The Return of the Razaks

Disgraced Malaysian leaders plan a comeback

The picture, as they say, spoke a thousand words. There, over last weekend in the Ali Baba-and-the-40-Thieves décor, were the Razak brothers, particularly Najib, and Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the current president of the United Malays National Organization, yucking it up in Zahid’s home and tweeting plans for a political comeback.

With a squad that has stolen such an astonishing amount of money so publicly and so garishly, rolling around in the loot like Scrooge McDuck backstroking through his vault, that might seem ludicrous.

If Najib gets off from charges of looting the state treasury, “this will mean fairy tales are good defenses in criminal cases,” said Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer Americk Sidhu. “The message will be this: you are not to blame if a fairy godmother decides to open a few bank accounts in your name and without your knowledge, fills these accounts with a constant flow of money and you keep spending it as if there is no tomorrow and it never occurs to you to question where all this money is coming from.”

Zahid, as we know, has been charged with criminal breach of trust, abuse of power, suborning bribery, money-laundering and corruption over the theft of millions from Yayasan Akalbudi, a charity organization that appears not to have existed other than to funnel money to Zahid. In all, Zahid faces 87 outstanding criminal charges including stealing or otherwise illegally acquiring at least RM114 million (US$26.7 million) in depressingly inventive ways. He is the first sitting UMNO president ever to be charged in court. It took 55 minutes for the full list of charges to be read against him.

Najib Razak, as we know, is on trial on charges of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power, money laundering, and theft in the mismanagement and embezzlement of as much as US$4.6 billion from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd investment fund, the biggest financial scandal in Malaysian history and the biggest kleptocracy case ever brought by the US Justice Department.

When he was arrested following the defeat of the Barisan Nasional coalition that had ruled Malaysia for 60 years, police recovered items worth up to US$233.4 million from his home including US$28 million in 26 different currencies, 25 handbags containing 12,000 jewelry items worth at least US$108 million including 1,400 chains, 2,200 rings, 2,800 pairs of earrings, 14 tiaras, a yellow gold necklace with white diamonds estimated to cost US$1.23 million, 567 handbags, of which 267 are estimated to total US$12.6 million from 73 brands including Birkin from Hermes, Chanel and Bijan, 423 watches including brands like Rolex, Chopard and Richard Mille and 234 pairs of sunglass brands such as Versace, Dior and Gucci. The only thing missing was the US$681 million that passed through his Ambank account and disappeared.

PAS’s leader Abdul Hadi Awang, as we know, has been credibly accused of taking RM90 million (US$21.09 million) in bribes to take his party out of the then-opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition prior to the 2018 election and go neutral, and later to join the coalition with UMNO to plan for a resurgence. Hadi should at least be asked why and how a pious, poverty stricken religious leader acquired that much money, if indeed he has.

Najib, according to a well-placed political source in Kuala Lumpur, is angling to take back the leadership of the Barisan Nasional despite the magnitude of the crimes for which he Is standing trial, plus a long list for which he isn’t, including suspicion of his complicity in the death of Mongolian party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu in 2006, and the bribery scandal over the purchase of US$1 billion of submarines that Malaysia didn’t need.

“Najib thinks he’s on a strong wicket and that UMNO and PAS together can win the next election for a return of Malay power,” said a well-informed political source.

Part of the reason for that is the utter disarray of the forces arrayed against UMNO and PAS. In February, then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad walked out of the leadership of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, then tried to take the leadership back only to have Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy head of his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia not only refuse to give it back but sought to solidify his own position as prime minister, which many political observers feel is shaky.

Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and Mahathir have engaged in an intense behind-the-scenes contest over the leadership of the Pakatan Harapan coalition and take back the government that has turned off an electorate disgusted with the scramble for power. This internecine warfare, combined with a year and a half of utter mismanagement of the government while in power, is a major factor in the seeming viability of an UMNO-PAS coalition whose leaders allegedly have stolen not millions but billions collectively and have exhibited no public remorse about setting out to steal more.

The other factor is Malay privilege. Ever since a “Malay Dignity Congress” held last year, there has been a strong resolve of the Malay right to rule. The Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party has been undermined by being painted as anti-Malay, with some party members arrested with suspected links to terrorism. The Anwar-Mahathir spat took the spotlight while the Malay-centered parties, PAS and UMNO, were negotiating with the Azmin-Muhyiddin group for a way to take power.

The whole problem with Muhyiddin’s government today is that a party loyalist may be loyal one day but loyal to somebody else the next. With parliamentarians having no strong belief beyond the wish to be with the eventual winner and benefit from the no-work job with the GLC, the Mercedes-Benz, the house in Damansara Heights and the trophy teen-aged third wife, keeping members loyal is difficult.

Perikatan Nasional members are not just being pulled in two ways. There are splits within Muhyiddin’s coalition itself, with Najib-Zahid forces eyeing power, and there are splits within PH with their candidate for prime minister not agreed. Mahathir’s intention is to topple Muhyiddin by hook or crook, but really doesn’t want to support any alternative candidates on both sides. He baldly calls attention to Najib’s crookedry and his historic disdain for Anwar keeps popping up despite constant professions of amity. Anwar knows this is his last chance for the premiership, while Najib and Zahid know they have a chance of pulling over Muhyiddin, who is reportedly not well, having fought pancreatic cancer in recent years.

Consequently, it’s impossible to make any call on the numbers now as loyalties change on a daily basis. Bersatu is having an internal fight over the leadership, which the UMNO-PAS forces are ready to pounce and take advantage of. Meanwhile, Anwar’s own PKR is still reported to be having defections at branch level, and is not the same party as it was last GE14, especially with the loss of the Azmin group of 10 last February to make up the PN government.

The pundits in KL are saying Muhyiddin is quickly losing numbers. Anwar supporters are encouraging that perception to give the impression of strength. Remember Anwar has always played with misinformation as a political tool. The Najib-Zahid forces have a strong block with PAS. However, the eventual king-makers will be the PBS of Sarawak and the parties in Sabah which appear evenly divided.

The only sure thing is that the next government will also be a Malay-centric grouping. The only thing we don’t know yet is its configuration. So don’t count out the boys lounging happily among the gold-flocked furniture.

Read also: Malaysia: Permanent Ethnic Malay Polity