Category Archives: Najib Razak

The Lures of Kleptocracy: Malaysia’s Najib Condition

Words can be teasing in their meaning.  In the realm of political and financial discussion, they can become absurdly changing.  Take Malaysia’s political status. On the surface, all looks delightfully democratic in that multi-ethnic state.  Once the eyewash is applied, a certain ugliness manifests: the ethnic tensions that are only ever a stone’s throw away from bloodshed and riot; the thieving of state assets as a measure of self-enrichment by representatives; the periodic threatening and at stages jailing of opponents and dissidents unhappy with the vision of its leaders.

While the Mahathir Mohamad show is in full force, the former prime minister Najib Razak, finds himself in the dock facing graft charges. His plight is no doubt a good demonstration that embezzling funds and gaining assets should be done in spectacular fashion.  Do not stop at the pennies and mild theft: go the whole hog.

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, founded by Najib in 2009, is no small beer.  Here is an infrastructure pool with tax payer moneys that found its way into all sorts of mysterious and diffuse channels.  As such funds tend to generate a growth industry involving subsidiaries, it fell to SRC International to become the financial juggernaut to deal with overseas investments in energy resources.  It is alleged that SRC International was the conduit for much of the $4.5 billion that supposedly found its way into various accounts connected with Najib and his inner circle.

The money going missing from 1MDB became an international matter spanning numerous jurisdictions interested in the issue of laundering.  In 2016, Swiss investigators found “serious indications” that $4 billion had been misappropriated from state owned funds.  Since 2016, the US Justice Department has been conducting an investigation claiming that $4.5 billion from the 1MDB fund was moved to offshore bank accounts.  A civil claim has also been filed to the tune of $1.7 billion by US prosecutors to recover assets supposedly gained by using appropriated funds.

Malaysian police, not wanting to be left in the cold, have seized some $275 million worth of handbags, jewellery, watches and cash from Najib’s associated properties, while freezing over 400 bank accounts as part of the 1MDB investigation.

Less the cunning of history than its twisted grin must be the link claimed by US authorities between Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, his co-founded company Red Granite Pictures, and Hollywood.  This is somewhat delightful, if you fancy seeing a connection between appropriated Malaysian funds that end up assisting the making of The Wolf of Wall Street, a Martin Scorsese film about insatiable greed, ill-gotten gains and ignominious fall.

Mahathir has been on Najib’s case for a time, suggesting that his former protégé had become a bad apple in an otherwise vast orchard of prospects.  But questions have been raised about his motivations over the issue.  Were the missing assets initially claimed as misappropriations or raised borrowings to supplement the fund?  Inventive accounting can be the hand maiden of expansive laundering.

None of this seems to matter now except to the prosecutor’s details, which have so far laid three charges against Najib regarding criminal breach of trust between 2011 and 2015.  Each charge, if proven, can carry a maximum penalty of twenty years in prison. In an additional smattering of brutality, the charges would normally carry whipping, but Najib would be exempt by virtue of age, being over 60 years old.

The latest turn of events heartens Maria Chin Abdullah, an MP long engaged in human rights battles. “I think it’s about time.  I must say I was very happy because at last we are going to get to the bottom of this and this is only the tip of the iceberg.”  Government MPs such as Wong Chen claim being swamped by messages of hope, with constituents calling the Wednesday charges against Najib “the happiest day” of their lives.  Such hope may prove misplaced, a case of removing the man rather than allaying the condition.

Soon after Najib’s defeat, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission pressed Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor about the alleged transfer of $10.6 million from SRC to Najib’s personal account. This had been previously given a clean bill of health by attorney-general Mohamed Apandi Ali. But the amount that did stand out was the $681 million that found a home in his accounts in July 2015.  This, he claimed, was a generous donation from Saudi royalty.

He then claimed, just to spread the rot, that former central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz who now sits on Mahathir’s advisory council, had full knowledge of the transfer at the time.  Her initial reluctance to comment turned to a matter of sheer clarity: the claims by Najib were “categorically false”.  She had been blessedly ignorant.

When we revisit such terms as democracy, kleptocracy and autocracy, Malaysia has been all three and none. It is a state that has been looted by its all too rapacious political classes, mangled by an opportunism pitched between racial politics and acquisitiveness.  The prosecution of Najib is less an issue of reform than the removal of irritating situated scar tissue, or, the iceberg’s gleaming, conspicuous tip.  Leaving Mahathir to head the removal operation is much like telling ambitious parents to punish their overly successful children. Najib’s alleged theft remains the all afflicting condition for the powerful in Malaysia, as much individual initiative as historically inspired.

The ailing political body continues to remain intact, and the total exposure of the depth of financial abuse is unlikely to take place.  Mahathir will do, as he did before during his initial, lengthy stint as prime minister: maintain control, rein in the contrarians and make cosmetic adjustments.  Unlike Najib, he will just be less vulgar about it.

Faking it and Fakery: Najib and Censorship

Fake news has not merely become a business but a designation.  It is a way of silencing dissent, and questioning accounts. For the authoritarian, this is not merely a delight, but a necessity.  News accounts are deemed the stuff and dreams of the inventive, and those inventors deserve punishment.

Denial becomes a state of mind, and a very convinced one at that.  President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey can say with confidence that the casualties of any military action against the Kurds have been exaggerated.  US accounts of the bloody surge in Afrin in February made him seethe.  “You don’t feel the tiniest discomfort of the massacre of hundreds of children, women and civilians every day in East Ghouta but you express your annoyance at our fight against terrorists.  You are spreading fake news.”

In the era of Donald J. Trump, fake news has become the flipside of reality television, its evil nourishing twin.  The more real things are, the less tangibly verifiable they are.  Before the camera, and as it floats through the news cycle, all accounts shall be mistrusted.  Only the powerful shall have meaning.

It has also become a school of inspiration for such figures as Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia.  Knowing that his electoral survival might be in the balance, Najib has decided to influence the course of history.

Malaysia’s electoral boundaries have been redrawn along more amenable racial lines to counter the opposition threat.  The number of seats featuring opposition tendencies has also been reduced.  Wong Chin-Huat of the Penang Institute sees such division of constituencies as significant and more importantly, decisive.  “Assuming the voters go back to voting the same way (they did in the last polls), then [Barisan Nasional] would win eight more seats this time around.”

Najib has also become a convert to the Fake News Doctrine. But he has gone further than Trump, a man he visited with some cheer.  On his September visit, the Washington Post found that another authoritarian had won the US president’s sympathy.  (Easily forgotten here is Najib’s own political courtship and flattery of predecessor Barack Obama.)

Not only is Mr. Najib known for imprisoning peaceful opponents, silencing critical media and reversing Malaysia’s progress toward democracy. He also is a subject of the largest foreign kleptocracy investigation ever launched by the US Justice Department.

Najib’s exploits, along with those of his associates, are said to be the stuff of unbelievable proportion.  The charges from DOJ investigators centre on the diversion of $4.5 billion from a Malaysian government investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, for personal purposes.  (Ever there lies confusion between public monies and government ownership)  A tidy sum of $730 million is said to have ended up in the prime minister’s own accounts.

In the United States alone, investigators have pursued a range of assets, from a Picasso painting given to the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, a necklace belonging to Najib’s wife valued at $27.3 million, and the rights to a few Hollywood movies.  To this can be added real estate. Truly, a beast with tentacles.

Given such a state of affairs, the censors were bound to get busy.  Najib’s cabinet has been particularly preoccupied with a proposed law that would criminalise the peddling of fake news.  This stands to reason, as those who use that accusation prefer to shout down opponents rather than convince them.  In Najib’s case the cause is more sinister, the move of the censor who determines, accordingly, what is authentic and what is not.

Serious consequences duly follow: the imposition of 10-year jail terms for creating, offering, circulating, printing or publishing fake news, and punishment for the publishing outlets.  A fine of $128 million is also thrown in for good measure.

As for the definition, it is tinged with an autocrat’s idiosyncrasies.  Fake news would be “any news, information, data and reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.”  As news must, at any point in time, be necessarily prone to adjustment and alteration (is anything ever totally authentic?) the forces of anti-bogus conviction will be busy.

Examples proffered by the Anti Fake News Bill show an unmistakable slant.  One speaks of the fabrication of “information by stating in an article published in his blog that Z, a well-known businessman has obtained a business contract by offering bribes.”  In that case, the person “is guilty of an offence under this section.”

This is merely one part of the complex puzzle.  Najib is facing a veteran of the Malaysian political system, the cunning, seemingly indestructible Mahathir Bin Mohamad, a figure who served as Prime Minister for 21 years before stepping down in 2003.  It is also worth noting that the crafty Mahathir was not a creature of placid calm, being himself prone to acts of swift monstrosity when required. His role behind jailing his potential successor and rival Anwar Ibrahim remains one of the more sordid tales in recent Malaysian history.

Well before the creature of Fake News attained choate form, government prosecutors would trip and muddle their away through a brief against Anwar to baffling degrees.  A belief in the powers of bilocation would have helped, and the accusation against Anwar in the late 1990s for sodomy seemed to allege superhuman tendencies. But because Mahathir has never been entirely devoid of humour, he has agreed to seek a royal pardon for his old rival in a bid to oust Najib. The two shall ride together again.

The consequence of Najib’s squalid manoeuvres against both the electoral system and that of keeping the press shackled may well bring some immediate rewards.  But whether it be constituents within Malaysia keen for a decent rinse of politics, or DOJ investigators keen on getting their man, Najib is finding matters in politics a touch tight.