Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has played a deft defensive game to keep his job in the face of what ought to be overwhelming forces to remove him. He has fired enemies, coopted others and muzzled the press.
That leaves only a handful who may stand in his way including Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the central banker, who is said to be under enormous pressure but who has access to incriminating bank records on both Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor. The other is Ahmad Hamdan Dahlan, the chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, who has remained silent on which way the commission may go. There are rumors in Kuala Lumpur that he may be the next to get the boot.
Political analysts now are trying to assess new damage from an explosive account in the UK-based Sarawak Report that published what are purported to be drafts of corruption charges to be brought by Malaysian former Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, who was fired on July 28, and shunted into a make-work position. Rumors of Gani Patail’s decision to charge the prime minister circulated well before he was sacked.
Scandal and tumult
That was only the latest in a tumultuous week in Kuala Lumpur. For more than a year, Najib has been ensnared in one of the biggest financial scandals in recent history.
But despite the ostensible damage, he is expected to survive, at least for now, partly because there is nobody around with the power to topple him. Even if the opposition were to somehow pull back together, he seems safe from a no-confidence motion in the Parliament and has until 2018 to regroup for the next general election.
While the economy may be more decisive in determining the outcome of the next general election, analysts expect the political cauldron to continue to bubble for the next two years, unless something unseen breaks. It is hard to see what that might be given the peculiar nature of Malaysian politics, as ethnic Malays, who make up 60 percent of the country, regard UMNO as their defender against the Chinese, who occupy the economic heights. To many the continuing attacks on Najib and UMNO represent a threat against their guardian.
Over the years Najib has survived being caught in a Port Dickson motel room bed with an actress, being investigated by French prosecutors for taking a €114 million kickback on the purchase of submarines as defense minister and overpaying by a vast amount on the purchase of a wide range of other military weapons that probably resulted in kickbacks.
In the current episode, the premier has muzzled the most influential business newspapers in the country and left those owned by the political parties, including UMNO's vitriolic Utusan Malaysia, the Malay-language broadsheet, to blast opponents as agents of foreign powers. The English-language New Straits Times and Star have been content to largely parrot the government line.
By firing Akhil Bulat, the head of Special Branch, he has pushed out what amounts to the police intelligence chief and the man who knows where the bodies are buried. Bulat, a source told Asia Sentinel, has grown increasingly critical of Najib in private circles, saying he has to go.
The most potent threat, beyond the Bank Negara documents, is the long-running and often-delayed investigation by the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee into the affairs of the troubled 1Malaysia Development Bhd. Najib has addressed that by appointing four UMNO members of the committee to cabinet positions when he reshuffled the cabinet and ousted his critics. The chairman, Nur Jazlan Mohamed, has been named deputy home minister.
While opposition members of the bipartisan committee have vowed to continue their work, other observers believe it has been effectively neutered, at least for now.
Whether or not Najib retains the loyalty of the 190-odd United Malays Organization district chiefs, he has neutered opposition there as well by pushing intraparty elections back by 18 months so that even if his enemies, including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad could generate party support, it doesn’t appear that anybody can get at him. But pushing the elections back cuts both ways. Najib can’t be ousted but neither can Muhyiddin Yassin, fired as deputy prime minister early this week, be sacked as deputy president.
Najib also endured a tongue-lashing this week from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had the ill timing to land in Kuala Lumpur to peddle trade as the scandal blew open. The British premier skulked out of town as quickly as he could. It was hardly the reflected prestige that Najib was counting on to boost his street cred.
Deflect the bad news
As Najib’s supporters have done since the scandal blew open months ago, they sought to deflect the latest salvo by Sarawak Report, saying unnamed forces want to end parliamentary democracy in Malaysia. Apandi Ali, the new attorney general, who was appointed the same day Gani Patail was removed, said the documents were part of a “conspiracy to topple a serving prime minister” and a “threat to Malaysia’s democracy.”
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the nakedly ambitious and often mercurial deputy prime minister picked to replace Muhyiddin, and Inspector General of Police Abu Bakar, went on the opposition against crusading Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle Brown, saying sedition charges are likely to be brought against her, a hollow charge since she operates in the UK, which is not about to bend to already-existing demands to extradite her. For weeks, forces believed to be paid by middle eastern oil interests have staged an all-out campaign to discredit Rewcastle Brown, stalking her in London to photograph people she meets and charging they are part of the conspiracy. They paid a former Sarawak Radio official to accuse her of altering documents to discredit 1MDB.
In the latest case, Rewcastle Brown said she had verified the documents with senior officials before printing them. Gani Patail has been silent on it. One presumes he would denounce the documents if they were fake.
Americk Sidhu, a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer, went to bat for the documents.
“The way those charge sheets are drafted indicates the person tasked with that job knew what he was doing,” Sidhu said. “There is a complex legal structure to both charges (in the alternative) which any layman would not be able to understand or even appreciate. The details are also too intricate to be made up. Remember these were still drafts. The final product would have been a little different but the substance would remain.”
The draft also contains a police report, on which the draft charge would have been based. “I have seen charge sheets before,” Sidhu said. “They look like this.”
The documents indicate Gani Patail was about to charge Najib and a company director of the controversial state-backed 1Malasia Development Bhd with corrupt practices under Section 17 (a) of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Act, with the potential of up to 20 years in prison.
Do average voters care?
But Najib remains insulated from rank and file voters. “IMDB is too complicated for the average Malaysian,” said a veteran thinktanker, who pointed out that a decision to impose a goods and services tax in April has been hugely unpopular.
“What the average Malaysian thinks is this - I have to pay GST because IMDB owes RM42 billion, can't pay its loans and has to be bailed out by the government. Other missteps by government - petrol prices raised BEFORE [Ramadan]. Think of the impact on all those in the kampungs. Consumer spending is down this year.”
The business community and the economy are being hit hard. The ringgit, the Malaysian unit of currency, has fallen more than any other in Southeast Asia. Malaysian Industrial Finance has reported that so far in 2015 nearly RM10 billion net has flowed out from the stock market after another RM6 billion plus in 2014.
He still faces opposition from Muhyiddin and Mahathir as well. Muhyiddin is still UMNO Deputy President despite having been sacked as deputy prime minister. He retains considerable power in the southern state of Johor, an UMNO bastion.
“Now freed from government work, Muhyiddin can visit UMNO branches to canvas for support. He also has very, very well-heeled supporters, “said the think tank operative. In particular, the Tunku Makhota, Johor’s crown prince recently attacked the handling of the scandal only to have UMNO figures lash out at him. That in turn earned the critics an investigation for insulting the Johor monarchy, further splitting the party in the state.
“I think Najib made a mistake in sacking Muhyiddin,” the think tank official said. “Sacking him will prompt Muhyiddin to go for broke. I think a better strategy would have been to allow Muhyiddin to remain as DPM but give him an inconsequential portfolio.”