It is almost possible to believe that Mahathir Mohamad is running Malaysia again, given the shrill headlines in government-backed media over the past week that have accused businessman George Soros of funding Malaysian civil society and activists to “topple democracy.”
But Mahathir’s protégé-turned-nemesis Najib Razak is a prime minister in the middle of a massive scandal and it is 2016, not the heyday of the strongman’s rule from 1981 to 2003. Despite that, Soros and Malaysian activists remain the bogeymen allegedly out to undermine the ruling United Malays National Organization.
Hundreds of protesters organized by an aggressive UMNO-linked group, Baju Merah (Red Shirts, in Malay language) besieged the headquarters of the popular news portal Malaysiakini last week and threatened violence, resulting in calls for the police to protect the organization. The so-called rogues’ gallery named in headlines as Soros allies are the same – besides Malaysiakini, electoral reform group Bersih 2.0, independent pollster Merdeka Center and even the official lawyers group, the Bar Council.
None have denied the accusations, but point out that funds from the Hungarian-American business magnate’s Open Society Foundation are for projects and forums – not for activities against the Najib administration.
Malaysian authorities from the police to internet and financial regulators have been told to investigate and if necessary, prosecute the activists for taking the Soros money, although there are no laws against foreign funding.
On Nov. 10 police were questioning Merdeka Center’s Ibrahim Suffian, who runs the organization and counts the government and a spectrum of political parties as his clients. It is understood this is the second such questioning but no details have emerged.
The current witch-hunt linking Malaysian activists, journalists, pollsters and lawyers to Soros began late last month after a so-called whistleblower site titled DC Leaks published a tranche of hacked emails that claimed Bersih 2.0 had received funds from Soros. According to a Bloomberg News report that quoted cyber security analysts, DC Leaks may have been a “testing ground of sorts” for the Russians to dump hacked documents before they turned to Wikileaks and Julian Assange.
Malaysia’s government-controlled mainstream media picked up the leaked emails, claiming that the Open Society Foundation was attempting to influence the country’s next election, which must be held by mid-2018, through programs such as voter mobilization drives.
Ironically, Najib’s UMNO is also running its own voter mobilization drive to ensure it keeps power after losing the popular vote in the 2013 general elections while keeping hold of parliament.
UMNO has dismissed Bersih 2.0’s next protest, Bersih 5, on November 19 as an event without popular support, citing the Bersih 4 last year that saw fewer Malays joining in. The Red Shirts threatened clashes at that rally and also the next one as it tries to frighten the public from turning up for the event in Kuala Lumpur’s historic Merdeka Square. Government critics believe the latest move to link Soros to Bersih 2.0 and Malaysiakini is aimed at further depressing turnout for the November 19 rally
“This is nothing but a smear campaign because receiving foreign funding does not break any national laws. It also hypocritical because Najib himself has received money from a foreign source for his political party,” opposition lawmaker Chua Tian Chang told local media.
Najib has admitted receiving US$681 million, ostensibly from a Saudi prince in 2013 as a gift to fund the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in the 2013 general election but US investigators say the money was siphoned off from the debt-laden strategic fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
Bersih 2.0 leader Maria Chin Abdullah confirmed to local media that the group received a one-time grant of RM70,000 (US$16,100) from the Open Society Institute between 2010 and 2011, but since then has relied on funds from local sources.
“The Open Society Foundations are proud to have supported civil society in Malaysia for 10 years. Claims that the Open Society Foundations funded attempts to overthrow the government in Malaysia are entirely false,” the group said in an emailed statement to South China Morning Post’s This Week in Asia last week.
“The Open Society Foundations support justice, accountability and democratic practice around the world and in Malaysia our grant-making to civil society includes efforts to promote public health, foster fair migration policies and encourage the civic and political participation of all Malaysian citizens.”
It said all the foundations’ activities in Malaysia were non-partisan and totaled an average of US$700,000 a year, adding that the funds went toward voter education, election monitoring, public surveys and supporting indigenous communities threatened by dam development in Sarawak state.
Malaysiakini, which said it had received funds from OSF for video programs, has denounced claims that it was being used to topple the Malaysian government.
“Despite the harassment and intimidation, Malaysiakini will continue to report the news and views that matter,” the portal said in an editorial on November 4. “Let’s make this loud and clear – we will not waver from our mission to tell truth to power and to hold power to account. Not then, not now, not ever. This is, after all, the sacred duty of journalists everywhere. And it is certainly not an activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”