Malaysia’s reputation at stake

The Australian
APRIL 1, 2016

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is doing neither himself nor the standing of his country any good by being so obdurate over the corruption charges that have been levelled against him. Lashing out at media (specifically Australian journalists) over reporting of the scandal and threatening members of the Malaysian Bar who have been critical of him with prosecution under draconian, colonial era sedition laws heighten concerns about his authoritarian government.

Mr Najib’s refusal to discuss, much less provide a credible explanation for, the $1 billion linked to the debt-laden sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad that landed in his personal bank accounts is unhelpful. He should realise that even in countries that are major regional economic and strategic partners such as Australia — which long has been strongly linked to Kuala Lumpur through the Five Power Defence Arrangements and was closely allied with it in helping in the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 and MH17 disasters — there is deepening concern about the fallout from the scandal. The US, too, is showing signs of dismay.

In 2014 Barack Obama became the first US President to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966. Washington has been working to establish a new strategic relationship with Mr Najib as a moderate Islamic counterweight to Chinese regional encroachments and Islamist advances. It has been left with no alternative, however, but to join the chorus of questioning over Mr Najib’s actions in trying to curtail coverage of the scandal by blocking access to media websites. It has warned Malaysia to fully respect the right to freedom of expression.

Mr Najib is foolish to think clamping down on critics is the answer. His one-time mentor, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, is right when he says “merely having” the money that went into the Prime Minister’s account “is wrong”. He is also right when he adds that “no wonder Malaysia is included in the 10 most corrupt countries in the world”. Mr Najib has denied any wrongdoing but must do more to restore public confidence.

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