Over the past several months, the Malaysian government headed by Najib Tun Razak has been under unprecedented criticism on several fronts, particularly over what appears to be the country’s biggest financial scandal ever – the vast amount of funds that have disappeared from the government backed 1Malaysia Development Bd. Investment fund. But The Empire may strike back, opponents fear.
"We're feeling the heat," one publisher said in an email.
Whether the fears are overblown, as skeptics say, a widening chorus of criticism over the alleged personal corruption of the prime minister and his wife, Rosmah Mansor and other members of the family, as well as the endemic corruption in the United Malays National Organization, has been met with charges on the part of government officials that the country and parliamentary democracy are under attack from shadowy international interests. Establishment figures have begun calling for widespread arrests to break up the cabal and naming names of journalists and opposition figures as involved.
The international conspiracy charge has resonated particularly in the wake of the arrest of a Swiss national, Xavier Andre Justo, who is being held in a Thai prison and who Malaysian authorities have charged has met with a wide range of interests, both within the country and without it, to deliver thousands of what are said to be doctored, damaging email documents to the country’s enemies. Authorities have been quoted in the government-owned press in stories echoed on blogs as saying Justo had “met with very important people” from an unnamed country in Singapore.
To those accused of fomenting an attempt to bring down the government on doctored documents, the rising chorus of an international plot has raised fears that the government will make widespread arrests of opposition members, journalists and other critics, as former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad did in 1987 via a notorious crackdown called Operasi Lalang [weeding operation] by the Malaysian police.
Some 119 opposition leaders, activists, intellectuals, artists and others were detained at Mahathir’s direction without trial under the colonial-era Internal Security Act. Forty-nine were sentenced to two years in prison. Two daily newspapers, The Chinese-owned Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh, and two weeklies, the Sunday Star and Watan, were shuttered for several months. Although Mahathir said the arrests were necessary because of a deteriorating social situation – an atmosphere Malaysia faces today, with a major riot between Chinese and Malays at a shopping center 10 days ago – human rights critics charged Lalang was designed to control Mahathir’s political opponents.
In 2012, Najib fulfilled a vow to abolish the Internal Security Act, a holdover from the colonial fight against communism. But under pressure from hardliners, he replaced it with the Security Measures Act, which still allows for arrest without warrant of any person suspected of involvement in security offenses. Although there are limits on the act, legal scholars say the law is so loosely worded that it continues to provide for detention without trial. As before, the onus is on the defendant to prove his innocence instead of making the state responsible for proving guilt.
Typical of the comments about foreign intervention is one by a pro-UMNO political analyst and academic Zainal Kling, published on July 21 by Bernama, the state-owned news agency that “if Justo met with opposition leaders to buy classified information about 1MDB, then it could be construed as a political conspiracy to topple the Barisan Nasional government.” That, Kling said, could have been triggered by collaboration between the local people and foreigners who wanted to tarnish Malaysia’s image out of envy over the country’s success in economic and social development.
Others say that Najib has been so badly weakened by detailed accounts of how billions of ringgit were stolen from 1MDB that he doesn’t have the backing of the authorities to pull off an operation as widespread as Lalang, and that the four government agencies investigating 1MDB would balk at the arrests.
Nonetheless, Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of police, told reporters today [July 22] that individuals named in a spurious press conference by Lester Melanyi, “as embroiled in an alleged plot” to topple the government could be arrested. Melanyi worked for Sarawak Free Radio for four months, run by the government’s chief tormenter, the UK-based Clare Rewcastle Brown, who said the accuser had never edited or reported for Sarawak Report and that she had let him, go in 2010, long before the current controversy. One of the emails he displayed as implicating Brown had clearly been doctored when compared with the original which she provided,
Melanyi’s charges have been largely discredited by everybody but the Malaysian police. He has acknowledged being paid by UMNO allies for his information. One individual that he pictured as Brown’s mastermind in forging documents turned out to be a transport manager Norwich in the UK who had never heard of the affair. Melanyi later said the picture was picked by mistake. As the name of the mastermind, he picked James Steward Stephen, the real name of the late US movie star Jimmy Stewart. Melanyi’s reputation in his native Sarawak was so bad that Abdul Rahman Dahlan, the Barisan Nasional strategic communications director, was forced to say “it takes a scum to know another scum.”
One prominent opposition figure told Asia Sentinel he fears that an operation similar to Lalang could take place at any time. Among those who already threatened with arrest are Parti Keadilan Rakyat Secretary-General Rafizi Ramli and Tony Pua, the Democratic Action Party’s publicity director. Pua was stopped from leaving Malaysia today [July 22] on a trip to Indonesia. Ramli has been barred from traveling to the east Malaysian state of Sarawak.
Others are Tan Kooi Ong, the owner of The Edge Financial Daily and Malaysian Insider, and Ho Kay Tat, the publisher. After aggressive reporting on the 1MDB scandal for more than a year, the government threatened to pull the publishing licenses of The Edge and The Edge Markets, authorized under the Printing and Presses Act, which Najib had also vowed to abolish. Tan and Ho responded by printing a 2,800-word deeply researched analysis of 1MDB in which they said US$1.83 billion invested in a controversial middle-eastern oil exploration firm called Petro Saudi International was a scheme to defraud the country. Najib is 1MDB’s chief financial advisor. Other stories have said US$680 million was diverted from other PetroSaudi companies into Najib’s personal account with Ambank in Malaysia.
The opposition figures and the journalists have been identified by UMNO figures as having met or sought to meet with Justo in Singapore or Thailand, where he was arrested on June 23. A particular target has been Rewcastle-Brown, a UK-based blogger who has been the primary source of much of the material that has found its way into the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Edge Financial Daily in Malaysia. Brown said she has been followed and photographed at cafes in London, ostensibly in an effort to tie her to some overseas cabal.
Raja Petra Kamarudin, a former gadfly who lives in exile in the UK after having been threatened with criminal libel by Najib several years ago, has reversed course and begun to side with the prime minister. In a recent column in his blog Malaysia Today, raised broad questions about where Rewcastle-Brown gets her funding to operate the website and radio station. She has answered that she operates the sites on a shoestring and demanded to know where Raja Petra got the money for the new BMW he is driving now.