Malaysia’s Najib — from reformer to scandal-haunted leader

07 Apr 2018

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MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Najib Razak.—AP
MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Najib Razak.—AP

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration has been rocked by claims he was involved in a campaign to plunder state investment fund 1MDB, slammed by the US as “kleptocracy at its worst”.

But by cracking down on opponents, and buoyed by an improving domestic economic picture, he is tipped to win a third term in office at polls due within weeks.

Najib dissolved parliament on Friday and the election commission will set a date for the poll in the coming days.

He came to power in 2009 to replace a premier who was dumped over the government’s poor performance at a general election a year earlier.

At that time Najib, a stalwart of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the son of a Malaysian founding father, presented himself as a reformer.

He made limited changes such as replacing security laws widely criticised as stifling dissent, offering a glimmer of hope that repressive rule by the UMNO-dominated coalition which has led Malaysia for six decades might finally be eased.

But soon after winning a second term in 2013, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a fund launched by Najib to promote economic development, slid into a massive debt hole and allegations surfaced that money was missing.

The story exploded in 2015 when The Wall Street Journal published documents allegedly showing that the premier received $681 million in payments to his personal bank accounts.

Najib and 1MDB have consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Since then, there has been a steady drip of allegations. The US Department of Justice launched civil lawsuits seeking to seize $1.7 billion in assets allegedly bought with money looted from 1MDB, from real estate to artworks and a luxury yacht.

In a speech last year, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticised those allegedly involved in the scandal, adding: “This is kleptocracy at its worst.”

Lurch to the right

As the controversy escalated, Najib lurched sharply to the right.

Opponents were arrested on various charges and critics were purged from government, while domestic investigations cleared him of wrongdoing.

UMNO has led Malaysia at the head of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition since independence from Britain in 1957 and has a firm grip on power.

Even with the return of veteran ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, 92, to head the opposition, analysts say they face insurmountable obstacles in their bid to oust Najib.

While 1MDB grabbed international headlines, in the rural heartlands of the Muslim Malays — who make up over 60 per cent of the population in the multi-ethnic country — it is not the most important issue.

Voters there are more concerned about rising living costs and issues of religion and race.

Najib has been given a boost by an improving economic picture and has steadfastly vowed to defend the Malays, who have long enjoyed a favoured position in society under an official affirmative action programme.

However, some believe the government’s moves over the past week to push a controversial redrawing of electoral boundaries through parliament, as well as a new law against “fake news”, could backfire and lose Najib support.

“Najib’s made this election not just about himself, but about the democratic future of this country,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from John Cabot University.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2018