More Embarrassment for Malaysia's UMNO

The United Malays National Organization, Malaysia’s biggest political party, finds itself embroiled in yet another scandal right in the middle of its annual general assembly, which is to run through tomorrow night.

Instead of a grand national potlatch, in which the unified 2,600-odd deputies accuse the opposition of being disorganized and unable to run the country, untrue to the Muslim faith and in thrall to the ethnic Chinese, the party is forced to deal with deep concerns that a carpet trader formerly close to Rosmah Mansor, the wife of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, has now turned on the first family. Deepak Jaikishan has been giving interviews to any opposition websites who want to listen, saying he had played a role in a move to funnel RM5 million (US$1.64 million) to get out of the country to Perumal Balasubramaniam.

Balasubramaniam at that time employed by Abdul Razak Baginda, one of Nahib’s best friends, was a private detective who charged in a sworn declaration that Najib had been the former lover of murdered Mongolian translator and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was shot in the head by two of Naib’s bodyguards in 2006. After Bala filed his sworn statement describing his knowledge of the affair between the two and giving excruciating details of sexual practices, among other specifics, under pressure from police, he recanted his statement and wrote a second saying the first had been false. Then he left the country for Chennai, where he has remained, saying he had been intimidated to recant the statement.

Apparently disillusioned because of a business deal gone bad, Jaikishan is also charging that the first couple engineered the cancellation of government contracts to his businesses after he first went public about his role in the affair and got him kicked off the boards of directors of 26 companies. He has threatened to reveal more details of the cover-up and offered to sue Najib himself.

Jaikashan’s firm Asacannggih Sdn Bhd is suing Raja Ropiaah Raja Abdulla, a federal government senator and head of the women’s division of the Selangor state chapter of UMNO. In addition, he is alleging that Najib in 2006, when still defense minister, illegally bypassed the Barisan Nasional cabinet and signed over land worth RM400 million owned by the Ministry of Defense for privatization and redevelopment to Raja Ropiaah for a still uncompleted defense research center. He is charging that Astacanggih was cheated out of a portion of the land purchased from Raja Ropiaah's Awan Megah (M) Sdn Bhd. The land had been privatized by the Defense Ministry to Ropiaah's firm.

Jaikishan is charging in court that Astacanggih in 2007 bought 90 hectares of land from Raja Ropiah’s Awan Megah for RM120 million but that the transaction was never concluded and that the titles have never been released to an Astacanggih subsidiary. He accused Raja Ropiah of selling the land that had been sold to him to other parties.

"Without Najib's OK, Raja Ropiaah would not have been awarded the deal by the Ministry of Defense," Jaikashan told a local independent website. Jaikashan is also suing the Ministry of Defense and the land and mining office for complicity in the deal.

Jaikishan’s decision to make himself available to opposition media in the middle of the UMNO general assembly has caused outrage among rank and file UMNO members, coming as the affair does on the heels of a series of other scandals including the notorious Cattlegate scandal, in which family members of the head of the women’s wing of the party allegedly misused a RM250 million soft loan to build a cattle feed operation, spending considerable amounts of the money on condominiums, luxury cars and overseas trips.

“I am sure Deepak will name whoever he tried to bribe and hence start the investigation,” said one UMNO source. “On my end, I have got no sympathy for Deepak. In fact, I would say it serves him right. Other than that, I don't care too hoots for Deepak.”

Speculation as to who is behind Jaikishan’s decision to go public inevitably centers on Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. Others believe that Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, with the connivance of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is behind Jaikishan’s actions although yet another wing of the party, controlled by forces aligned with former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, whom Mahathir helped to drive from power in 2009, could also be playing a role.

Jaikishan has publicly said he will talk more if his safety is guaranteed by someone powerful.

“Najib’s side retaliated immediately by arranging for Deepak to be sacked from the boards of 26 companies over which he holds shares,” said a political operative in Kuala Lumpur. “It looks like Deepak is using his involvement in the Bala saga as leverage to force Najib to come to terms with him. On the other hand he is probably being made use of by Najib’s UMNO rivals, as up to this point, he must have been backed by a powerful faction before he would dare to go this far.”

The source called Mahathir and Muhyiddin “the current suspects” although there is no concrete evidence other than the fact that Jaikishan has said he is close to Muhyiddin. The affair, he said, depends on how much Jaikishan knows and how much evidence he has, how the political tussle plays out behind the scenes, “and to what extent Najib & Co. are prepared to appease him.”

There is of course the likelihood that the entire episode will fizzle out without crippling Najib nor UMNO, though they may be bruised, out of common interests among the warring parties to keep the present UMNO power structure afloat. Jaikishan can only be expected to go as far as his UMNO backers agree to allow him to go. If Najib were to be driven from power within UMNO now, with elections looming probably in April, the party would be in serious disarray that could cost it dearly in organizational terms. He could be expected to take revenge of his own on the other factions.

In addition, said a source with a nonpartisan think tank in Kuala Lumpur, “I don’t think Deepak’s accusations will have that much impact on voters. For a start, he isn’t linking Najib directly to Altantunya’s murder. He has said he was only involved in the 2nd statutory declaration. Second, the election will be won or lost in the Malay heartland – and I can’t see Malay heartlanders getting worked up about the allegations. They will have a tremendous impact on middle class, urban voters but that is a voter segment already lost to the Barisan.”

Jaikishan told the opposition Malaysia Chronicle that he had "lost 20 kilos, my father says I have grown up from a boy into a worried man. Just yesterday, I suffered a revolt from my board. The directors in all 26 companies want me to step down. To them, I have committed an unforgivable sin of exposing these matters to the press as it affects the credibility of all 26 firms."