Party machine trumps morality

Baginda had a glamorous assistant and lover, Altantuya Shaaribuu, 28, who came down to Kuala Lumpur and claimed $US500,000 of the commission when it was paid in October 2006. When Baginda refused, she took to turning up outside his house and making a scene.


Hamish McDonald, Sydney Morning Herald

Yesterday one of the countries Australia and its friends have long seen as a pillar of regional stability took another big step towards becoming a pariah nation. Malaysia swore in perhaps one of the most questionable current politicians in any of the world's democracies as its new prime minister, in a triumph of party machine politics over sound governance and morality.

Najib Razak, 55, is widely expected to cement his hold on power with more of the media shutdowns, national-security detentions without trial and fabricated charges against rivals that have already marked his ascent.

This comes as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development lists Malaysia as one of the hold-out nations refusing to exchange information to prevent tax avoidance. On top of a trade collapse, it now risks new sanctions against tax havens agreed upon at this week's Group of 20 meeting.

Najib is far from a new broom, bringing in the reforms that his older predecessor Abdullah Badawi had promised but never delivered. Instead, he embodies all that has gone wrong in the Malaysian state over the last 30 years from its corrupted policies of addressing racial inequalities through pro-Malay policies in education, government jobs and economic opportunities.

He never had to struggle for his start in politics. When his father, prime minister Abdul Razak, died in 1976, Najib took his father's parliamentary seat aged 22, and within a few years was rising in cabinet and the ruling United Malays National Organisation.

He put a distinctive stamp on the defence portfolio, which he held for 14 years until last year. Malaysia's armed services became notable for their multiple sources of equipment – a policy, many analysts think, with the main rationale of increasing the number of big arms contracts and consequent opportunities for lucrative commissions. The Malaysian air force, for example, flies both Russian and American fighters, the MiG-29 and Sukhoi 30s alongside the Boeing F/A-18s.

It was one of these defence deals that has led to the biggest stink around Najib. In 2002 his ministry entered a €1 billion deal with a French-Spanish shipyard, Armaris, for delivery of two new Scorpene and one refurbished Agosta conventional submarines to the Malaysian navy.

The Malaysian intermediary in the noncompetitive tender was a company called Perimekar, which was then owned by another Malaysian company, Ombak Laut, wholly owned by Abdul Razak Baginda, head of a government-backed strategic studies think tank who was a close friend and adviser to Najib. The deal earned Perimekar a commission of €114 million.

Baginda had a glamorous assistant and lover, Altantuya Shaaribuu, 28, who came down to Kuala Lumpur and claimed $US500,000 of the commission when it was paid in October 2006. When Baginda refused, she took to turning up outside his house and making a scene.

In a sworn statement that has just surfaced, Special Branch policeman Sirul Azhar Umar confessed that he was asked by a superior officer, Azilah Hadri, to deal with a woman disturbing Baginda, for a large reward. On the evening of October 19, 2006, he and Azilah bundled her away from Baginda's gate, drove her to a state forest, shot her dead, and blew up the body with military explosives.

However, the abduction had been witnessed by a taxi driver. Azilah and Sirul were soon charged with murder. Baginda was also charged as an accomplice despite an SMS message from Najib: "I will see the Inspector General of Police at 11am today … The problem will be solved. Be cool."

In the event, it has been cool: a judge ruled last October that Baginda had no case to answer. Now he is reported to be studying for a PhD at Oxford. Azilah and Sirul, whose embarrassingly detailed statement was ruled inadmissible, face judgment next Thursday and a possible death sentence.

On February 3, Sirul made a tearful plea against a death sentence. He said he was "a black sheep that has to be sacrificed" to protect unnamed people who had not been before the court or questioned. "I have no reason to cause hurt, what's more to take the life of the victim in such a cruel manner," Sirul said. "I appeal to the court, which has the powers to determine if I live or die, not to sentence me so as to fulfil others' plans for me." The judgment will come, conveniently, a day after Najib faces his first electoral test, in the first of three byelections. In recent weeks the government machinery has tear-gassed an opposition rally, bribed rival MPs to defect, closed the two main opposition newspapers for three months, barred an opposition MP who tried to ask Najib questions about the murder, and charged the veteran lawyer-MP Karpal Singh with sedition.

Anwar Ibrahim says he has not had "one minute" on the state-run broadcast media since he returned to parliament and became opposition leader last August. Ousted as deputy prime minister by Mahathir in 1998 and convicted over manufactured sodomy and corruption crimes, Anwar faces a new trial for sodomy in July, based on evidence given by a young man whom Najib has admitted meeting before the alleged offence. South-East Asia seems to be getting a new Marcos.