By John Berthelsen
September 22, 2015
A trip by Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak to London and New York is shrouded in mystery, with a London source saying the premier and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, are already in London, staying at the five-star Dorchester in Mayfair, and editors in Kuala Lumpur being told he won’t go until Sept. 23, after the weekly cabinet meeting. A source later confirmed that Najib had quietly left KL.
His overseas jaunt, which is expected to later include a trip to Milan with Rosmah for her Islamic dress fashion show, is scarred by spiraling investigations by international law enforcement agencies in New York, Switzerland, Singapore and London and domestic rumors of behind-the-scenes negotiations to replace him with a unity government — which seems unlikely now.
The multiple probes of the prime minister’s personal finances and the operations of the debt-strapped 1Malaysia Development Bhd., which faces more than US$11 billion of unmet liabilities that could trigger a national financial crisis, have delivered up disastrous international publicity in the US’s two most respected newspapers. The prime minister was hoping for a star turn at the United Nations General Assembly and a meeting with US President Barack Obama.
Conversations with multiple sources in Kuala Lumpur say the prime minister is determined to hang onto his job despite the international publicity. The pressure increased on Sept. 21, when Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the respected central bank governor, broke weeks of silence to say the public deserves answers on the controversy surrounding 1MDB and the huge donation to Najib’s own bank accounts. She said she had submitted her findings to the attorney general although others say the outcome is doubtful. Najib fired the former attorney general, Abdul Gani Patail, just about as he reportedly was to deliver indictments over the cases.
“We hear nothing here,” said the head of an economic think tank. “All the news is shut out of the local press.” That was echoed by several other sources who say that if the scandals have endangered his premiership, information hasn’t percolated to the surface.
There is the question of who would succeed him if he were to leave office. There appear few alternatives.
Who can lead?
“There is nobody else with what I characterize as the wherewithal of experience, knowledge, integrity and ability to lead,” said Dominic Puthucheary, one of the country’s most respected constitutional lawyers, in a telephone conversation. “Go into parliament and look at them, not one has that capacity. Our electoral system hasn’t produced the best in the country. We are unfortunately in a state where the institutions are dysfunctional. Not one institution really functions – not the judiciary, not the police, not the parliament, insofar as making sure the interests of the nation really function. That gap is a very big gap and that is a result of years of mediocrity having become the ethos everywhere. ”
Ahmad Zahid Hamadi, the man Najib picked to replace Muhyiddin Yassin, whom he fired abruptly, is considered too mercurial and too racist given the country’s delicate ethnic balance to take over. Muhyiddin, still the deputy president of the United Malays National Organization, is considered too close to Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister. Mahathir has riven the party with his attempts to drive Najib from office. Muhyiddin, who has become quite wealthy despite a lifetime of public service, is also viewed as ethically challenged.
Allies of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the Anglophilic 78-year-old one-time finance minister, have been seeking to put together a unity government. But many observers believe he has been too long out of the political mix and has become irrelevant. “There has been movement but I can’t speak about it over the phone,” said a source.
One of the big issues is whether to grant Najib immunity from future prosecution over the many questions that hang over his head concerning the enormous amounts of wealth he and Rosmah appear to have amassed, much of it in foreign countries, a good deal of it in jewelry, handbags and other decorations adorning Rosmah herself. Questions also have come up anew concerning the 2006 murder by two of his bodyguards of a young Mongolian woman with whom he was rumored to have had an affair. A recent Al Jazeera broadcast regenerated the questions. Mahathir is said to want to jail both of them.
Given the plethora of controversies, it is unsure if the prime minister is actually going to New York although his ace in the hole is Malaysia’s pivotal position on a number of issues including the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which US President Barack Obama wants to finalize before he leaves office. Other events in which Malaysia has an important part later this year are the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in the Philippines and the annual ASEAN summit in Malaysia.
In any event, there is considerable confusion. Many observers point out that Najib ducked out as a speaker over embarrassment at the prestigious 16th International Anti-Corruption Conference and Transparency International gathering, held Sept. 2-4 in the country’s political capital of Putrajaya. They question if he wants to face the possibility of similar embarrassment in New York. If Obama meets with him, despite the fact that he previously showered Najib with praise, it will only be because of US concerns over the TPP.
No one answered the general telephone line at the prime minister’s office to confirm his travel plans. Najib had been scheduled to leave on Sept. 21 and a source at the London embassy said Najib had scheduled a meeting with officials from the UK government for 9 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22. However, a local news editor said he had received assurances that the premier’s luxurious Boeing jetliner would lift off after the weekly cabinet meeting on Sept. 23.
Najib reportedly postponed an earlier trip to London with Hishammuddin Hussein, his cousin and defense minister, to ogle military hardware for prospective purchases at the last minute. Hishamuddin went to the UK more than a week ago, with the prime minister remaining in Malaysia. Although there has been no official announcement in Kuala Lumpur about the current trip, the growing global clamor over corruption may have caused him to delay.
The clamor was renewed this week with a New York Times report on Sept. 21 that a federal grand jury is examining allegations of corruption over properties in the US that were purchased by shell companies belonging to the prime minister’s stepson, Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz, as well s other real estate properties purchased by Jho Taek Low, a close family friend. Investigators are also said to be probing a US$681 million payment that floated through the US electronic banking system and into his personal bank account at AmBank in Kuala Lumpur in March of 2013.
Separate investigations are also reportedly being carried out as a result of information provided to law enforcement officials in Switzerland and London by Clare Rewcastle Brown, the editor of Sarawak Report, which on Sept. 22 reported that the US Justice Department’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Department and FBI members traveled to London earlier this year to collect evidence.
Other reports were published in the Wall Street Journal that at least US$3.78 billion in payments that 1MDB said it had paid to Abu Dhabi’s International Petroleum Investment Co (IPIC) never got there.
These are serious investigations being carried out by competent and unreachable agencies. Unlike domestic offices, which the prime minister nullified, intimidated or co-opted, he has little chance of influencing other countries. That poses significant dangers that can’t be swatted away with charges that unnamed “forces,” usually referred to as Israeli, are trying to bring down a democratic Muslim government.