Najib's Survival Strategy Rests on Attacks on Critics

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has endured a series of scandals that would have driven a lesser man from office years ago, including the latest, that US$680 million was diverted from the controversial 1Malaysia Development Bhd state-backed development fund into his personal accounts, apparently to be used illegally in the 2013 general election.

Documents made public by the Wall Street Journal and the UK-based Sarawak Report indicate that Najib has been caught red-handed. But Najib appears unlikely to fall soon, partly because he has ensured the loyalty of United Malays National Organization warlords through continuing infusions of cash.

But also he and his allies have mounted a ferocious attack on his critics, delivered through Malaysia’s mainstream news media, all of which are owned by the ruling political parties. He has mobilized a legion of bloggers such as Rocky’s Bru and lately Raja Petra Kamarudin, formerly one of the government’s foremost critics, who his detractors say has now allied with Najib and is instead attacking Najib's foes.

In 2012, Najib escaped a series of minutely detailed stories by Asia Sentinel built on French prosecutors’ documents over huge kickbacks on the purchase of French submarines, his surrogates charging that the French and possibly the US Central Intelligence Agency were trying to sabotage his country.

Authorities unleash strikes on critics

Instead of dealing with the latest allegations made by two of the US’s most respected newspapers, the New York Times and the Journal, and others by Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald over deeply detailed stories of his and his wife’s financial misdealings, the authorities have unleashed police to find out who leaked the stories and to charge them – if they can find them – with violations of the Official Secrets Act.

Najib has threatened to sue the Journal for its reporting, but that is likely to remain an empty threat given the Journal's fail-safe, iron-clad editing process. Indeed, instead of a formal demand letter, his lawyers sent a message to Journal editors saying "We are instructed by our client to seek confirmation as to whether it is your position, as taken in the articles, that our client misappropriated nearly US$700 million from 1MDB?”

That has been greeted with scorn by independent lawyers. Nonetheless, the local media have conflated that into a determination by that Najib “would” take action against the paper. There is some chance that the government might take action in the country's own supine courts, but any decision would be laughed out of international juridical circles.

Always underlying attacks on Malaysia is the spoken or unspoken premise that unnamed international powers – and local ones, presumably connected with the Chinese minority – are out to bring down his government for political reasons. It is a supposition that has long been fostered by his now sworn enemy, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has issued repeated warnings that the US has been out to get his country, either because of rogue CIA elements or Israel's Mossad.

Najib, playing off Mahathir's fears, has said the claims in the Journal’s story are “an effort to undermine confidence in our economy, tarnish the government, and remove a democratically elected prime minister,” dismissing them as political sabotage.

Government hackers go after enemies

Apparent allies have mounted numerous hacking attacks on critics, including independent news sites such as Malaysiakini and others, including Asia Sentinel and particularly the Sarawak Report, edited by Clare Rewcastle Brown, his most implacable critic.

Najib has threatened to use the government’s printing and publications act against The Edge, the country’s most influential financial daily, over its aggressive reporting on the 1MDB scandal. He has also accused Mahathir of attacking him because he refused to “implement Tun Mahathir’s personal demands.” He has threatened to use the Official Secrets Act against opposition leaders including Parti Keadilan Rakyat General Secretary Rafizi Ramli and Tony Pua, the Democratic Action Party’s point man on 1MDB.

But the main target of the vitriol pumped out by his allies of the United Malays National Organization, the country’s biggest political party, is Clare Rewcastle Brown, a 54-year-old former UK-based BBC journalist who was born and spent the first eight years of her life in Sarawak, the daughter of a British colonial official. On a trip back to Sarawak to speak to an environmental group in 2005, she was appalled by the destruction of the environment wrought by the former chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, and in 2010 founded the Sarawak Report.

Nails Taib, goes after Najib

Using often dramatic and overheated language, Brown has since proven an indefatigable and deeply influential critic not only of Taib but of Najib’s government. After exposing hundreds of millions of dollars in property owned by Taib in the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK, she has uncovered the primary research that led to a massive 5,900 word Feb. 8 story in the New York Times that detailed the close connections between the Najib family and their close friend, Low Taek Jho and property that Jho Low, as he is known, appeared to have purchased for them.

She also provided the documentation for the July 2 story in the Wall Street Journal that Malaysian investigators had allegedly traced the US$680 million from 1MDB into Najib’s accounts.

UMNO officials have accused Brown of falsifying documents pertaining to 1MDB and colluding with opposition lawmakers to attempt to bring down the Malaysian government. The latest, a police report filed by a pro-UMNO blogger named Ramesh Rao Khrishnan Naidu, was made public by the Barisan Nasional communications director, alleging that an ex-Sarawak Report editor named Lester Melanyi, had “confessed” involvement in the falsifying of documents for Brown. Melanyi made a video for use against Brown.

In an email made available by Brown, however, it was clear that Brown was responding to a March 1 email by Melanyi congratulating her on her reporting by making a joke about “forging” documents. Her email went to say that “Seriously, it has been a real challenge getting this story out there, but once I knew the truth I was determined to drag it out.”

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Brown told Asia Sentinel that Melanyi had worked for Sarawak Report’s radio station for four months in 2011, long before the current controversies blew up, and that she had let him go. He has never edited nor written for Sarawak Report. Nonetheless, the story has been spread thoroughly across Malaysia’s media, including independent internet news sites.

Najib’s troops previously accused Brown of colluding with Xavier Justo, a former employee of PetroSaudi Ltd., a Middle Eastern oil exploration company to which 1MDB had loaned US$1 billion that may have disappeared. Documents made available to Sarawak Report by Justo indicate that hundreds of millions of dollars were diverted out of PetroSaudi and into Singapore bank accounts maintained by Taek Jho Low.

Justo was arrested in late June by Thai police in the presence of Malaysian reporters and photographers for the government-owned press who had been flown in from Malaysia to witness the arrest. Since that time, Malaysia’s political establishment has used the arrest to try to derail questions over the 1MDB that go far beyond whether the whistle-blowing Swiss national did or did not steal and doctor documents and pass them to Sarawak Report.

UMNO used the Justo incident to mount a full-court attack on Sarawak Report and The Edge, threatening to crack down on The Edge’s printing license and driving a campaign through allied bloggers, the UMNO-owned New Straits Times and other media.

Najib himself threatened action against Sarawak Report, which responded angrily that there was no wrongdoing. At the same time, there appears to be a move to tie Mahathir, 1MDB’s fiercest critic, to allegations that the case against 1MDB has been doctored.

“It is a sign of desperation that ministers are trying to make headlines out of nonsense in order to attempt to distract people from the facts, which include the billions of debt that 1MDB is unable to pay interest on and the fact that billions have also gone missing,” Brown said in statement carried on Sarawak Report. “Over the past several months 1MDB’s defenders have not been able to counter or undermine any single one of the reports we have written on the scandal torn fund, which is why they resort to these ridiculous stories, rather than trying to sue us or answer back on the detail.”