28th August 2015
Accusations swirling around the prime minister have transfixed Malaysia, writes David Pilling
This weekend tens of thousands of Malaysians will pour on to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to shout the name of their prime minister, Najib Razak. They will be coming not to praise him, but
to bury him. Among the most popular chants is likely to be “Tangkap Najib”, or “Arrest Najib”.
Now 61, with receding grey hair, neatly trimmed moustache and bespoke suits, Dato’ Sri Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak, to give him his full title, can seem a dapper liberal with progressive views on economics and racial harmony. “Najib is the best hope for moderation and reform,” says Sholto Byrnes, senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
Yet there is another side to Mr Najib, who has been prime minister since 2009, says John Malott, a former US ambassador to Malaysia. The real man, who at 23 became the youngest parliamentarian in his nation’s history, is, he says, neck-deep in the racially divisive, money-soaked politics of the United Malays National Organisation, which has governed
continuously for nearly six decades. The “fake, Najib”, he says, is the product of millions of dollars spent on slick public relations.
These days, Mr Najib’s PR is not so good. He is caught in a financial scandal that has transfixed Malaysia, an ethnically and religiously diverse South-east Asian nation of 30m people. He recently admitted receiving nearly $700m in his private bank account. The money, he said, in a version corroborated by Malaysia’s anti-corruption commission, came from an unnamed Middle Eastern donor. He had broken no laws, he said.
Another version of events, however, links the money to 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB. Set up in 2009 by Mr Najib, who chairs its advisory board, 1MDB ostensibly aimed to foster new
domestic industries. Instead, it has piled up $11bn in debts, buying land and ageing power stations at home and abroad. According to an account in the Sarawak Report, a UK-based blog, and the Wall Street Journal, money from companies and banks linked to 1MDB was allegedly transferred into the prime minister’s account. Mr Najib has denied any link between the $700m and 1MDB.
Until recently, his days as prime minister seemed numbered. There were four investigations into 1MDB and rumours of imminent criminal charges. But Mr Najib, sometimes criticised for being
ineffectual, has fought back. He replaced the attorney-general on the grounds of ill health and fired the deputy prime minister for disloyalty. He promoted four officials from a committee co-ordinating the investigation, temporarily halting its work. Critics accuse him of dismantling Malaysia’s institutions to save his skin.
“When Najib came in as prime minister he set in place a number of good reforms,” says Maria Chin Abdullah, head of Bersih, the coalition of activists organising this weekend’s protests. “But he’s turned into a person who doesn’t care for the country, who doesn’t bother with accountability. All he cares about is staying in power.”
The grubby political scandal is a long way from Mr Najib’s patrician roots as the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, and the nephew of its third, Hussein Onn. Educated in Britain, first at Malvern College in Worcestershire, then at Nottingham University, where he studied industrial economics, Mr Najib appears “very polished, very debonair”, says Mr Malott.
Many western leaders have been charmed by Mr Najib’s performance. The swirling 1MDB scandal notwithstanding, David Cameron, UK prime minister, visited him in Kuala Lumpur just last month,
and Barack Obama, US president, found time to host him for a round of golf in Hawaii last December.
But his “doublespeak” has confounded Malaysians, says Eddin Khoo, a Malaysian writer, especially since he came into office brandishing a liberal message of political tolerance and racial harmony.
Instead, he failed to repeal the hated sedition act and courted hardline Islamists seeking to impose a form of sharia law. The leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, has been jailed on charges of sodomy. Mr Najib’s government floundered when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared last year. Now the economy is reeling, with the ringgit sliding to 17-year lows and the stock market tanking.
This is not the first time Mr Najib has faced controversy. On his seemingly effortless path to the premiership, there were alleged links to corruption over a French submarine contract, though he denied any wrongdoing. More recently, two of his former bodyguards were convicted of murdering a model. Mr Najib said he had never even met the victim.
Many say Mr Najib changed after he married his second wife, Rosmah Mansor, in the late-1980s. Rosmah has been relentlessly mocked on social media for alleged high-spending and vulgar taste,
with images showing her clutching one of multiple Birkin handbags, which retail at between $9,000 and $150,000 each. Even Mr Najib’s brother, Nazir, a prominent banker, has contrasted the prime minister’s allegedly extravagant lifestyle with that of their late father, a leader known for his simple integrity.
Street protests, rumours of plots within his cabinet and continuing investigations into 1MDB make these uncomfortable times for Mr Najib. Still, he is soldiering on. “Let no one doubt: I will continue to serve and lead this nation,” he told an audience at the Institute of Management in Kuala Lumpur last week. At least no one there shouted “Arrest Najib”.