South-East Asia correspondent for Fairfax Media
Sydney Morning Herald
August 28, 2015
Bangkok: Embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has cancelled a speech at the world’s top anti-corruption conference as he refuses to explain $US700 million ($982 million) in his personal bank account.
Mr Najib was listed as a speaker to the up to 2000 delegates from more than 100 countries attending the International Anti-Corruption Conference in Kuala Lumpur next week.
But the Prime Minister’s photograph and biography have been removed from the website of the conference which the Malaysian government is hosting.
For days Malaysia’s social media had been swamped with posts ridiculing Mr Najib’s attendance at the conference that is held somewhere in the world every two years.
Mr Najib has made no public comment about his cancellation as tensions rise ahead of planned mass anti-Najib rallies in Kuala Lumpur and other Malaysian cities this weekend.
More than 100,000 protesters are expected to rally in Kuala Lumpur demanding Mr Najib’s resignation over Malaysia’s biggest scandal in decades, despite police declaring it illegal and threats to arrest rally leaders.
Pro-government groups are also planning counter rallies, raising the possibility of violent confrontations.
Malaysia’s government has become paralysed and deeply divided as the country has been transfixed for weeks on how $US700 million found its way into Mr Najib’s account in 2013 and where the money is now.
Allegations are also swirling around state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad which Mr Najib founded and oversees through chairmanship of a government committee.
The fund has debts in excess of $US11 billion.
Mr Najib initially dismissed a Wall Street Journal report on July 2 detailing the money transfers into his account and threatened to sue the newspaper while strongly denying any wrongdoing.
But members of his cabinet and Malaysia’s anti-graft body have since acknowledged the transfers, calling them “political donations” from an unidentified Middle Eastern source.
Malaysian Deputy Prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi last week claimed he had meet the mysterious donor who told him the money was to ensure Mr Najib’s administration was returned at 2013 elections.
Malaysia’s opposition Justice Party has filed a suit against Mr Najib and the country’s Election Commission alleging the donations were illegal and as a result the 2013 election should be declared null and void.
Mr Najib’s coalition lost the popular vote at the election but held on to power because of a gerrymandered voting system.
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been leading calls for Mr Najib to resign, fired another broadside in his latest blog, saying Mr Najib and his supporters should stop thinking Malaysians are “stupid”.
“Malaysians would not like to believe their candidate for the highest office in the country is a nominee of some person from another country,” Dr Mahathir wrote. ‘”Will he serve Malaysians or some foreign country?”
Fighting for his political life, Mr Najib, 62, has alleged a political conspiracy to topple him by unnamed opponents while sacking or reassigning officials who were investigating the scandal and purging cabinet ministers who called for answers.
But his efforts to contain the scandal were set back when Swiss authorities last week said they had opened criminal proceedings related to 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
Switzerland’s Attorney-General’s Office said its case involved “suspected corruption of public foreign officials, dishonest management of public interests and money laundering”.
Last month Singapore froze two bank accounts in connection with investigations into the fund and the Monetary Authority of Singapore said it would share information with Malaysian investigators.
Analysts say Mr Najib’s hold on power has become even more tenuous as foreign investors abandon the country and the ringgit currency falls to an 18-year low.
Malaysia’s economic growth has also taken a huge hit from faltering oil prices.
Mr Najib’s fall would be a blow to the Australian government’s regional diplomacy.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has repeatedly praised Mr Najib as a model for the world’s Muslim leaders.
During his 22 years in power Dr Mahathir remained antagonistic towards Australia, often blocking Canberra’s efforts to integrate in south-east Asia.