Just what will it take to bring down Malaysia’s embattled Premier?
During the UK’s expenses scandal of the last decade, the discovery that MPs had claimed £6,000 for private cleaning services or rooftop reparations rocked many a politician’s career. And rightly so.
Now, compare that with the $700 million Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, has been accused of syphoning from public accounts since early July – and the resilience he has shown against attempts to demote him since then. It helps you understand what has allowed the country's dominant party to remain in power for nearly six decades: a blatant lack of accountability.
Mr Najib had for some time a polished image. The son of Malaysia’s respected, understated second Prime Minister, he was seen by some as a flagbearer for liberalisation and reform, with progressive views on racial harmony and the economy.
That was until his government’s clumsy response to the 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which drew fire from both domestic and international observers. The leader’s popularity then faced further turbulence as the economy began to tank.
But what really shocked the 30-million strong nation was the revelation by the Sarawak report, a blog, and the Wall Street Journal that the best part of a billion dollar had landed on his personal account during the heated 2013 general elections.
These came in the wake of an investigation trying to establish how 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a sovereign fund created in 2009 by Mr Najib to seed development of new industries, instead accumulated $11 billion of debt through buying ageing power stations and land. The report alleges that money in the Prime Minister’s account came from agencies, banks and companies linked to 1MDB.
Some say Mr Najib, a man well accustomed to playing the racially tainted, money-fuelled politics of his long-dominant United Malays National Organisation (UNMO), has always had a dark side. They simply believe the Prime Minister’s PR machine is now broken.
Mr Najib has been fighting to prove them wrong – but no that adroitly. He has denied the money comes from 1MDB, asserting instead it was a legal political donation from an unnamed Middle Eastern benefactor that approves of UNMO’s rule. The claim was endorsed by the country’s anti-corruption commission. But few others find it convincing: if this Middle Eastern donor was such a good friend of Mr Najib, why would he now remain in the shadow?
Yet no matter his alibi doesn’t stack up. The Prime Minister has so far been ruthlessly efficient in silencing critics: a government agency has suspended the printing licences of two outspoken papers, and ministers say they are now drafting new rules to muzzle speculation in social media.
The investigation into mismanagement at 1MDB has also grinded to a halt after Mr Najib replaced the attorney-general on health grounds and promoted four members of his task force, effectively ending their involvement in the probe.
So where could a threat to unsit Mr Najib now emerge? The most credible danger probably comes from within his party. But observers underline that deep lines of patronage within the organisation tend to keep potential rebels in check.
And what happens to critics was exemplified earlier this summer, when Mr Najib sacked his deputy and duly replaced him with the minister responsible for the country’s police. Calls for the premier to go, voiced by high-profile personalities such as Mahathir Mohamad, who led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, have so far gone nowhere.
Another threat comes from the opposition, which is mulling a vote of non-confidence when the Parliament reconvenes in October. Passing through the vote would require enough MPs from the UNMO-led coalition to support the idea that a technocratic government, spanning both sides of the political spectrum, could lead the country until the 2018 general election.
There’s not much chance for this to happen. It’s also worth noting that the fate of troublesome opposition leaders is not always enviable in Malaysia – as suggested by the jailing on doubtful sodomy charges of Anwar Ibrahim, a former UNMO member who became a fierce critic of the government in the late 90s, for the second time last year.
Could proper pressure come from the country’s international partners instead? That’s unlikely either, at least in the short term. Western leaders tend to see Malaysia as a moderate, Muslim-majority country committed to fight against terrorism. Mr Najib played golf with Mr Obama late last year and hosted Mr Cameron, UK Prime Minister, after evidence of the dubious payments had come to the surface.
A strong showing at popular demonstrations, staged for this weekend in Kuala Lumpur and other major cities, could help advance the opposition’s cause. But the government has already declared the gatherings illegal, and previous instances of such meetings have been met with tear gas and water cannons before the contentious 2012 elections.
Some also worry that recent clashes in the multi-ethnic opposition mean the rally could be dominated by ethnic Chinese and Indians, potentially mobilising support for Mr Najib among the ethnic-Malay majority.
Perhaps the state of the economy, already in the doldrums but bound to get worse, could bring everyone back together. The slump in commodity prices, a rise in labour costs, disappointing progress of free-trade deals in the region, turmoil in China and investors’ general apprehension towards emerging markets have conspired to weaken the country and pushed capital to flee. It is now hemorrhaging foreign reserves to try and support the ringgit, its national currency, which is reaching lows against the dollar not seen in nearly two decades.
Mr Najib is tightening the leach on dissent. But he, like is country, is on the brink. A conjunction of popular outrage and economic despair is the best chance Malaysia has to push its leader over the edge.