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The Lures of Kleptocracy: Malaysia’s Najib Condition

Words can be teasing in their meaning.  In the realm of political and financial discussion, they can become absurdly changing.  Take Malaysia’s political status. On the surface, all looks delightfully democratic in that multi-ethnic state.  Once the eyewash is applied, a certain ugliness manifests: the ethnic tensions that are only ever a stone’s throw away from bloodshed and riot; the thieving of state assets as a measure of self-enrichment by representatives; the periodic threatening and at stages jailing of opponents and dissidents unhappy with the vision of its leaders.

While the Mahathir Mohamad show is in full force, the former prime minister Najib Razak, finds himself in the dock facing graft charges. His plight is no doubt a good demonstration that embezzling funds and gaining assets should be done in spectacular fashion.  Do not stop at the pennies and mild theft: go the whole hog.

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, founded by Najib in 2009, is no small beer.  Here is an infrastructure pool with tax payer moneys that found its way into all sorts of mysterious and diffuse channels.  As such funds tend to generate a growth industry involving subsidiaries, it fell to SRC International to become the financial juggernaut to deal with overseas investments in energy resources.  It is alleged that SRC International was the conduit for much of the $4.5 billion that supposedly found its way into various accounts connected with Najib and his inner circle.

The money going missing from 1MDB became an international matter spanning numerous jurisdictions interested in the issue of laundering.  In 2016, Swiss investigators found “serious indications” that $4 billion had been misappropriated from state owned funds. Since 2016, the US Justice Department has been conducting an investigation claiming that $4.5 billion from the 1MDB fund was moved to offshore bank accounts.  A civil claim has also been filed to the tune of $1.7 billion by US prosecutors to recover assets supposedly gained by using appropriated funds.

Malaysian police, not wanting to be left in the cold, have seized some $275 million worth of handbags, jewelry, watches and cash from Najib’s associated properties, while freezing over 400 bank accounts as part of the 1MDB investigation.

Less the cunning of history than its twisted grin must be the link claimed by US authorities between Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, his co-founded company Red Granite Pictures, and Hollywood.  This is somewhat delightful, if you fancy seeing a connection between appropriated Malaysian funds that end up assisting the making of The Wolf of Wall Street, a Martin Scorsese film about insatiable greed, ill-gotten gains and ignominious fall.

Mahathir has been on Najib’s case for a time, suggesting that his former protégé had become a bad apple in an otherwise vast orchard of prospects.  But questions have been raised about his motivations over the issue.  Were the missing assets initially claimed as misappropriations or raised borrowings to supplement the fund?  Inventive accounting can be the hand maiden of expansive laundering.

None of this seems to matter now except to the prosecutor’s details, which have so far laid three charges against Najib regarding criminal breach of trust between 2011 and 2015.  Each charge, if proven, can carry a maximum penalty of twenty years in prison. In an additional smattering of brutality, the charges would normally carry whipping, but Najib would be exempt by virtue of age, being over 60 years old.

The latest turn of events heartens Maria Chin Abdullah, an MP long engaged in human rights battles. “I think it’s about time.  I must say I was very happy because at last we are going to get to the bottom of this and this is only the tip of the iceberg.”  Government MPs such as Wong Chen claim being swamped by messages of hope, with constituents calling the Wednesday charges against Najib “the happiest day” of their lives.  Such hope may prove misplaced, a case of removing the man rather than allaying the condition.

Soon after Najib’s defeat, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission pressed Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor about the alleged transfer of $10.6 million from SRC to Najib’s personal account. This had been previously given a clean bill of health by attorney-general Mohamed Apandi Ali. But the amount that did stand out was the $681 million that found a home in his accounts in July 2015.  This, he claimed, was a generous donation from Saudi royalty.

He then claimed, just to spread the rot, that former central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz who now sits on Mahathir’s advisory council, had full knowledge of the transfer at the time.  Her initial reluctance to comment turned to a matter of sheer clarity: the claims by Najib were “categorically false”.  She had been blessedly ignorant.

When we revisit such terms as democracy, kleptocracy and autocracy, Malaysia has been all three and none. It is a state that has been looted by its all too rapacious political classes, mangled by an opportunism pitched between racial politics and acquisitiveness.  The prosecution of Najib is less an issue of reform than the removal of irritating situated scar tissue, or, the iceberg’s gleaming, conspicuous tip.  Leaving Mahathir to head the removal operation is much like telling ambitious parents to punish their overly successful children. Najib’s alleged theft remains the all afflicting condition for the powerful in Malaysia, as much individual initiative as historically inspired.

The ailing political body continues to remain in tact, and the total exposure of the depth of financial abuse is unlikely to take place.  Mahathir will do, as he did before during his initial, lengthy stint as prime minister: maintain control, rein in the contrarians and make cosmetic adjustments. Unlike Najib, he will just be less vulgar about it.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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