Release of Najib Tapes Shakes Kuala Lumpur

Who made the incriminating recordings, and are there more?

The January 9 release of surreptitious telephone recordings allegedly of former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor plotting to evade criminal charges in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal seems to have scared the pants off a major portion of Malaysia’s political classes, demonstrating, as it does, that anybody could be taped.

Latheefa Koya, the head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, ordered the release of the recordings of calls allegedly made by Najib further implicating him in the scandal surrounding the state-backed investment fund, in which US$4.8 billion disappeared from 2009 to 2014, apparently a large part of it into Najib’s own pockets.

Release of the recordings, at a time when Najib is on trial on 42 counts of looting the fund, is looked upon as irregular at least and possibly prejudicial to the case against the former prime minister, who himself expressed shock and called it a “withering of the rule of law.”

It has generated huge public debate in Malaysia. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself on January 11 told reporters Latheefa’s decision to play the tapes was no different from the display of personal items including watches and jewelry and cash seized in Najib’s homes in 2018 not long after his election defeat.

What has sent shock through Malaysia’s ruling classes is the question of who tapped the telephones of the prime minister of Malaysia. Suspicion falls on the MACC itself, whose head, Latheefa, told reporters the recordings had been submitted anonymously to her agency and that they provided further proof of a “high-level criminal conspiracy” to attempt to absolve Najib of the charges of corruption.

However, other suspects are the police Special Branch intelligence unit, whose previous head, Abdul Hamid Bador, is the current inspector general of police, the head of the 130,000 force. Other suspects are military intelligence.

But whichever agency passed on the recordings, they almost certainly were passed on with Mahathir's approval. At the age of 94 he is demonstrating that he still has steel teeth in the campaign to retain power.

“I think it’s possible Mahathir did this to threaten everybody to fall in line,” a Kuala Lumpur-based source said. “How many people have they got tapes on? If they have recordings like that of the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the prime minister’s wife,? Deputy ministers, UMNO supreme council members? What about me? It also serves as a warning to the current members of the current government, whether they be MP’s, party leaders, members, ministers: toe the line.”

The Pakatan Harapan coalition, made up of Mahathir’s own Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and the splinter Amanah, is increasingly in trouble. It has lost almost every by-election since the 2018 general election, with both interparty and intraparty feuds hampering any attempts at governing, and with corruption growing in a coalition that had come to power promising honest government.

In the meantime, under indictment or not, Najib has cut a forceful figure, leading the charge in by-elections, ridiculing the ruling coalition, apparently practicing the money politics that kept the Barisan Nasional in power for 70 years, and shrewdly aligning his United Malays National Organization with the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) in an arrangement that appears to give him numerical superiority if current circumstances hold in the next general election, due in 2023.

The first major blow against Najib came on November 16 with a spectacular sworn confession by Azila Hadri, a convicted elite police commando, who said Najib Razak in 2006 had ordered him to murder Altantuya Shaariibuu, a beautiful 28-year-old Mongolian woman, to shut her up about a massive scandal involving the US$1 billion purchase of French submarines that netted Najib, his best friend Abdul Razak Baginda and UMNO US$141 million in kickbacks on the purchase.

That seems to have bounced off Najib’s Teflon in the widespread belief that Mahathir engineered the production of Azilah’s affidavit to put Najib out of business. Several sources pointed out that the 13-year-old case had been concluded in the courts, that there was no evidence beyond Azilah’s confession, and that it was unlikely the law would revisit it.

These recordings obviously are more telling, with Rosmah Mansor becoming the talk of the town because on one, she is heard in the background telling Najib “Darling, you are the prime minister, you should take charge and not anybody else, okay?” Another of the recordings appears to have Najib asking the Crown Prince of the UAE for help in providing cover for forging a loan to Rosmah’s son, Riza Aziz, for a petroleum investment company.

Rosmah’s quote is making the rounds of the political literati, with them telling each other, “Darling, you are the prime minister, you should take charge” as a joke.

But in line with public concern is another recording, this one of what appears to be a homosexual liaison between an individual appearing to be Mohamad Azmin Ali, the economic affairs minister and a close Mahathir ally although he belongs to Anwar’s PKR. The video is widely believed to have been distributed by Anwar, although he has denied it. It was of course allegations of homosexual affairs that derailed Anwar’s own political career and resulted in his imprisonment twice.

In any case, the sex video that either did or didn’t show Azmin was sent for analysis, a process that has taken weeks. And last week, Attorney General Tommy Thomas, a highly respected figure in the legal community, decreed that it couldn’t be identified as Azmin.

That has caused more controversy to erupt, because many who have seen the video are sure it was indeed Azmin, and another individual in the video has identified him.

Mahathir, however, has declared him cleared, to which Kim Quek, a close Anwar ally, responded sarcastically, “Tommy Thomas must have spent many painful hours to come up with this poorly disguised cover-up statement to justify the unjustifiable. In the end, the autocrat (presumably Mahathir) won and our leading law enforcers have to eat humble pie, while the rule of law is flushed further down the gutters, driving aspirants of the New Malaysia to further despair.”

“Those who have seen the tape believe it’s Azmin,” a source said, “but if it’s true the labs couldn’t conclusively identify him, then Thomas’s decision was perfectly within the law. But the public perception is that it’s a cover-up as Azmin is needed by the Tun (Mahathir) as a counterbalance to Anwar. But the AG didn’t say it wasn’t Azmin in the video. He just said it can’t be conclusively proven. Therefore, it’s a sword hanging over Azmin’s head in case “new evidence” is found later on. You get the drift.”

In the public perception, rightly or wrongly what it adds up to is Mahathir as a superb if ruthless tactician. “He’s Machiavelli's most astute disciple,” one source said.