Political Scandal Consumes Malaysia at Time of Flight 370 Inquiry

by Michael Forsythe
New York Times
AUG. 7, 2015

HONG KONG — It was a breakthrough in one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history. When a wing part belonging to a Boeing 777 was found last week on the remote Indian Ocean island of Réunion, the world took notice, echoing the intense news media coverage that followed the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on March 8, 2014.

But in the nation where the ill-fated flight originated, where its crew members were from and whose government owned the plane, the people’s attention was focused elsewhere: on a huge political scandal involving almost $700 million in funds that mysteriously appeared in bank accounts belonging to Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak.

Even Mr. Najib’s solemn announcement in the early hours of Thursday claiming that the wing part, called a flaperon, was “conclusively confirmed” to have been from Flight 370 “looks to have been aimed at bolstering his standing in Malaysia,” said Clive Kessler, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who has studied Malaysia since the mid-1960s.

As the scandal consumed the nation in July, Mr. Najib went “virtually into hiding” and refused to answer questions about it, Mr. Kessler said.

“This give him a chance for him to get out there and get out early and to be the griever in chief and the father of the nation,” Mr. Kessler said by telephone from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

The revelation of the funds, described this week by Malaysia’s anticorruption commission as a gift to the prime minister from unknown sources, has shaken popular confidence in Mr. Najib’s government. So, too, have his administration’s heavy-handed attempts to stifle public comment about the affair and the official inquiries into it, including shutting down newspapers, dismissing members of his cabinet and ordering police searches of anticorruption officials. According to Malaysian news reports, the government has been investigating leaks of documents related to the revelation.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, for its part, is investigating the heavily indebted state development fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, which has been the focus of news media attention as the possible source of the funds. On Monday, the commission said that the 2.6 billion ringgit, or $663.5 million, transferred to Mr. Najib’s accounts was not from 1MDB but instead “merely from donors.” In the same statement, the commission said that none of its officers were involved in a “conspiracy to overthrow the government,” suggesting how strong it believed the repercussions from the scandal might be.

“The Malaysian population pays a lot of attention to the 1MDB issue as expected,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore who was Mr. Najib’s political secretary from 2009 to 2011. “I don’t think a lot of people really pay a lot of attention to the MH370 investigations.”

Indeed, the prime minister’s statement on Thursday about the discovery of the wing part was given extensive and positive coverage by the official news media, noted Mr. Kessler, the Australian academic. Those outlets included Utusan Malaysia, the mouthpiece of Mr. Najib’s United Malays National Organization, the party that has dominated Malaysia’s politics since the country attained independence from Britain in 1957.

But that was not the case internationally, and Mr. Najib’s announcement also raised tensions with French officials, who were analyzing the part because it was found on Réunion, a French department. His statement went further than what French and American experts would say about the wing part, with the French saying only that they had “very strong presumptions” that the flaperon was from Flight 370.

French ire was further raised on Thursday when Malaysia’s transport minister said a Malaysian team in Réunion had found more aircraft debris, a claim quickly denied by the French.

On Friday, the minister, Liow Tiong Lai, speaking in an interview with CNN, described the differences between Mr. Najib’s statement and that of the French as “a choice of words,” and repeated the claim that the Malaysian team had found additional plane debris on Réunion.

Still, there seemed little chance that developments regarding the missing airliner would overshadow the political scandal at home, said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, an independent research institute in Kuala Lumpur.

“When it comes to an issue like this, unless he gives some proper answers in full, it’s almost impossible to divert elsewhere,” he said of Mr. Najib.

While some members of the governing establishment, including the former longtime prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, have turned against him, many political analysts say Mr. Najib’s position remains safe at the moment. But there are concerns about government institutions being increasingly drawn into the political fray as the authorities pursue an investigation of possible leaks from the anticorruption commission. The transfers to Mr. Najib’s bank accounts were reported last month in The Wall Street Journal and the British-based Sarawak Report.

“The relative independence of the bureaucracy may be affected,” said Ibrahim Suffian, program director at Merdeka Center, an independent polling and research firm in Malaysia.

A representative of the prime minister’s office was not available to comment.

Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister in charge of legal affairs and the founder of the country’s biggest private law firm, said in a blog post dated Thursday that Mr. Najib’s efforts to hinder efforts to investigate 1MDB and his own finances were undermining Malaysian society.

“The government is actively engaging in doing everything in their power to cover up mismanagement, corruption, abuse of power,” Mr. Zaid wrote. “The people, especially the opposition leaders and those active in social media today live in fear of the Prime Minister and his hatchet men. Our public institutions are in disarray and their independence is under assault.”

Mr. Oh, the former aide to Mr. Najib, said that the uproar over the funds was laying bare the shortcomings of the Malaysian political system, which gives extraordinary powers to the prime minister’s office.

“Separation of powers in theory is there, but in practice Malaysia is still very much what we would call an executive-dominated type of pseudo-democracy,” he said.

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