Updated at 5:20 p.m. ET on 2018-05-21
Malaysia’s probe into the corruption scandal that helped topple its last government gained momentum Monday with the formation of a task force on the matter and ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak preparing to report to the anti-graft agency for questioning.
Just hours before he was to appear before the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to answer questions about alleged graft linked to the 1MDB state fund, Najib hired a new legal team, according to media reports and one of his lawyers who had been speaking to the media on his behalf.
Mahathir Mohamad, the new prime minister, said the task force would meet for the first time Tuesday and investigate crimes committed in relation to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which Najib founded in 2009 as a sovereign wealth fund to support economic development in the country.
Mahathir announced the task force’s formation the same day that Malaysia’s king, Sultan Muhammad V, presided over an oath-taking ceremony for 13 ministers in the prime minister’s cabinet during an evening ceremony at the National Palace. They were sworn in 11 days after the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition defeated Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition in a historic general election.
“It is hoped that the task force will help reclaim some of the country’s dignity which has been severely tarnished by the scandal and will return cash and assets belonging to the Malaysian people,” Mahathir said in a statement issued Monday night.
He said the task force would also cooperate with its counterparts in the United States, Switzerland, Singapore, Canada and other countries as needed.
“It has been mandated to take full responsibility over all aspects including investigations, tracing the movement of funds and the seizure of assets obtained from wrong-doing and embezzlement of 1MDB funds kept or laundered within and outside Malaysia,” Mahathir said in a statement issued Monday night.
Najib, who also held the portfolio of finance minister during his time in office, has been summoned to appear before MACC at its headquarters in Putrajaya. He is to be questioned specifically on SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB.
The probe into SRC International is in addition to the discovery of about 2.6 billion ringgit (U.S. $681 million) from 1MDB in two personal bank accounts belonging to Najib.
In 2015, a separate investigation into the 1MDB scandal ended after Najib terminated then-Attorney General Gani Patail who apparently was preparing a charge sheet to prosecute the prime minister. Gani’s replacement, Apandi Ali, who was handpicked by Najib, cleared the PM from any wrongdoing in connection with 1MDB in January 2016, bringing the investigation to an end. Last week, the new government put Apandi on leave.
Gani is a member of the new task force, along with a former MACC chief commissioner Abu Kassim Mohamed, who was also dismissed by Najib while looking into the 1MDB affair. The other two members of the task force are former Royal Malaysia Police Special Branch Deputy Director Abdul Hamid Bador and current MACC chief Mohd Shukri Abdull.
The U.S. Department of Justice has described the 1MDB affair as “the worst kleptocracy scandal in recent times,” pointing to more than U.S. $4.5 billion being stolen from the fund since its inception in 2009.
Najib has denied any criminal wrongdoing, saying the money deposited into his bank accounts was a donation from a Saudi royal. Over the weekend, while visiting his home state of Pahang, Najib reiterated his earlier claim.
“I did not steal money from the people,” Reuters quoted him as saying.
A police raid last week at private properties in Kuala Lumpur linked to Najib resulted in the seizure of luxury items including designer handbags, watches and cash. In separate raids at Najib’s apartments and offices that lasted more than a day, police said they had seized 284 boxes of high-priced designer handbags and 72 suitcases containing cash, jewelry and other luxury items.
Amar Singh Ishar Singh, director of the national police’s Commercial Crime Investigation Department (CCID), confirmed that the searches were tied to the 1MDB case.
In a statement through his lawyer following the search, Najib described the items as “donations and gifts” and insisted that the raids were meant to harass him.
Najib shakes up legal team
On Monday, Najib overhauled his legal team, according to attorney Harpal Singh Grewal, who had been serving as a spokesman for the former PM. Harpal confirmed media reports about the shake-up.
News portal Malaysia Decides reported Harpal and another lawyer, M. Athimulan, had been told their services were no longer needed and that Najib had replaced them with former solicitor-general II Yusof Zainal Abiden and his team of six lawyers.
Harpal confirmed the change to BenarNews, but insisted he was not removed.
“Yes, I have withdrawn,” he said in a text message shortly before midnight. “Yusuf wants his own team.”
Meanwhile, over the weekend as news about the seizure of luxury items dominated headlines and lit up Malaysian social media, Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, issued a rare statement through her lawyers calling on the authorities to stop spreading leaks.
“It is our hope that the authorities would observe the rule of law and due process, to avoid a premature public trial,” read the statement, according to multiple news outlets.
“Enforcement agencies should not be feeding social media trolls, but observe and uphold strict professionalism at all times,” the statement said.
Singh, the CCID chief, said he took the allegations against his officers seriously.
“The officers were categorically reminded by me to conduct the searches professionally and accord utmost respect to the occupants,” Singh said, adding he had reminded them that the properties were occupied by the former prime minister and his family.
To ensure the searches were conducted professionally and prevent a trial by media, Singh said he had prohibited his officers from carrying their mobile phones while on duty.
Exceptions were made for the search commander and his deputy, “and that is only for the purpose of communication.”
“The police urge the relevant parties to provide the details of the leaked photographs if any, to enable us to conduct an investigation to verify if in fact the photographs came from the police,” Singh said, adding that Najib’s family members and friends were present during the searches.
Leadership in place
The new cabinet inducted Monday was led by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, president of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and wife of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was recently freed from prison and given a royal pardon over a sodomy conviction. Wan Azizah was sworn in as Malaysia’s first female deputy prime minister.
The removal of Anwar from office in 1998 led to a falling out with then-Prime Minister Mahathir and the start of Malaysia’s “Reformasi” movement to topple Mahathir’s government. The pair rekindled their relationship as they focused on defeating Najib and Barisan Nasional coalition in the May 9 election.
After being sworn into office again as prime minister, Mahathir announced his picks for the new cabinet, splitting the seats among the four parties in the PH coalition. He has yet to select a foreign minister.
Describing the governing Pakatan alliance as being inexperienced, Mahathir also announced the formation of a “Council of Eminent Persons” to advise on economic and financial matters during the transition period.
“We realized, of course, that many of us have no or little experience in running a government. Of course, this expertise must come from those with experience in running previous governments, or having held some responsible posts,” Mahathir said.
Speaking to civil servants on Monday morning, Mahathir said Malaysia was no longer as respected on the global stage as it once was.
“It is our collective duty to repair the country’s image so that we will once more be looked highly upon by the world,” he said in his first such address since reassuming his role as prime minister, an office he held for more than two decades before leaving office in 2003.