Maybe Najib Rides it Out

It has been a bad week for Najib Tun Razak, the deputy prime minister of Malaysia.

With his close friend Abdul Razak Baginda on trial for her murder, Najib was identified Monday by a witness as having had his picture taken with the victim, Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu.

But the worst could be over, leaving Najib weakened in his quest to succeed Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Malaysia’s prime minister, but probably able to fend off political demise, unless there are further revelations. Burmaa Oyunchimeg, Altantuya’s cousin, who said she had seen the picture of Abdul Razak, Najib and Altantuya having dinner together, finished her testimony and has returned to Mongolia. No picture has been shown in court and none is likely to be.

Earlier in the week, there were reports that Tengku Razaleigh, a Malay prince and member of the old guard, former finance minister and one time pretender to the premiership, was working to challenge Najib for the job of deputy prime minister. But that challenge appears to have been blunted as well.

Altantuya was murdered on October 19 last year and dumped in a jungle clearing near the suburban city of Shah Alam, her body blown up with explosives after she had been shot twice. Abdul Razak is accused of engineering the killing at the hands of Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Constable Sirul Azhar Umar. Azilah was head of Najib’s personal security team and both men served as bodyguards to the country’s top political leaders. According to testimony this week, Azilah told officers that Sirul had killed the woman. There are questions over the admissibility of the confession and Sirul took the stand Friday to deny he had confessed.

Because the links of the case to top political figures, the trial is being treated with extraordinary sensitivity by the tame local press, partly because the leading newspapers, the New Straits Times, the Star and the top Malay-language papers, are controlled by the country’s ruling ethnic political parties. Thus, the photo revelation – an obvious front page story was buried deep inside the major papers.

At the time of Altantuya's death, Abdul Razak was head of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center and perhaps Najib’s closest advisor. In an affidavit filed in December in his defense, Abdul Razak said he had contacted Azilah through Musa Safri, Najib’s aide-de-camp, to ask for help in dealing with Altantuya, who by that time was demanding as much as US$500,000 for the care of a baby she said Abdul Razak had fathered.

But despite the connections between Najib, the bodyguards, Abdul Razak and Altantuya, so far there has been no suggestion that Najib knowingly supplied the bodyguards to Abdul Razak. That gives Najib, the son of the late Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak and the presumptive heir to the premiership, the chance to rebuild his battered connections with the old guard of the United Malays National Organisation, the lead party in the country’s ruling national ethnic coalition, the Barisan Nasional.

“Najib's credibility ahead of taking over as PM is certainly dented to an extent over the Altantuya case,” says a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer. “Despite the allegations of complicity in the murder trial and questions about the submarine sale (Abdul Razak and Najib have both been accused of profiting from a Malaysian government purchase), the fact remains that Najib is a well-entrenched politician. The Razak family history practically guarantees his rise.”

The universal assumption in Malaysia’s political and business community is that Najib certainly knew Altantuya and may well have partied with Abdul Razak and the woman, a petite, jet-setting beauty the political analyst met in Hong Kong and escorted on a whirlwind romance through Europe, showering her with money and jewels. Given Abdul Razak’s close relationship with Najib, there is little doubt that he at least met her, and may well have shared conversations with an increasingly desperate Abdul Razak, who was being blackmailed by Altantuya, a fact she even acknowledged in a letter read in court.

Prior to publicity over the murder, many in Malaysia thought Najib was growing powerful enough to challenge Badawi for the premiership, especially with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad carrying on a vitriolic campaign against Badawi, who has been perceived as a weak and tired leader. Considerable resentment also has been stirred up against Abdullah Badawi’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, whom many see as an opportunist.

“There is very little faith in Pak Lah (Badawi) and the feel good-factor has long dissipated,” one observer said. “Parliament debates this or that and the fact is that Badawi is never around, always overseas.” Thus much of the day-to-day administration of the government falls to Najib, who also functions in the powerful position of defense minister.

“Much of the real administration or tackling of issues lies with Najib. I understand that Najib since the beginning of being deputy prime minister is chairing more than 25 committees,” the lawyer said. “Most public pronouncements on major issues are made by Najib,” giving him increasing clout both with government figures and with those who need government favors.

But, says another Kuala Lumpur-based analyst, “The Mongolian affair altered the whole power formula. Najib's previous arrogance towards Pak Lah has been replaced by humble deference.”

Certainly, Badawi has relied heavily on Najib to provide a semblance of leadership and discipline. He is likely to allow Najib to stay on if he can be assured of Najib’s loyalty. Onetime head of UMNO youth and a parliamentarian since he was 23, the 54-year-old Najib is now deputy president of UMNO and deeply entrenched in its leadership and political machinery.

“Najib could probably contribute more than any other UMNO minister towards ensuring the prolongation of UMNO’s political power,” said the analyst.

“Tengku Razaleigh is a dark horse. His recent reactivation in UMNO politics is a reflection of his undying ambition and considerable backing by UMNO veterans to fill the leadership void, particularly after the Mongolian affair, when Najib has become very vulnerable,” said an observer. But don’t look for it to happen.

Malaysians accept all these scandals as a way of life here, said the lawyer, who is close to the Mahathir family. “A lethargy has set in. Our Inspector General of Police, Deputy Security Internal Minister and others have been accused of corruption, and all sorts of other scandalous allegations are swirling around. After a while, people get tired and confused. And really the system allows it. They pat your back and tell you to do it again.”

Related Stories:

Malaysia’s Opposition Pulls Up Lame

Witness Recounts Threats in Malaysian Murder Trial

Some seriously troubling questions in Malaysia

Najib and Altantuya: A Picture Connects Them