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Malaysian PM Brims with Electoral Confidence Despite Graft Allegations

Arief Rahmat and Nani Yusof
Kuala Lumpur and Washington
2018-05-04
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Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak shouts slogans during an election campaign rally in Kuala Kangsar, Perak state, Malaysia, April 26, 2013.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak shouts slogans during an election campaign rally in Kuala Kangsar, Perak state, Malaysia, April 26, 2013.
AP

With a few days left before the May 9 general election, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak underscored his confidence that he could weather another challenge to his staying power, as he mocked the opposition’s allegations against him as a “slander tsunami.”

Najib has deftly endured multiple controversies during his nine years as Malaysia’s leader. But analysts and pollsters predict his ruling bloc will face a tough test in next week’s vote, as he attempts to survive a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal that has engulfed 1MDB, a state investment fund that he founded to spur economic development in his country.

“I recently mentioned that we are facing a ‘slander tsunami’ during this general election … the opposition does not have anything solid to speak about and instead choose to spread hatred and lies,” the New Straits Times quoted Najib saying as he campaigned Thursday in his home state of Pahang.

Najib, 64, apparently was taking a jab at the opposition’s much-hyped claim that they expected a “Malay tsunami,” a reference to voters from the ethnic Malay majority swinging away from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.

The main opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) bloc is led by Mahathir Mohamad, a 92-year-old former longtime prime minister and former mentor of Najib’s who has been his most virulent critic over the 1MDB scandal.

Najib, eldest son of a former prime minister and nephew of another, has consolidated his political grip based largely on his adroit financial skills as a British-trained economist.

He effectively deployed allocations for his electoral constituents, spread largesse among Malay landless families and pumped up voter support though an annual cash-handouts program. This political strategy, analysts said, allowed Najib to build a deeply embedded support at the grassroots level, giving the ruling party a powerful voter base among teachers, military personnel and rural settlers.

On his personal website, najibrazak.com, which features glossy pictures and catchy headlines, the prime minister boasts that “we delivered” on the economy, education, public security and health care, referring to some of his government’s promises from the previous electoral campaign. Among its many successes, his government created 2.26 million jobs, Najib’s website claimed.

“We must be a government that places a priority on performance, because the people must come first,” according to a quote by Najib posted prominently in bold letters on his site.

Yet his government wound up losing the popular vote in the last election in 2013, and could again lose more votes to the opposition in the May 9 election, according to recent polls, although Barisan is expected to retain a parliamentary majority.

Apart from allegations of corruption tied to the 1MDB affair, the prime minister has been severely criticized in recent years for his government’s policy of instituting a 6-percent sales tax (GST) aimed at increasing fiscal revenue.

On Thursday, Najib defended the controversial policy while campaigning in Pahang.

“The higher income group pays more if they spend more. When they pay more tax, we can distribute (the money) to those who need aid from government,” he told a campaign rally, according to Channel News Asia. “That’s why we can raise the salary of civil servants this year.”

Political scion

The eldest son of Malaysia’s second premier, Abdul Razak Hussein, Najib was born on July 23, 1953, in Kuala Lipis, in the east coast state of Pahang. He is the nephew of Hussein Onn, the third prime minister.

Najib holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial economics from Nottingham University in England, where he transferred after his secondary education at Malvern Boys College in Worcestershire. He was a teenager when his father served as PM.

Upon returning to Malaysia in the early 1970s, Najib worked as a public relations manager at the state oil firm Petronas. In 1976, at age 22, he became the country’s youngest electoral candidate, when he ran for a parliamentary seat in Pahang, which was left vacant when his father died.

From 1986 until 1999, Najib held various cabinet posts, including as defense and education minister, before his appointment as deputy prime minister and finance minister in 2004, during which he oversaw the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA), an agricultural land scheme for the poor.

It was while he was overseeing FELDA that Najib introduced infrastructure projects and benefits for more than 110,000 Malay landless families who also received incentives and bonus payments.

Extending his grip

In an April 24 interview with Bloomberg News – his first one with foreign media outlet in years – Najib predicted he would prolong his rule, as he discussed the 1MDB embezzlement scandal that spawned a probe in at least six countries, including Switzerland, United States and Singapore.

“You cannot just accuse somebody of being a thief unless there is evidence,” he said. “I stand by it: There’s no wrongdoing. The Saudi government has come out with a statement admitting it’s an official donation. The facts speak for themselves, but it’s been turned into a political issue.”

In August 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was pursuing criminal action against those involved in the misappropriations and fraudulent diversion of funds from 1MDB, an entity wholly-owned by the Malaysian government.

DOJ is trying to recover more than $1.7 billion in real-estate and other assets allegedly siphoned off through a labyrinth of complex transactions from 1MDB, which Najib formed in 2009 ostensibly to pursue projects that would benefit Malaysian citizens through development projects.

Leaked court documents showed that about U.S. $700 million of those stolen funds may have been diverted through companies and government agencies linked to 1MDB before landing into the personal bank accounts of Najib, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Najib said that a deposit of about U.S. $681 million into his personal bank accounts, which was made ahead of the 2013 general election, was a political donation from a member of the Saudi royal family.

‘Give me a chance’

In 2009, Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party was experiencing one of its most difficult times in its unbroken reign of government when he replaced Abdullah Badawi, who was hastened into retirement after the party’s electoral failure.

BN, anchored by UMNO, lost its super majority in 2008 and saw parliamentary seats under its control further trimmed in 2013.

Newspapers, quoting opinion polls, reported in 2009 that Najib was more unpopular than the man he was replacing. There were allegations by the opposition of corruption and bribery back then, including when Najib was still defense minister.

But despite the allegations against its leader, Malaysia, a multi-ethnic nation of more than 30 million people, grew under Najib, enhancing its standing as one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant economies, with a growth rate of between 5.2 and 5.7 percent last year, rebounding from 4.2 percent in 2016.

Higher oil prices also spurred economic growth and revenue last year, allowing Najib to propose hefty spending, including millions of dollars in pay hikes for government employees and pensioners, according to economists.

Meanwhile, Najib, the political blue-blood, persevered and pledged sweeping reforms.

“Give me a chance, judge me by my actions. Don’t judge me on rumors and baseless allegations,” he said during a party convention in 2013 where he was elected unopposed as a leader. “I will reform and I will make changes.”

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