Sydney Morning Herald
February 2, 2016
It’s almost a year since Malaysia’s highest court upheld the five-year jail sentence of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a dubious charge of sodomy.
So, from the spartan jail cell with a squat toilet and a thin foam mattress on the floor as described by his lawyers, Mr Anwar is not in a position to comment on the deteriorating state of democracy in his country.
We can’t know whether he shares the dismay and despair of many ordinary Malaysians at the wave of repression that has occurred since his jailing. We don’t know what he thinks about the government’s attempts to keep a lid on the mind-boggling scandal in which a $US681 million no-strings-attached gift attributed to the Saudi royal family found its way into Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal bank account. But we could guess.
This week Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali issued a “move along, nothing to see” order to anyone worried about the donation of such a princely sum to a sitting Prime Minister’s personal bank account in a country claiming to be a representative democracy.
Mr Apandi said he had ordered the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to close its investigation into the affair. He said he was “satisfied that there was no evidence to show that the donation was a form of gratification given corruptly”, and no laws had been broken.
Perhaps not surprisingly Mr Najib welcomed the Attorney-General’s findings, saying the matter “has been comprehensively put to rest”.
But the unpalatable fact is, the Attorney-General’s decision fits with the concerted campaign by Mr Najib and his government to comprehensively put to rest all criticism and opposition.
Mr Apandi was appointed last year after his predecessor was abruptly removed in a flurry of sackings and transfers of people who had either been critical of the Prime Minister or were involved in investigations into the sovereign wealth fund he chairs, 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
1MDB is embroiled in controversy over multibillion dollar debts and murky transactions involving offshore tax havens. Malaysia’s central bank recommended criminal charges be laid against the fund but in October Mr Apandi refused.
This week Mr Apandi also said Mr Najib had no knowledge of a further $10 million transferred into his account from SRC, a Finance Ministry company. SRC’s role is politically explosive because it received a $US930 million loan, approved by Mr Najib’s cabinet, from the government fund that manages the retirement savings of Malaysia’s public servants. The attorney-general said Mr Najib had believed the $10 million, too, had come from the Saudis.
Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2016 accuses Mr Najib of trampling on citizens’ rights to suppress corruption allegations and maintain his grip on power with a succession of punitive new legislative measures, scores of arrests, the suspension of newspapers and the blocking of websites.
During 2015 dozens of people, including seven opposition members of parliament, were arrested under the Sedition Act for making remarks critical of the government, the judiciary and Malaysia’s sultans. The Act was strengthened in April in a major reversal from Mr Najib who had promised to repeal it. Dozens of people have also been arrested for participating in peaceful protests over the 1MDB.
So far Najib has survived both large street protests and an energetic campaign to unseat him by his erstwhile mentor, former prime minister and senior statesman with his ruling United Malays National Organisation party, Mahathir Mohamad. “I am scared too. In Malaysia today laws and rules no longer protect the people, Mr Mahathir wrote in a blog post. He also posed a series of questions about the scandal, including how $620 million of the original $681 million came to be repaid to the Saudis. Attorney-General Apandi said it was returned in 2013 “because the sum was not utilised”. But he provided no information on why the Saudis would send Mr Najib such a large sum in the first place, or what happened to the $US61 million that was not sent back.
How much longer can Malaysia be regarded as a modern, moderate nation in charge of its destiny? Its strategic importance as a moderate Muslim nation in the Asian region in a time of terror has so far spared it much international condemnation, but its reputation is sinking. Requests for assistance on the weekend from Swiss prosecutors investigating allegations of criminal conduct and 1MDB have not helped. It needs to step back from the brink.