The world outside of Malaysia appears to be coming apart for Prime Minister Najib Razak, with announcements on Jan. 26 by Swiss authorities that as much as US$4 billion has been stolen from the state-backed 1MDB investment fund, and a report in France that two officials of a state-owned defense contractor were indicted in December for bribing Najib in the 1996 US$1 billion purchase of French submarines.
The events followed a disastrous press conference on Jan. 26 by Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali supposedly clearing Najib of wrongdoing over RMB2.82 billion (US$681 million) that had ended up in his personal bank account in 2013. Enterprising news photographers using telephoto lenses caught pictures of the papers he was waving during the press conference. The papers actually described a money trail of millions of ringgit of public money that flowed into Najib’s personal accounts.
Apandi Ali’s assertion that the money came from the Saudi royal family has been met with widespread derision. In all, the aftermath of the attorney general’s press conference presents a picture of a government desperately scrambling to contain a widening scandal. The Saudi government is said to be investigating the assertion that the royal family had made the donation, which is felt to be highly unlikely, especially in the light of the Swiss investigation.
If the world outside is coming apart for Najib, however, he has done his level best to try to contain news of the scandal inside the country, blocking critical international news organizations including Asia Sentinel and Sarawak Report. This week the government also blocked the enormously popular blog platform Medium for reprinting Sarawak Report articles, although those articles represent a tiny fraction of the blog platform’s output by thousands of bloggers, many of whom merely publish recipes or stories about their cats.
In addition to blocking Asia Sentinel and Sarawak Report, the government in July 2015 suspended the influential business publication The Edge and its sister paper for three months for printing details of the 1MDB mess. Police in May arrested journalists from the news portal Malaysian Insider and in November raided the offices of another, Malaysiakini. It has recently toughened laws against online media. Nonetheless, both published the news of the Swiss action.
The mainstream media, including radio, television and newspapers, all of which are owned by government-aligned political parties, have been put on notice to be careful of what they air or print. The government has charged opposition politicians with sedition for seeking to investigate the various scandals and sought to curb public statements of critics by threatening them with jail – including the 90-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the man who engineered his ascent to the top job by driving his predecessor, Ahmad Abdullah Badawi, from office.
Najib and Apandi Ali have silenced Malaysian Anti-Crime Commission investigators and pigeonholed an investigation into the movement of money by Central Bank Governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz.
Any of the scandals would have driven another person from office. But Najib, backed by his tenacious wife Rosmah Mansor, has stonewalled all challenges, charging racism or a cabal by unknown dark forces outside the country to push him out. He is said to be seeking a public relations firm to polish his image in preparation for elections in 2018.
But Stonewalling won’t Stop Outside Probes
But the tone of the two new investigations by prosecutors in international courts may be something else. Other probes are moving forward by the US government for money-laundering and in other countries as well. While Najib continues via patronage, bribes or makework jobs to receive the solid backing of the UMNO cadres who elect him, the international problems he faces could make it a new ballgame. It is too early to tell.