Malaysia’s Beleaguered PM Ducks Corruption Confab

In what has to be a major embarrassment, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has quietly cancelled his appearance as a speaker at the prestigious 16th International Anti-Corruption Conference and Transparency International gathering, to be held Sep. 2-4 in the country’s political capital of Putrajaya.

With some delegates already flying in to the corruption conference, organizers hope to gather 100,000 protesters this weekend at Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur to call for Najib’s head. The conference is billed as “the world premier tackle the increasingly sophisticated challenges posed by corruption.”

After it became widely known that the conclave was scheduled in the middle of a major scandal, social media in Malaysia erupted with criticism, jokes, gags and satirical scenarios about Najib’s participation.

Najib has made no public comment about his cancellation. Tensions, meanwhile, are rising ahead of planned mass rallies to take place also in the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak as well as in Kuala Lumpur.

“Despite originally being scheduled to speak, the Prime Minister designated Senator Paul Low, Minister in the Prime Minister office,” said a spokesman for the conference in an email from the organization’s European headquarters. “Having said that, it’s standard protocol of the IACC to have the democratically elected head of state open the conference. His appearance would have provided an opportunity for the global anti-corruption community and Malaysian civil society, and media, to question the prime minister directly at the conference about the 1MDB affair and other recent events.”

With world leaders including former World Trade Organization Director-General Pascal Lamy and others arriving, police and as many as 30,000 thugs are said to have been recruited by an official of the United Malays National Organization to confront the protesters. The global spotlight poses a dilemma as authorities decide how to treat the protesters. Breaking heads on a world stage could embarrass Malaysia even more than the scandals involving the prime minister.

Najib had a serious dilemma on his hands. Backing away is embarrassing but if he were to appear, he would face questions about his extraordinary attempts to remain in power in the face of corruption charges both about his personal banking accounts and the disastrously mismanaged 1Malaysia Development Bhd., which appears to be US$11 billion in debt, an unknown amount of that unfunded.

Najib was blindsided to some extent. The conference was moved to Malaysia in late 2014 with the cooperation of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission after Tunisia, the original site, backed out because of a scheduling problem – when the twin scandals were just percolating to the surface.

As many as 2,000 people from 100 countries are expected to attend the conference. Speakers include such luminaries as Patrick Alley, founder of Global Witness, and Peter Eigen, founder of Transparency International, Aruna Roy, the Indian social activist and freedom of information campaigner; Simon Peh, commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Hong Kong; and Daniel Kaufmann, president of the Natural Resource Governance Institute and former director of the World Bank Institute, where he pioneered techniques to measure corruption.

The full list, minus Najib, whose name was removed without comment, is on the IACC website.

Najib could also face embarrassment from the fact that Abu Kassim Mohamad, the MACC’s chief who was hurriedly sent on vacation in July as the MACC appeared to be closing in on him, is scheduled to be one of the speakers at the conference. The investigation that Abu Kassim was heading has been put on a little boat and sailed off the edge of the earth. Others among an array of international law enforcement officials, reporters and reformers, are Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, the chairman of the advisory commission overseeing the MACC, Akhbar Satar, the current head of Transparency International Malaysia and a onetime state director of the MACC

The IACC hasn’t hidden the scandal, carrying a summary on its website and acknowledging its delegates would arrive in the middle of a political crisis – although not at the tail end of what he organizers hope is a massive rally.

“The IACC is indeed still on despite the controversy,” one potential registrant was told by email. “We see the event as an ideal opportunity to explore ongoing issues in Malaysian and beyond.” Having held previous gatherings in Brazil, Peru and South Africa the IACC is presumably used to engaging with countries where corruption is a live issue.

According to a press release from the IACC, the conference is being held “following close collaboration with the Malaysian government and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission,” which are both hosting the event. The conference theme remains “Ending Impunity: People, Integrity, Action.” The anti-graft organization said, “We are delighted to be able take the event to a key country in the fight against corruption in Asia.”

If the conference indeed provides a forum that the Malaysian authorities took seriously, the Plenary Agenda offers a possible guide to Malaysian corruption. Plenary I deals with ending impunity. Plenary II deals with fighting corruption in development and investment beyond 2015. Plenary III deals with “keeping business clean and stopping illicit financial flows.” Plenary IV deals with “investigating and exposing the truth.”