions including the United States, Switzerland, Singapore, Luxembourg, Hong Kong and other countries are probing money laundering charges involving the state-backed development fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd over the disappearance of as much as US$4 billion.
Najib himself has never been able to explain the deposit of US$681 million from a 1MDB entity into his personal accounts in March of 2013, and the disappearance of the money a few months later into a Singapore account.
“Given the situation in Malaysia, it is difficult to see this case in isolation,” said a researcher with a Singapore think tank. “As was the case a year ago when the prime minister moved against a string of enemies all in one go, several of his critics are being hit now. I suspect that the latest developments, coming after the Barisan Nasional [the ruling national coalition] win in Sarawak and in the two by-elections on the peninsula, signal ever more strongly that the ground is being prepared for a snap general election soon, perhaps by the end of the year. The heightened position given to certain Chinese members of the BN in the recent cabinet reshuffle is also telling.”
The case against Lim Guan Eng came to light in March when a government-aligned MP named Shabudin Yahaya demanded that the MACC investigate the purchase of the bungalow. Lim at the time said the purchase of the home was on a willing-buyer, willing-seller basis.
“The bottom line is that Najib is using all the power within his means to decimate his enemies and it is likely that he will go for an early election near the year end of in the first quarter of 2017,” said a source close to the leading United Malays National Organization. “His mantra is ‘why wait until the Barisan is strongest to call an election? Go for polls when your enemy is the weakest.’ And the opposition ARE weak.”
He and others with knowledge of the situation involving the DAP secretary general say Lim should have been more careful, knowing Najib had been gunning for him for months if not years. Legally, the sources say, it is likely that the prosecution will be unable to prove that he bought the house at a discount by using his power as chief minister to grant benefit to the seller, and so far there is no indication that the seller received any special treatment from the government.
“There is nothing wrong with a discount from a friend,” the source said. “But it comes back to my point. Lim should have known that this thing would blow up in his face. He was careless although legally he may have done nothing wrong.”
The problem in Malaysia is that indictment in the country’s politically charged courts could guarantee conviction. Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic speaker who united three opposition parties into a viable election vehicle in both the 2009 and 2013 elections, remains in prison on charges that human rights activists charge were bogus and engineered to remove him as a political force. The 68-year-old Anwar is serving a five-year prison sentence that effectively finishes him as a political leader.
In recent weeks, Najib has acted to engineer the ouster of two of his most prominent foes within UMNO, pushing out Party Vice President Muhyiddin Yassin last week after firing him last year as Deputy Prime Minister. He also pushed out Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of former Prime Minister Mahathir, after engineering his ouster last year as chief minister of Kedah.
He is also being given credit for forcing the retirement of Abu Kassim Mohamad the chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, although Abu Kassim has denied he was forced out. The deputy chief commissioner, Mohd Shukri Abdull, is also said to be retiring. The MACC was believed to be preparing evidence last year to charge Najib with corruption before the prime minister forced the resignation of Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail and replaced him with Mohammed Apandi Ali, an UMNO stooge.
Kevin Morais, an investigator who was helping to prepare the indictment, was kidnapped last September and his body was found later, stuffed in an oil drum that was filled with cement and rolled into a river.
The government has also moved harshly against a long string of critics including DAP spokesman Tony Pua and Parti Keadilan Rakyat Secretary General Rafizi Ramli, among many others, threatening them with sedition charges. The mainstream media, all of it owned by political parties aligned with the Barisan, have been muzzled. The Malaysian Insider, a strong independent internet voice, was blocked by the Ministry of Communications and had to quit publishing on economic considerations. Asia Sentinel and Sarawak Report, two regional publications, have also been blocked in Malaysia. The Edge Group, which published sensational revelations last year involving 1MDB, was suspended for three months and has since backed off its aggressive reporting.