Graft Witness’s Fatal Plunge Sours Malaysia Premier’s Honeymoon

The anti-corruption commission “is just another tool of UMNO,” said Haris Ibrahim, a Kuala Lumpur-based human rights lawyer. “Short of completely overhauling the composition and the makeup of this body, this perception will not change.”


By Ranjeetha Pakiam, Bloomberg

An opposition aide’s death last week after plunging from the 14th floor of Malaysia’s anti-corruption agency may have ended Prime Minister Najib Razak’s honeymoon with the electorate.

Teoh Beng Hock, 30, died after being grilled by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission as a witness to the alleged misuse of public funds by the opposition-run state of Selangor. The government today may accede to demands from its own coalition partners and the opposition for an independent commission of inquiry after the death sparked public protests.

“This is a reminder to the Malaysian public that the institutions of the state have been compromised,” said James Chin, a professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University outside Kuala Lumpur. “There is no check and balance within the police and the other law enforcement agencies. They’re not accountable to anyone save for the” government.

The police account of the circumstances of Teoh’s death, as reported by the New Straits Times, is that he was questioned for nearly 11 hours in a probe into misuse of public funds by opposition politicians and released at 3:45 a.m. on July 16. Police said his body was found on the 5th floor podium of the commission’s building at 1:30 p.m. and that he died between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., the newspaper said.

Additional Questions

Abu Kassim Mohammad, the deputy commissioner of the anti- graft agency, said Teoh wanted to rest for a while on a couch after he was discharged and several officers saw him sleeping there at 6 a.m., the New Straits Times reported. The police have not concluded investigations and will bring in another 40 people for questioning in addition to the 33 already queried, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday.

Najib, whose National Front has ruled since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957, had seen his public approval ratings jump before Teoh’s death. The prime minister recaptured political ground lost at last year’s election by adopting opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s mantle as a reformer, dismantling preferences in business for ethnic Malays.

Anwar’s People’s Alliance says Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO, uses the police to stamp out dissent. Anwar himself is on trial for sodomy, a crime in Malaysia, and says the charges are politically motivated and that he doesn’t expect a fair hearing.

The anti-corruption commission “is just another tool of UMNO,” said Haris Ibrahim, a Kuala Lumpur-based human rights lawyer. “Short of completely overhauling the composition and the makeup of this body, this perception will not change.”

Lack of Faith

The latest survey by the Merdeka Center, an independent research institute based outside Kuala Lumpur, showed that while Najib had a 65 percent approval rating, the public’s confidence in the police stood at 46 percent, and at 41 percent for the anti-corruption body.

The opposition will set up an independent police complaints commission, a recommendation by an earlier Royal Commission in 2005 that the government has not fully implemented, Anwar says.

Hishammuddin said yesterday the police investigation into Teoh’s death would be carried out “without fear or favor.”

“There are many questions asked that need to be answered,” he told reporters. “If the questions raised are not answered, we might have to look at other options, including the possibility of setting up a royal or independent commission.”

Funeral Protest

About 2,000 people, including Anwar, attended Teoh’s funeral on July 20, the New Straits Times reported. The procession following the body carried banners and posters demanding justice. Seven people were arrested when protesters scuffled with police at a July 17 demonstration, the Star said.

Local councilor Tan Boon Wah, 39, was one of the suspects called in for interrogation on July 15, after the anti- corruption agency accused him of pocketing 2,400 ringgit ($677) he was given to supply flags for the Malaysian National Day celebrations on Aug. 31 last year.

“They made me stand still, at attention, for four hours, during which they made as if they were going to hit me, and called me ‘stupid Chinese’ repeatedly,” Tan said in a telephone interview. Tan said he was released at 2:30 a.m. after promising to show the receipts for the flags.

“Public confidence has disappeared and a lot of rebuilding has to be done,” said Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, a former president of Transparency International and vice-president of the opposition Democratic Action Party. “The prime minister has to take the lead. There should be no cover-up.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ranjeetha Pakiam in Kuala Lumpur at [email protected]