Malaysia’s Najib rebuffs elite pleas to step down


Rosmah says stay put but those demanding PM’s ouster may get a boost from the sultans

John Berthelsen, Asia Sentinel

A long list of Malaysia’s most prominent and influential figures have reportedly gone to Prime Minister Najib Razak in recent weeks to appeal to him to step aside as his scandal-plagued administration brings serious harm to the economy and image of the country.

These include all three of Najib’s brothers, especially Nazir Razak, the chairman of the CIMB banking group. Others who have both publicly and privately appealed for him to at least step aside until investigations into the unexplained US$681 million in his AmBank personal account and the long-running 1MDB scandal are completed include Musa Hitam, the onetime deputy premier under Mahathir Mohamad; political veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah; and Mahathir himself, who has almost daily called Najib a thief and criminal.

Insiders say Najib has agreed to hear their appeals, which have included offers of immunity from prosecution, but that his influential wife, Rosmah Mansor, has insisted he remain in office. Those trying to fix the problem are hampered by their own rivalries and past jealousies, betrayals and maneuverings.

Stuck in place

The inability to move out an unpopular and seemingly corrupt premier has exposed fundamental flaws in Malaysia’s governance at a time when the country occupies a key place on the international stage with the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and a position as a key partner in the just-concluded Trans Pacific Partnership trade talks with Washington, which now must be ratified by the individual member states.

The prime minister returned over the weekend from a jaunt to London, New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly and Milan to show off Malaysian products and attend his wife’s Islamic fashion show. He was greeted on his return by a “hero’s welcome” that according to critics was manufactured with party funds.

He was also greeted by a statement on Tuesday, Oct. 6, by Malaysia’s nine powerful hereditary Sultans asking the government to complete the investigation into 1MDB as soon as possible, “take the appropriate stern action” against all found to be implicated and report the findings comprehensively and transparently. According to the statement, the Sultans worry that if the issue drags on, it could jeopardize the country’s economy and personal livelihoods.

It is unsure just how much effect that will have. The Sultans have considerable influence with the ethnic Malay community, which makes up more than 60 percent of the country, particularly in the kampungs, the rural villages that are the backbone of support for the United Malays National Organization. However, polls by the Merdeka Center in the past have shown that rural Malays have little understanding of the 1MDB scandal, in which the state-backed investment fund has RMB42 billion worth of liabilities, an unknown amount of that unfunded.

Defy the Sultans?

The rulers’ statement, while strong, only addressed 1MBD instead of naming the prime minister. A well-placed source told Asia Sentinel that a request had been relayed to the Sultans to ask them to demand that Najib step aside, but that an unknown number, led by the Sultan of Pahang, had balked, meaning they are divided over Najib’s fate. Sultans on Najib’s side, in addition to Pahang, are said to be Kedah and Terengganu. The result was the statement delivered Tuesday. The Council of Rulers convened today, Wednesday, Oct. 7, at the national palace, led by the Sultan of Perlis.

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