Malaysia’s Deputy Premier Najib in Trouble?

Speculation is increasing in Malaysia that of one of the country ‘s elite politicians, Deputy Prime Minister Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak, is in serious trouble due to a series of messy scandals.

There is considerable speculation that Najib, the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, will be forced to step down from national politics. One rumor has him becoming chief minister of his native Pahang state, although the exit route for most discredited or politically suspect figures in Malaysia is a diplomatic or other posting overseas, according to sources contacted by Asia Sentinel. In any case, on March 13, he became sufficiently concerned that he called a press conference in his Perak constituency to deny rumors that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was considering dumping him in favor of Muhyidin Yassin, currently minister of agriculture and agro-based industries and a Badawi ally.

Najib is said to be fighting back on a several fronts, making the rounds of the old bulls of the United Malays National Organization, Malaysia’s biggest political party, in an effort to save his career. In January, Najib reportedly flew to London to attempt to meet with Mahathir Mohamad, the octogenarian former prime minister who still carries considerable clout inside UMNO, in an attempt to shore up his support. Mahathir reportedly declined to see him.

In particular Najib has been wounded by speculation of his involvement, however peripheral, in the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, the 28 year-old Mongolian beauty whose body was found in a patch of jungle outside a Kuala Lumpur on October 20. Two policemen from an elite Special Operations Force whose ultimate boss was Najib were arrested for the crime. Altantuya disappeared after attempting to confront Abdul Razak Baginda, the head of a think tank closely tied to Najib, over support for her 18-month-old son. Razak Baginda is also facing charges for conspiring in the murder

Originally, a third member of the force – a 22-year-old woman lance corporal – was also arrested. She was never named in news stories by Malaysia’s government-friendly press and was released a week later without being charged. There is widespread speculation in Malaysia that she is the aide-de-camp and bodyguard to Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor.

Razak Baginda is scheduled to go on trial in June. The case leaves open the question of how two – and possibly three ‑ elite police officers became involved with a political analyst who has no formal government authority. The top leadership of UMNO, the dominant force in the ruling national coalition, have been tiptoeing gingerly around the case ever since the arrests in November.

Razak Baginda, originally scheduled to go on trial in March 2008, had his trial date moved up by months in an unusual move. That has raised additional questions in political circles over whether the move was engineered by Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi or individuals close to him because there is evidence that would tie Najib to the case.

Kuala Lumpur’s energetic blogs are buzzing with rumors that prosecutors have a letter indicating that Najib asked Malaysia’s Immigration Department to issue the doomed Altantuya a visa, and that at one point Najib, Razak Baginda and Altantuya were said to have gone overseas from Malaysia together, although others point out that visitors from Russia, China, Mongolia and from lots of other countries can get visas very easily to visit Malaysia.

In addition to questions over the murder case, Najib is also under fire for the 2002 purchase by the Malaysian Ministry of Defense of three submarines that cost the treasury RM$4.5 billion (US$1.3 billion) for which a company controlled by Abdul Razak Baginda was paid a commission of RM510 million (US$147.3 million) in a sale that included no competitive tenders.

Although Najib was cleared in an investigation at the time of the purchase, his position has been weakened enough by the Altantuya scandal that opposition politicians, particularly onetime Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, have again begun to assail him over it. On the Al-Jazeera television network, Anwar Thursday also questioned commissions paid over the purchase of 18 Russian Sukhoi-30 jet fighters in 2003 when Najib was defence minister.

"There are complicities over the huge and massive commissions accrued by the government involving the Defence Ministry, Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak," said Anwar during the interview.

Najib said he wouldn't respond to Anwar's charges. But, he told reporters recently, "Don't listen to the stories on the internet...they are all a myth. We should not react hastily, we must stick to principles and the truth...what is important is that we understand and know who will help us."

Driving Najib from national politics would be difficult. In addition to the cachet he enjoys from being his father’s son, as deputy party president he has strong ties among UMNO leaders in a career that goes back to 1978 as a functionary in the very strong UMNO Youth wing. The party’s nearly 200 division chiefs are key to his political wellbeing, and reports are that he has been wooing them assiduously, arranging in some cases for overseas junkets.

And, as UMNO goes, so goes Malaysian politics. Despite its endemic corruption and the pervasive sense of rot at the top, it appears highly unlikely that any outside political force could even dent it. Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed on charges of sexual abuse that were widely perceived as spurious, has been leading a reform party movement, making speeches across the country about party corruption and in particular Najib’s connection to it.

But few believe Anwar has any chance to take down UMNO. The odds are instead that if Najib were to be sent packing, it would be at the behest of UMNO leaders who have decided he is too hot to handle, not by the country’s full electorate.