Asia Pacific Editor
July 18, 2015
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been under political siege for the two years since support for his UMNO-led coalition, which has ruled since independence in 1957, slid to less than 50 per cent at the last election.
The attacks — from outside and from within his own political camp — have intensified in recent months, becoming increasingly more personal, with a series of claims of corruption.
He has now begun to fight back, launching — and threatening to launch — defamation cases within Malaysia and overseas, including against Fairfax newspapers in Australia and The Wall Street Journal.
The opposition grouping led by Anwar Ibrahim attracted more voters at the 2013 general election, but failed to win power due to the gerrymander that gives rural ethnic Malay voters an overwhelming advantage.
Mr Anwar was jailed in February for five years for sodomy, in a legal process that was widely condemned. So he’s out of the way. But, with Mr Anwar about to turn 68, the succession to his leadership was already under discussion. And the unrest has not gone away.
The besieged government has taken an increasingly militant Islamic tack, apparently seeking to split the Islamic party PAS, or at least its key supporters, away from the Anwar-led opposition grouping.
Such actions have intensified the bitterness within the Malaysian political scene.
A group of 25 prominent citizens including former judges, top public servants and diplomats, has responded by launching a series of extensively publicised statements condemning “developments that undermine Malaysia’s commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law, breed intolerance and bigotry, and have heightened anxieties over national peace and stability”.
They attacked the government’s “use of the Sedition Act as a constant threat to silence anyone with a contrary opinion”.
Attempts at rational discussion and conflict resolution have become difficult, they say.
The plunge in the prices for oil and gas — key Malaysian exports — has deepened this gloom, derailing moves, including the introduction of a 6 per cent GST, to make the government’s finances more sustainable.
Singapore-based analysts IMA Asia say that members of the UMNO old guard, led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who just turned 90, “aim to topple Najib, who has plundered the public purse more than usual according to his detractors”.
A troubled sovereign wealth fund Mr Najib launched, 1MDB, which accumulated $12 billion in debts, is central to this sometimes necessarily convoluted debate. London-based website the Sarawak Report and Journal claimed that about $800 million in 1MDB-related funds went through Mr Najib’s personal accounts.
The group Citizens for Accountable Governance Malaysia has linked accounts at AmBank, whose founder Hussain Ahmad Najadi was shot dead two years ago, to the 1MDB case.
Mr Najib is also suing opposition MP Tony Pua and Chan Chee Kong, owner of the Mediarakyat website, over the 1MDB allegations.
The case of the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian woman who played a role in negotiations for the 2002 purchase of French submarines, while Mr Najib was defence minister — clouded by claims of kickbacks to Malaysian officials — remains unresolved.
Fairfax has published articles alleging corruption in an Australian property purchase involving state-related firm Mara Inc, and in the Malaysian purchase of polymer currency from a firm owned by the Reserve Bank — the latter in which the newspapers linked Mr Najib.
But it is hard to topple the Prime Minister, IMA says, “despite an array of colourful UMNO characters who might take his place”, and despite the bureaucracy becoming distracted by this political parade. That six years ago Dr Mahathir played the key role in forcing the resignation of then prime minister Abdullah Badawi makes some UMNO officials reluctant to appear mere ciphers by repeating the same process.
However, says IMA, “at some point, UMNO may force Najib out, dump his cronies, and aim to settle business down under a new regime that will be much the same”.
The terrible fate of flights MH370 and MH17 attracted sympathy for the government which owns Malaysia Airlines and which bears no responsibility — but also resonated with more superstitious citizens, as a sign of celestial unease.
Mr Najib, about to turn 62, is an urbane Anglophile from a blue-ribbon political family.
His core conundrum is that he has already deployed the usual tactics to neutralise oppositions — mobilising Islamic extremists to denigrate them as irreligious, amplifying the ideological and organisational splits within their coalition, charging outspoken critics under the colonial Sedition Act to silence them.
But even employing all of these has failed to seal off the air of crisis that continues to surround his government.
This indicates that the bigger, underlying threat comes from within, which must mean — given his continuing hold over a crucial cadre of UMNO loyalists — from Dr Mahathir.
The answer now emerging, is to call his bluff — if such it is. Dr Mahathir says Malaysians “no longer trust” Mr Najib. Now Mr Najib needs to test whether they still trust Dr Mahathir.
That involves challenging the various corruption claims in court. In Singapore — about which Malaysian politicians traditionally harbour both respect and mistrust — the ruling PAP governments have long used defamation proceedings to silence critics.
The hearings — with the first, against Harakah, a daily newspaper published by opposition party PAS, over the 1MBD allegations, due next Thursday in Kuala Lumpur — also provide Mr Najib with the opportunity to present his side of the stories, and to assail his critics and enemies from a platform that is, in the legal sense, privileged.
Malaysia’s balance of power thus hangs uneasily between besmirched institutions and leaders, with clear air beyond reach for now.