Abdul Razak Baginda, the one-time adviser and close confidante of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was once romantically linked to the murdered jet-setting Mongolian translator and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu, has popped up after years of discreet absence in the UK.
For someone who has been out of the public eye for the past decade, Razak Baginda has wasted no time, propelling himself onto the Malaysian lecture circuit over the past six months but at the same time inadvertently reminding the public he had been a key figure in what had been the biggest scandal in the country’s history until an even bigger one blew up over the state-backed investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the subject of a US Justice Department investigation into the looting of public assets.
Razak Baginda is very different from the disheveled and frightened-looking man who emerged from jail on Oct. 31, 2006, acquitted without trial of abetting the murder of Altantuya, who was alleged to have once been Najib's paramour. The 28-year-old mother, who was believed to have been pregnant at the time, was shot twice in the head by one of Najib’s bodyguards and her body was blown up with military explosives in a patch of jungle outside the suburban city of Shah Alam.
The allegation that Altantuya had been Najib’s mistress was revealed by the late private investigator P Balasubramaniam, engaged by Razak Baginda to stop Altantuya from creating a scene outside his house. According to a letter found after her death, she was demanding a cut of kickbacks from a multi-billion ringgit Malaysian government deal to purchase submarines from the French.
Razak Baginda once was one of the closest advisers to Najib, then the Defense Minister and Deputy PM (2000-2008), on government arms procurement projects. The political analyst was involved in the purchase of two Scorpene-class submarines and one Agosta-class submarine from the French naval dockyard unit DCN (Direction des Constructions Navales). The deal was worth around RM5 billion.
Hasty departure for the UK
On his release and acquittal, Razak Baginda was swamped by reporters who tried to interview him, but was guarded by a wall of policemen. A month later, at a press conference, he was guarded by a team of lawyers who monitored his answers. He immediately decamped to England, ostensibly to complete a doctorate at Oxford.
Seven years later, on Oct. 26, 2015, Razak Baginda emerged to deliver his first public talk in Kuala Lumpur at a "Special Forum" called "Reforming Malaysia: A Conversation with Razak Baginda." The session was organized by a new think tank he had founded, called the Center for Global Affairs (ICON).
The former Malaysian PM, Mahathir Mohamad once said, "Melayu mudah lupa" (Malays easily forget) and Razak Baginda probably thought that Malaysians would have forgotten about him and the brutal murder.
Living abroad helped Razak Baginda avoid the glare of publicity and the anger of the Malaysian public who were furious at the High Court's handling of the trial. The motive for the murder was never established although the murderers were said to have been offered RM50,000 for the killing.
Wife Implicates Najib
Few can forget the hysterical shout of Baginda's wife, Mazlinda Makhzan, at the time of his arrest: "Why charge my husband, he does not want to be the prime minister?" an apparent reference to Balasubramaniam’s statement that Najib had passed Altantuya on to the political analyst because it wouldn’t look good to have a foreign mistress when he was elevated to become the country’s leader.
Importantly, there were also unexplained phone texts between Najib and Razak Baginda's lawyer, Mohamad Shafee Abdullah, which alluded to Najib's alleged interference in the case. One message read, "Pls do not say anything to the press today. i will explain later. RB (Razak Baginda) will have to face a tentative charge but all is not lost."
Altantuya's father, Setev Shaariibuu, has not received any justice for the murder of his daughter and has continued to demand that the Malaysian government give him answers about her death.
Two policemen, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, were found guilty of Altantuya's murder in a trial that critics said was carefully orchestrated to keep from answering questions who had hired them to kill her. Sirul is now languishing in the Villawood Detention Center outside Sydney, vigorously wheeling and dealing for his release and asylum. Azilah remains in a Malaysian prison.
Razak Baginda probably thought that he could lead a quiet life by relocating to England but he didn’t reckon on the persistence of SUARAM, the Malaysian Human Rights NGO, which complained to the French authorities about the Scorpene deal in November 2009. That triggered a preliminary inquiry and a judicial investigation in Paris in 2012.
Investigative stories Tell Tale of Scandal
The investigation was the subject of a multiple series of investigative stories by Asia Sentinel that won the Society of Publishers in Asia award for excellence in investigative reporting – Asia’s version of the Pulitzer Prize.
Finally, years later, on July 18, 2017, Razak Baginda was indicted in France for "complicity of bribery, acceptance of bribes and concealment of misuse of company assets." Two officials of a DCN subsidiary were also indicted on charges specifically of having bribed Najib Razak.
On Aug. 4, the SUARAM adviser, Dr Kua Kia Soong said, "The first indictment of the arms maker shows that SUARAM's suspicion of commission paid to Malaysian officials in the Scorpene deal is well founded, and we have been vindicated."
Asia Sentinel reported that the French investigation had revealed that Terasasi HK Ltd., a company owned by Razak Baginda and his father, received €30 million in "consultancy works," the accepted terminology for kickbacks. Terasasi existed only as the name on the wall of a Hong Kong accounting company. As Asia Sentinel reported, French investigators also uncovered evidence that a Malaysia-based shell company, Perimekar, owned by Baginda's wife, had received another €114 million in "consultancy services."
The money was said to have been passed on to the United Malays National Organization with the full knowledge of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, among others, according to evidence provided to Asia Sentinel.
Baginda's rebranding is timely, especially as Malaysia's 14th General Election is due soon. He could have retired a rich man from his alleged kickbacks from Scorpene and lived a life of luxury in England. He could have avoided the scrutiny of the Malaysian public.
"He probably thinks that the Malaysian public have forgotten (and forgiven him),” said a social cynic who declined to be named. “He believes he has done nothing wrong, especially as the courts did not find him guilty of Altantuya's murder."
It is highly likely that Razak Baginda is repositioning himself in the Malaysian political world, according to a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “Perhaps, Najib summoned him to return as his confidante,” he said. “Najib's Washington trip was a wash-out. It was probably arranged on the advice of his foreign advisers. The Malays disapprove of Trump's anti-Islam and anti-Muslim policies.”
A Malay, Muslim and Malaysian, the political analyst “will be in a better position to advise Najib on foreign matters. He is probably testing the waters and seeing how the Malaysian public react to him over a range of issues like education, religion and radicalization."
However, it is more likely that the French indictment may have spurred Baginda's return to Malaysia over a desire to remain free. Malaysia does not have an extradition treaty with France, unlike Britain. His stay in England would be risky.
Razak Baginda dismissed the French charge and said, "The French legal process is different from the Malaysian legal process. The term ‘charged’ in the context of the inquiry means placing the said individuals under ‘formal investigation’."
We now see the comeback kid, Razak Baginda, re-engaging with Malaysian politics. He appears to be pushing the right buttons on many subjects. More importantly, as long as Najib is around, there is money to be made. ICON has held several forums and issued press releases with alarming regularity.
Pretensions as Oracle
This is proof that he wants to be heard on a range of subjects, upon most of which many Malaysians agree. On radicalization, he has urged the Home Ministry to monitor students, who studied in the middle-east, and warned that Malaysia was losing its reputation as a moderate nation. He has warned that the prominence of religion in schools will lower the quality of education. He questioned the failure of Malaysian leaders to confront the nationalists.
Razak Baginda has defended the bloated Malaysian civil service and blasted the journalist John Pennington for an article in "Asean Today" that unfavorably compared the Malaysian civil service with its Singaporean counterpart.
He also criticized Najib for his silence on the Rohingya issue at the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila, saying it was a "missed opportunity" and then, on the following day, offered a groveling apology to Najib, saying "I got it wrong." He praised Najib's sincerity in helping the Rohingyas, raising the issue with the Myanmar state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, and with President Trump. Saying that Najib's actions were unprecedented, Razak Baginda described him as bold and strong, willing to voice his displeasure over a matter he cared about.
"Never before has a fellow ASEAN leader brought out what could be regarded as a domestic issue of another member country,” he said. “Kudos to the prime minister, as it shows his commitment to help the Rohingya."
So are Najib and Razak Baginda in constant contact? Or is he positioning himself and working towards a smooth transition to become Najib's political analyst? On his re-emergence onto the Malaysian socio-political scene, Suaram's Kua said: "He seems to have a knack of seeking publicity when he'd be better off staying out of media attention. He's more of a liability for Najib by showing up all over the place and reminding us of Altantuya. But he seems pretty gung-ho about his ‘freedom from prosecution’. We shall see."
Both men have to tread a cautious path, said a political analyst, “but do they care? There is only so much Razak Baginda can do to help Najib, because one wrong step could make the whole Altantuya and Scorpene scandal blow up in Najib's face, and further reduce his chances in GE-14. Even if it were true that Najib and Razak Baginda have resumed their cozy ties, it is established that they need one another to keep their secrets safe. Remember the adage about keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer still."
Perhaps Najib is willing to take that chance, especially after the warning issued by the American Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, on Dec. 4, when he said that Malaysia's 1MDB scandal was the worst example of kleptocracy he had ever seen. Razak Baginda may need Najib to prevent an attempt by the French to subpoena him to the Scorpene trial, but Najib has an equal need to prevent Razak Baginda from giving evidence.
Mariam Mokhtar is a Malaysia-based journalist and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel