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Ex-Malaysia leader’s arrest part of a swift fall from grace

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Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak arrived, May 24, at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Office in Putrajaya, Malaysia. Najib was arrested Tuesday by anti-graft investigators and will be charged over his alleged role in the multibillion-dollar looting of a state investment fund.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia >> Just two months ago, Najib Razak was a towering figure in Malaysian politics and literally beyond the law. That cloak of privilege and impunity was torn away Tuesday when anti-corruption police arrested him at his posh Kuala Lumpur home.

Since his spectacular defeat in a May 9 general election, the government has swiftly reopened investigations into the multibillion-dollar looting of the 1MDB state investment fund that Najib set up when he took power in 2009. The now defunct fund amassed billions in debts and is being investigated in the U.S. and several other countries for alleged cross-border embezzlement and money laundering.

In a series of humiliations since his electoral loss, the patrician and luxury-loving Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were banned from leaving the country; truckloads of luggage stashed with cash, jewelry and hundreds of expensive designer bags worth a staggering $272 million were seized from their home and other properties; and anti-corruption police questioned Najib for hours last month about the 1MDB scandal.

Najib will be charged in court on Wednesday, making him one of a few Southeast Asian leaders to be prosecuted after losing office.

The government said his arrest was related to the suspicious transfer of $10.6 billion from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB, into his bank accounts using multiple intermediary companies between December 2015 and February 2015 but didn’t give details of the charges against him.

Najib denies any wrongdoing and has accused the government of a “political vengeance” against his family.

British-educated Najib is a political blue-blood whose father and uncle were the country’s second and third prime ministers, respectively. He was thrust into politics in 1976 after his father died, becoming Malaysia’s youngest lawmaker at age 22, and the youngest deputy minister two years later.

Najib took power as Malaysia’s sixth prime minister in 2009 with a mandate to reinvigorate the National Front coalition following a poor election performance in 2008 when its majority in parliament shrank.

Najib, 64, cast himself as a liberal and reforming leader of the predominantly Muslim country of 31 million.

Both finance minister and premier, he navigated Malaysia through the global financial crisis of 2009 and abolished draconian colonial-era security laws only to impose similar repressive measures several years later. Former President Barack Obama praised him as a “reformer with much to do.”

Najib speaks impeccable English with a posh accent, has his own blog and is an avid social media user. He often seems far removed from the concerns of ordinary Malaysians and the poor rural Malays who are the bedrock of his ruling party.

He was mocked by the opposition earlier this year for saying he prefers eating quinoa, an expensive imported South American grain, to rice, a staple of the Malaysian diet.

Despite this, the National Front suffered a further loss of support in 2013, getting fewer votes than the opposition for the first time, though still winning 133 out of 222 parliamentary seats. Najib blamed a “Chinese tsunami,” referring to minority ethnic Chinese abandoning his coalition.

He imposed new repressive security measures and increasingly pandered to Islamists and ethnic chauvinism to shore up his Malay support base. Opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was convicted of sodomy for a second time in 2015 and imprisoned in a case that he said was fabricated by the government to crush the opposition.

Najib’s leadership came under further pressure when leaked documents in 2015 showed that $700 million linked to 1MDB had gone into his private bank account. It sparked massive street rallies demanding his resignation, but Najib responded with an iron fist. He sacked critics in the government, including the attorney general, who was preparing to charge him and his deputy, muzzled the media and stifled investigations into the scandal.

The U.S. Justice Department alleges that $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014, and was laundered through layers of bank accounts in the U.S. and other countries to finance Hollywood films and for extravagant purchases that included hotels, a luxury yacht, art works and jewelry. Court filings say this included $27.3 million to buy a 22-carat pink diamond necklace for Najib’s wife.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the scandal, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in 2015, as “kleptocracy at its worst.”

Malaysia’s attorney general attempted to clear Najib in 2016, saying the money was a political donation from the Saudi royal family and that most of it was returned.

Najib’s reputation, however, was battered. Another scandal at plantation agency FELDA and an unpopular goods and services tax he introduced in 2015 blamed for a rising cost of living have also increased rumblings among rural Malays against Najib’s leadership.

The 1MDB saga spurred the unexpected political resurrection of Najib’s former mentor Mahathir Mohamad, who led Malaysia for 22 years until his retirement in 2003. Mahathir joined hands with former political enemies and united a fractured opposition.

The historic election defeat was attributed in part to Mahathir’s reputation as a statesman who transformed a Southeast Asian backwater into a modern economy. His involvement with the opposition helped soothe voters’ fears of possible chaos under a new government. Many Malaysians have been haunted for decades by racial riots in 1969 that killed more than 200 people.

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