Scandal-hit Malaysian PM Najib drops speech at anti-corruption conference

Oliver Holmes
4 September 2015

Facing multimillion-dollar graft allegations, the timing of the international summit could not be worse for Malaysia’s prime minister

Malaysia’s prime minister has quietly cancelled his appearance and keynote speech at an anti-corruption conference after organisers warned him he would have to respond to allegations surrounding how millions of dollars had come into his personal accounts.

“The prime minister did cancel his appearance at the conference. We told his office that if he came he would face hard questions,” Neil Martinson, director of communications at Transparency International, told the Guardian.

The summit was agreed to be hosted just outside Kuala Lumpur months before reports emerged that $700m (£456m) linked to the debt-laden state fund 1 Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) had allegedly entered Najib Razak’s personal accounts.

It could not have come at a more awkward time.

Najib is fighting his way through the worst political crisis of his career. He has denied allegations but also sacked four ministers, his attorney general and deputy prime minister in a bid to disarm his critics.

Authorities have blocked two news websites and a British-based whistleblowing website that is run by Gordon Brown’s sister-in-law.

And when a coalition of non-governmental organisations named Bersih asked people to rally at the weekend and wear yellow T-shirts to show support, the home ministry briefly banned the colour.

Transparency International Chair José Ugaz told about 1,000 delegates at the conference held this week that “these are not the actions of a government that is fighting corruption.”

“No one can be in Malaysia and not be aware of the corruption allegations of recent months and how damaging they are to the country. There is a corruption crisis here,” he said.

“We want to see more progress but that cannot happen while there are unanswered questions about the $700m that made its way into the prime minister’s personal bank account.”

“There are two questions that need to be answered: Who paid the money and why? Where did it go?” he said. “One man could answer those questions.”

Tens of thousands staged a 34-hour protest in the centre of the capital, despite warnings from authorities the rally was illegal.

Bersih, which means “clean” in Malay, said it was demanding answers for “one of the greatest multi-billion dollar corruption scandals in Malaysia’s history and the government’s most oppressive crackdowns on free speech”.

The ex-prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, an influential leader who ruled Malaysia for 22 years, joined the protests on both days. He had accused his former protege of halting an investigation into corruption and buying politicians. Police said on Thursday they would question Mahathir over corruption accusations he made at the protests.

A senior anti-corruption official in Malaysia said at the conference that actions by the government during an internal investigation into the allegations had been “ill-advised.”

Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, chairman of the advisory board to Malaysia’s anti-corruption commission, said “there is, apparently, some meddling going on … and I think this is unfortunate.”

Many Malaysians are already angry following the implementation of a goods and services tax this year as well as a devaluation in the local ringgit currency to a 17-year low.

International pressure is growing too. Swiss authorities this week froze funds in Swiss banks belonging to 1MDB.

“The office of the attorney general of Switzerland (OAG) has frozen assets amounting to several tens of millions of US dollars on Swiss bank accounts,” an OAG spokeswoman said by email, in response to an enquiry by the AFP news agency.

She said: “At this early stage of the procedure, the OAG is analysing and consolidating evidence. The OAG is already in contact with the Malaysian authorities. International cooperation with foreign countries, in particular with Malaysia, will probably be necessary to establish the facts.”

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