Mahathir Acts to Clean Up Malaysian Politics

Corruption scandal exposes Saudi hand in the cookie jar
Developing Just Leadership

Waseem Shehzad

Shawwal 17, 1439 2018-07-01

News & Analysis

by Waseem Shehzad (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 47, No. 5, Shawwal, 1439)

Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, elected for the second time after coming out of retirement, is a man in a hurry. During the May general elections at the head of a new coalition that brought him to power, he had pledged to clean up the mess created by his predecessor Najib Razak. Mahathir seems to be living up to his promise.

Even at 92, he is in pretty good health but he wants to create a lasting legacy by cleaning up the mess that earned his predecessor such notoriety. In addition to launching a probe into billions of dollars in fraud at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak’s pet project, a number of top officials associated with the former regime have also been forced to resign.

The Attorney General, Tan Seri Apandi Ali, and Central Bank Governor, Muhammad Ibrahim both left their jobs. In addition to Razak’s family and cronies, these two were also implicated, directly or indirectly, in fraud related to the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. Billions of dollars allegedly siphoned off from the fund in a sophisticated fraud would not have been possible without the help of these two officials.

The former Attorney General in particular, Tan Seri Apandi Ali, blocked efforts by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to investigate fraud allegations. At the height of the probe into external involvement, Apandi Ali as attorney general refused to issue a Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) to the Anti-Corruption Commission to question non-Malays, especially Arabian officials and princes involved in the scandal.

Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull, Mahathir’s newly appointed anti-corruption chief, who was forced to resign from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in 2016 as a result of pressure to drop plans to indict Najib, noted that his commission has “had difficulties dealing with Arab countries (such as) Qatar, Saudi Arabia, (and the) UAE.”

Shukri said a Saudi Prince who confessed to have channeled RM2.6 billion to former Prime Minister Najib was “unable to issue supporting documents.” Speaking to media at the MACC headquarters on May 22, Shukri said that at the height of the investigation, the former attorney general had refused to authorize an MLA for the agency to verify the prince’s claim. “There is a letter to show that the donation came from a Prince of Arab (sic),” he said.

“Our officers then went to Saudi [Arabia]. But rather than us pursuing our subjects, somebody came and introduced the prince to us instead,” he said. “When we asked where are the supporting documents, he could not produce [them]… We needed an MLA from the attorney general to pursue and find out whether the claim was true, but he refused to [authorize it],” he added.

Explaining the reason for obtaining an MLA, Shukri said it is required by the anti-corruption commission to record statements from non-Malaysians overseas. The MACC has already obtained the bulk of domestic evidence tied to investigations on SRC International and allegations of RM2.6 billion funneled into Najib’s account, immediately before the cases were closed under the instruction of then Attorney General Apandi Ali. “With the new attorney general, we can now try our best to send an MLA to them,” Shukri said.

However, he cautioned that the agency had experienced difficulties in dealing with Arab countries. This is not surprising since these regimes have been involved in bribing Najib to advance their own nefarious agenda in Malaysia.

“We had no problem with the US, Luxembourg, Swiss authorities… But we have had difficulties dealing with Arab countries [such as] Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE,” Shukri said.

Anti-graft investigators have already questioned Najib twice. In his first interview since losing the May 9 elections, Najib told Reuters on June 19 he shouldn’t be blamed for the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB scandal, and declared he knew nothing about money from the state fund appearing in his personal account. Instead, he blamed his advisors and the management and board of 1MDB for keeping the alleged embezzlement of funds a secret from him!

Prime Minister Mahathir, however, is clear. He told Reuters in the same interview that the authorities have “an almost perfect case” against Najib on charges of embezzlement, misappropriation and bribery linked to 1MDB. He has vowed to bring Najib to justice even though the latter was his handpicked successor.

As the probe has widened, two top judges as well as the chief election officer also announced they would step down. All were seen as close to the previous regime. A judiciary statement said on June 13 that Chief Justice Raus Sharif and Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin, the appeals court president, would step down on July 31. “His Majesty the King had given his assent to their resignation on June 8,” the statement read. Despite exceeding the legal retirement age of 66, the two judges had their terms extended last year.

Meanwhile, an Election Commission statement said Mohamad Hashim, who became chief election officer in January 2016, would see his service period “shortened” to July 1. This is one dismissal even Najib would agree with. After all, Hashim was appointed to secure the boss’s re-election. He clearly failed.

The corruption probe, however, is not confined to Malaysia. At least six countries, including the United States, Switzerland, and Singapore are involved in investigating the fraud allegations that link Saudi and Emirati entities. Former prime minister Najib is not only being probed for fraud but a proper investigation may unearth the shady dealings he had with a Saudi commercial company, members of the Saudi ruling family, and UAE state-owned entities and officials.

If Saudi and Emirati officials are feeling uneasy following these developments in Malaysia, they have good reason to do so. Najib not only worked with Turki ibn ‘Abdullah, son of the former Saudi king ‘Abdullah but also with the current King Salman and his upstart son Muhammad ibn Salman, to siphon funds.

Malaysia’s new defence minister, Mat Sabu, is taking steps to distance the Mahathir government from the policies and alliances of the previous Najib-led administration, the most public of which is the open rejection of Salafism, the sectarianism that attends it, the wars that feed it, and the purveyors that bribe in its name.

The new Defence Minister Muhamad (Mat) Sabu has also announced he was reviewing plans for a Saudi-funded anti-terrorism centre, the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), which was allocated 16 hectares of land in Putrajaya by the Najib government. Mahathir had criticized the centre prior to elections accusing the Saudis of stoking sectarianism in Malaysia.

Mat Sabu, a brilliant orator, had been vocal in his criticism of Saudi Arabia before and during the election campaign. He cautioned against getting too close to a regime whose internal politics he described as “toxic.” In a commentary last year, Mat Sabu wrote, “For lack of a better word, Saudi Arabia is a cesspool of constant rivalry among the princes. By this token, it is also a vortex that could suck any country into its black hole if one is not careful. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is governed by hyper-orthodox Salafi or Wahhabi ideology, where Islam is taken in a literal form. Yet true Islam requires understanding Islam, not merely in its Qur’anic form, but Qur’anic spirit.”

To show that Malaysia is serious in rectifying the skewed policies of the past regime, Defence Minister Mat Sabu announced on June 20 that the country would end its involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. Najib had sent Malaysian naval vessel to impose a blockade of dirt-poor Yemen where 22 million of its 24 million people are on the verge of starvation.

At least one country in the Muslim world — Malaysia — is taking corrective measures to curb the hateful policy of sectarianism that benefits only the enemies of Islam. Furthermore, it is changing its policy to not become a tool in someone else’s wars of aggression.

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