Malaysia must arrest its decline

The Australian
March 15, 2016

Julie Bishop has good reason to express Australia’s “deep concern” over the arrest of an ABC Four Corners team in Malaysia. Detaining journalists is not the answer in the deepening political crisis the country faces over allegations about the personal probity and conduct of Prime Minister Najib Razak. It is imperative authorities in Kuala Lumpur are left in no doubt about the serious view taken of their actions.

Central to the crisis, as The Australian’s reporting has pointed out, is the stability of one of the most strategically important countries in our region — one that is a close partner of Australia, the US and other Western interests and has long been admired as a successful, free-market democracy that manages to navigate a path of moderate Sunni Islam while maintaining a highly regarded, British-based legal system.

That stability is being put at risk by Mr Najib’s failure, in the words of opposition Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang, to “come clean and fully answer the multiplying questions” about the scandals surrounding him. Last July our sister paper The Wall Street Journal first disclosed the payment to the Malaysian leader of almost a billion dollars as an unexplained “personal donation”.

This, it was subsequently claimed, came from the Saudi royal family, allegedly to help defeat Islamist hardliners in Malaysia’s 2013 election. Serious questions remain about the payment despite a whitewash investigation by a hand-picked attorney-general.

The broader scandal also involves the beleaguered 1MDB sovereign wealth fund set up by Mr Najib; many more millions have reportedly gone missing. And there is mystery over the murder of the glamorous Mongolian translator Altantuya Sharibuu whose death has been linked to the country’s highest office. She was the lover of a close Najib confidant.

Mr Najib’s highhanded refusal to provide full explanations about these scandals is not helping to deal with a crisis of confidence in the country’s institutions. Curbs on media freedoms, including the ABC crew’s arrest, are increasing fears Malaysian democracy is being weakened, if not derailed.

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