Sunday 31 January 2016
There is, rightly, widespread concern over Najib and a democratic deficit
Dato’ Sri Mohamed Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak was born to rule. Son of Malaysia’s second post-independence prime minister and nephew of its third, he entered parliament at the age of 23, inheriting his father’s seat and was handed several senior portfolios before being appointed prime minister himself in 2009.
Najib heads the powerful United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the pre-eminent political force. His national and personal dominance symbolises the bumiputera (ethnic Malay) ascendancy in a country with large, constitutionally disadvantaged ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities.
But as the intense firestorm sparked by last week’s arbitrary dismissal of potentially career-ending corruption allegations against him suggests, Najib is also seen by growing numbers of fellow citizens as unfit to rule the country whose leadership he inherited as if by right. His time in government, especially since the 2013 general election, has brought an expansion of repressive laws, multiplying human rights abuses and curbs on media freedoms more reminiscent of Russia than of a supposedly functional, pro-western democracy closely allied to Britain and the US.
Human Rights Watch summed up Malaysia’s crisis of governance in its 2016 World Report and country-file: “The ruling Umno-led coalition has remained in power since 1957 through electoral manipulation, censorship, intimidation and use of criminal statutes to punish political opponents. After losing the popular vote in the 2013 elections – but maintaining a legislative majority through gerrymandering – the government renewed its crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and passed new laws permitting preventive detention without charge… Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim remains imprisoned on trumped-up sodomy charges after a politically motivated, unjust trial.”
The latest furore besmirching Najib’s shaky reputation concerns a 2013 payment of $681m into his personal bank account, a transfer that only came to light thanks to a Wall Street Journal report last July. After months of closed-door investigations and Najib’s repeated denials of wrongdoing, Mohamed Apandi Ali, Malaysia’s attorney general, declared last week that the money was a private gift from the Saudi royal family and there was no evidence of improper or corrupt activity. Nor was there any connection with graft allegations swirling around the debt-laden state fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which Najib oversaw, he said.
This has been met with widespread scepticism. Why was the gift made to Najib and what was it for? Why was most of the money apparently later returned to the Saudis, and what happened to the $61m that was not? Why was the transfer routed circuitously through the British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong? And why, particularly if, as Najib claims, the money was a political donation to boost Umno election campaign funds, was it deposited in his personal bank accounts?
Those taken by surprise by Apandi’s act of absolution include the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (Macc), which investigated the affair. An anonymous source there subsequently told the Reuters news agency that the commission recommended last month that Najib be charged with criminal misappropriation. Apandi rejected the advice. The Macc is now seeking a review of the attorney general’s decision, while those in Najib’s camp want an inquiry into the leak.
Saudis also found the decision surprising. The royal family would “never” place political funds in a private individual’s account, officials told the Malaysia Chronicle. This may or may not be true. A “well-placed Saudi source” told the BBC’s Frank Gardner that the money was paid direct to Najib, on the orders of the late King Abdullah, to help him defeat Islamist hardliners in the 2013 election.
Najib says he has been vindicated and Malaysia must move on. This is fantasy. The scandal will live on in the minds of voters who have more reason than ever to distrust those who presume to lead them on the basis of privilege, wealth and inequality. It lives on in the minds of the FBI and investigators in Switzerland and Hong Kong still probing 1MDB. And it shines a spotlight on Malaysia’s worsening democratic deficit, whether defined in terms of shady campaign finances, electoral manipulation and foreign interference, human rights abuses, weak and unreliable governance – or downright venality.