For the first time since he began the theft of vast amounts of Malaysian government funds, beginning at least in 1999 when he was named defense minister for the second time, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s kleptocratic career may finally be in danger.
It is rare, if ever, that a foreign head of state and an ally of the United States government has been hit with charges as devastating as those released on July 20 by US Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch against suspects in what she called an “an international conspiracy to launder funds misappropriated from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.”
Although he is identified only as “Malaysian Public Official No. 1,” it is clear that Najib is the target of what Lynch called “the largest single action ever brought” under the US’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative.
The US Justice Department investigation is a damning indictment of the entire structure surrounding 1MDB. It found that from 2009 through 2015, more than US$3.5 billion in funds belonging to 1MDB were misappropriated from an entity ostensibly created by the Malaysian government to promote economic development in Malaysia through global partnerships and foreign direct investment, and intended to be used for improving the well-being of the Malaysian people.
“Instead, as detailed in the complaints, 1MDB officials and their associates allegedly misappropriated more than $3 billion,” Lynch said.
Where Najib goes from here is anybody’s question. He has done what might be called a brilliant job so far of maneuvering to stay out of the law’s clutches after more than a year and a half of deeply detailed allegations of corruption by opposition figures and particularly by Clare Rewcastle Brown, the editor of Sarawak Report. He might pull it off again, although doubts are growing.
The Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya issued an astonishing statement saying that “Malaysian authorities have led the way in investigations into 1MDB. The company has been the subject of multiple investigations within Malaysia, including by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Auditor General and bi-partisan Public Accounts Committee.”
In fact, as has been universally reported everywhere but in Malaysia’s kept press, officials have sought to thwart every single domestic attempt to bring an investigation into activities surrounding 1MDB, including firing Attorney General Abdul Gani Patel when his office was on the eve of writing an indictment of Najib and replacing him with Mohamed Apandi Ali, a United Malays National Organization lawyer and lackey who, according to the Prime Minister’s office statement, “after a comprehensive review…found that that no crime was committed.”
One extremely well-wired analyst in Kuala Lumpur called the Justice Department’s statement a “game-changer.” Another said he had conversations overnight with some of UMNO’s most powerful mandarins, including senior supreme council members and members of the administration, who think Najib will be unable to twist his way out of this, as he has so often in the past.
“They are realistic and said they were already getting calls and messages from colleagues looking for escape routes from the sinking ship Rosmah,” he said, referring to Najib’s imperious wife Rosmah Mansor. “Once the exodus begins, it will come to a crescendo fast. That’s how UMNO works. The question is, who will be the first Brutus? Mark my words – they will soon be scrambling to outdo each other in distancing themselves from both Najib and Rosmah.”
If it happens, it will be a long and excruciating fall for a man who as recently as last November was playing golf in Hawaii with US President Barack Obama and who reveled in speaking at the United Nations as the head of a moderate Muslim nation that was supposedly a democratic bulwark in Southeast Asia.
But Najib began a career of deep corruption almost as soon as he became defense minister for the second time in 1999 under then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He set out to modernize the Malaysian military, reportedly suborning bribes all the way along, with much of the money being poured into the coffers of the United Malays National Organization, buying him loyalty from the cadres that has endured to this day.
As Asia Sentinel reported in 2007, “if three separate contracts over the past several years are any yardstick, Najib Razak, who became defense minister in 1999 and kept the portfolio when he became deputy prime minister, appears to have mastered the game [of profiting off of defense contracts] far beyond the expectations of any previous defense leaders. Opposition figures say three contracts, one for Russian Sukhoi jet fighters, a second for French submarines and a third for navy patrol boats, appear to have produced at least US$300 million for UMNO cronies, Najib’s friends and others.