Murder and Politics, Malaysia Style

The United Malays National Organisation, Malaysia’s biggest ethnic party, goes into its annual General Assembly on Nov. 13, focused on a sensational investigation involving a murdered Mongolian “freelance model” and her relationship to a top political analyst with close ties to Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Najib Tun Razak.

Model Murder Stuns Malaysia

Top Malaysian Political Figure Held in Gruesome Slaying of “Stunning” Mongolian Model

One of Malaysia’s most prominent political analysts has been remanded to custody by police in connection with the gruesome slaying of a Mongolian fashion model who claimed that he was her husband and the father of her 16-month old child.

The saga began when Altantuya “Anna” Shaaribuu, a woman described as “stunning” in press reports, arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Mongolia on Oct. 6 intent on seeing Abdullah Razak Baginda, a well known political figure with close ties to the ruling party. The woman reportedly wanted him to acknowledge his role as the baby's father. The woman’s body was later found after being shot twice and blown to bits, either with hand grenades or C4 explosives.

Shaaribuu, accompanied by her sister and a cousin, charged that the baby was the product of a relationship she had with Baginda, when he visited Mongolia two years ago. The model, who may also have gone by the name Anna Ana Ang or Aminah, according to the Bernama News Agency, even claimed the analyst was her husband. Baginda is divorced.

Baginda is now described as ”assisting the police in their investigation” along with three Malaysian police personnel including a corporal and a woman detective from the Special Action Force or SAF, who is part of a pool used to guard VIPs and other dignitaries. All have been remanded to custody.

One of the most accessible and quotable of local analysts, Baginda is a frequent source for journalists because of his ties to Najib Abdul Razak, the deputy prime minister and long time defense minister. Razak even wrote the forward to "Malaysia and the Islamic World" a book edited by Baginda and published in 2004. For more than a decade Baginda has been the executive director of the Malaysia Strategic Research Institute, which is technically a private think-tank but has close connections to the Malaysian armed forces and the United Malays National Organisation, the largest party in the ruling coalition.

According to news reports, Shaaribuu found out where Baginda lived, but she never got to see him. Police say she did receive a phone call to meet him on Oct. 29. But according to news reports she was seized by several individuals, pushed into a car and driven away, never to be seen again.

When she did not return to her hotel, the sister and cousin lodged reports with the police, and eventually with the Mongolian honorary consul. Ultimately, a task force of 40 police officers was assembled to put together the circumstances that led the woman to visit Baginda’s house, and whether he had summoned the three police officers to take her away.

Local news reports also indicated that police are investigating where the model and Baginda first met and whether they had had a sexual relationship. Musa Hassan, the inspector general of police, said he is asking for a thorough investigation and promised that there will be no cover-up.

“Whoever is involved will be brought to book regardless of his stature,” Musa told reporters. “I am also going to find out how and who authorized the issuance of the explosives used in the murder.”

The investigation, made public Tuesday, involves Abdul Razak Baginda of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center and three Malaysian police personnel – all of whom are “assisting authorities” in their investigation into the disappearance of 28-year-old Altantuya Shaaribuu, who vanished three weeks ago after demanding to see Razak, whom she claimed fathered her 16-month-old child.

Najib, the defense minister, is a staunch defender of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi against vociferous attacks from former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It remains to be seen if the investigation, will have any impact on Abdullah Badawi, whom Mahathir has repeatedly charged with corruption.

Until the stunning revelation of the gruesome murder, Mahathir had been the biggest political news in the country with his attacks on the Prime Minister. He has been forced to the sidelines and appears likely to stay there but public attention will certainly focus on Baginda’s link -- if any -- to the model’s murder.

All of this comes at a time when Abdullah Badawi has seemed able to rebuff Mahathir’s challenge and remain firmly in charge of both his party and the government, even if he has nothing like the overwhelming sway Mahathir enjoyed during his 22-year reign. The 80-year-old Mahathir’s support has clearly waned, as exemplified by his failure to even win a September national party election that would have given him the right to speak at the UMNO convention.

Although some delegates to the conclave are asking that Mahathir be given the opportunity to speak, and while he is certain to continue his increasingly irate statements, he had little chance of a comeback or delivering support for his lieutenants, Malaysian sources say, until the murder investigation was made public.

Says, a Kuala Kumpur-based lawyer, “Because Mahathir knows the inside stories and maneuvers, what he says carries more weight and more truth than you get from outside critics. People are sick of the excesses of Abdullah's relatives and blatant corruption and abuses of state leaders and local councilors that have been reported in the newspapers.”

But, the lawyer says, supporting Mahathir’s right to speak out can’t be equated with agreeing with everything he has done in the past, or wishing to see other factions in UMNO remove Abdullah Badawi from power. Malaysia’s sizeable minorities fear that a clash between Malay leaders could make the Chinese the targets of attack so as to divert attention from more important issues. They point to a statement by Abdullah Badawi’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, a few months ago that when Malays clash, the Chinese gain.

Other Malay leaders have made bellicose statements that much of the country’s minorities hope are merely rhetoric. The Chief Minister of Johor, Abdul Ghani, particularly questioned the wisdom of promoting the concept of Bangsa Malaysia (an ethnically unified Malaysian nation), a central tenet of the Malaysia 2020 plan put forward by Mahathir’s government in the early 1990s.

The plan is aimed at making Malaysia a fully developed nation with a high standard of living by 2020. It has particularly been embraced by ruling coalition components like the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) party and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) seeing it as an opportunity to set a time frame to creating a Malaysia undivided by ethnicities.

But at a state UMNO convention in the southern state of Johor, Abdul Ghani asserted that the Bangsa Malaysia concept would jeopardize the stability of the country by preventing Malays from retaining their pre-eminence as the country’s leading ethnic group. He has been joined by other Malay politicians as well in asserting racial supremacy.

Debating the 2007 budget in the Rakyat, or Malaysian parliament, Mohd Said Yusof, a government backbencher, also claimed that the equity of the bumiputera (literally “sons of the soil” or ethnic Malays) must not be questioned.

The attempt to gag the debate is all the more remarkable since the September release of controversial academic research titled “Corporate Equity Distribution: Past Trends and Future Policy” by the University of Malaya and the Asia Strategic Leadership Institute (ASLI), which argued that the government has far exceeded its target of delivering 30 percent of the country’s corporate equity to bumiputeras and that ethnic Malays today own as much as 45 percent.

The government insists that ethnic Malays control only 19 percent, far short of the goal set by Malaysia’s New Economic Policy, or NEP. Although the NEP officially ended in 1990, it was succeeded by a National Development Policy in 1991 designed to continue many of the affirmative action policies until bumiputeras attained their share of publicly listed corporate wealth.

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The reaction to the report, assembled by a multi-ethnic group of academics, was swift. It was dismissed by UMNO leaders, who said it was intended to incite anger and confuse Malays.

Beyond using racial concerns to fish for support from the rank and file, which is formed of more than 1 million members from 191 divisions, the statements of these UMNO members serve to remind everyone, especially the opposition, of the limits of open discussion.

But there are other factors at work as well that make UMNO careful about losing its grip. The advent of corporatization over the last three decades has strengthened the commercial incentives of many in the party to keep the reins of power within its confines. Since the 1970s elite and ordinary members of UMNO have become beholden to subsidies, contracts, licenses and rent provided by the federal and state governments, ostensibly in the name of affirmative action.

To date, attempting to wean them from such handouts has been Abdullah Badawi‘s toughest assignment, especially granted the absence of outright support for him within UMNO in the face of Mahathir’s criticism.

Indeed, in light of the power of UMNO, cynics have claimed that it is no longer adequate for a Malay to be a bumiputera. Rather, they say, one has got to be an ‘UMNOPutera’ too. Such a view is not lost on those who need the privileged access to get their projects off the ground. Thus, the contemporary economic landscape of Malaysia has been peppered with datuks and tan sris, titles granted by sultans and local state dignitaries at their official birthday celebrations, who are concurrently business allies and occasionally silent nominees of UMNO.

The grip of UMNO is so strong that even non-Malay ministers, corporate tycoons and political activists read the wind carefully before saying or doing anything that might offend party elders. Many private and government-linked companies are also staffed by open or closet members.

To the extent other component parties in the ruling coalition try to set UMNO straight, however, they have had to do it through the respective youth wings in their parties.

Unimpeded by government positions and other trappings of office, these young members are tolerated as easily as they are brushed off by UMNO.

Hence while members of Gerakan Youth, an ethnic Chinese party have spoken out against Ghani’s Johor statements, for example, their opposition has had very little impact on pressuring him to recant. Instead it was left to Najib Abdul Razak, currently the deputy prime minister, to affirm that the Bangsa Malaysia policy remains a central tenet of the present government.

Still, in the days ahead, more UMNO members will blow hot and cold over various issues that are deemed to have affected the status of Malays, Islam and the country over the past year. The prime minister and his deputy must address them one by one, both before and during the UMNO assembly, in order to curtail the tendency of some to be over-zealous in their remarks.

In the interim, what other members of the component parties can do, aside from wringing their hands, is to reassure their party loyalists on the ground that Abdullah Badawi and Najib Abdul Razak carry the collective wisdom and gumption to control the unruly party apparatchiks.