The Malay or The Najib Malay?

March 17, 2018

The Malay or The Najib Malay?

Let the Late Malaysian Poet Laureate Usman Awang remind the present generation who they should be.


Image result for The MalayThis is a Najib Razak Malay


They can longer be a people who have to depend a nanny state which is being run into the ground by a kleptocracy under Prime Minister Najib Razak. They cannot be bought by BR1M money and other handouts. They need to demonstrate that they are a proud, self-reliant, competitive and hard working people.–Din Merican

Malaysia’s Budaya Tipu in Academia

June 20, 2015

New York City

Malaysia’s  Budaya Tipu–Academic Plagiarism and Intellectual Fraud

 by Rom Nain
COMMENT: Malaysian Higher Education, evidently, is once again in the limelight. Once again, for the wrong reasons.

Over the past couple of days, news has gone around that four researchers from a local public university had deliberately manipulated images in a co-authored article published in a prestigious international academic journal.

The four, from Universiti Malaya (UM) – our oldest and,  often enough claimed, our most prestigious, public university – were initially accused of duplicating and manipulating images of cells in their article.

An article which allegedly had three versions was published in three separate journals. Sadly for them – and certainly for UM – the allegations initially exploded over the scientific community’s social media and then spread to other platforms, finally catching the attention of the mainstream scientific media.

The main author, not surprisingly, initially brushed off the charges, providing ‘reasons’ that even non-scientists who had examined the article found rather incredulous.

Now, it has come to the attention of the Malaysian Higher Education Ministry and the authorities at UM. And UM has acted swiftly enough to investigate yet another potential scandal and possibly discipline any wrongdoers.

There will surely be more revealed over the next few days and, I’m sure, there will be demands that the heads of the four researchers, if found guilty, roll. But will they? And even if they do, will the wider problems be resolved?

Going by previous incidences of this nature, one doubts anything major will be resolved. In 1994 a professor at the same Universiti Malaya went to court to defend herself against allegations of plagiarising the work of her students. Despite the evidence, she remains a professor till this day.

A couple of years back, the infamous Ridhuan Tee, while an Associate Professor at the Armed Forces University, was accused of plagiarism as well. Again, despite the clear evidence, he was able to move to another university on the east coast, getting a promotion to full professor to boot. That is classic Malaysian academic culture.

Then there is the infamous University of Bath-UiTM debacle earlier this year, when graduates from the UK university discovered that their theses had somehow found their way into UiTM’s repository, with UiTM’s copyright and watermark on them.

UiTM, predictably, apologised, asserting that it was a technical error that had caused it all. It is still unclear today why the Bath papers were gifted to UiTM by a staff member, and whether she or he had the right to do so.

Fundamental issues of Integrity–The meaning of the word Integrity.

Needless to say, there are a number of things we can – and must – take away from these cases that strike at the core of fundamental issues of integrity. Namely, the integrity of individuals, the integrity of the Malaysian academic profession and, yes, the integrity of our institutions.

It is, after all, easy to apportion blame to individuals, such as the four UM researchers or the professors who blatantly plagiarised the works of others But, unfortunately, these cases – alleged by many in Malaysian academia as barely ‘scratching the surface’ – will continue if the core issues and problems are not located and sincerely addressed.

Of course, one could say that they indulge in these activities because they feel they can ‘get away with it’. But why do they do it in the first place? And why does it seem so prevalent these days?

To begin to answer these questions, we would have to at least go back to this relatively recent phenomenon of university academics needing to meet pre-determined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

But, unfortunately, these cases – alleged by many in Malaysian academia as barely ‘scratching the surface’ – will continue if the core issues and problems are not located and sincerely addressed.Of course, one could say that they indulge in these activities because they feel they can ‘get away with it’. But why do they do it in the first place? And why does it seem so prevalent these days?

To begin to answer these questions, we would have to at least go back to this relatively recent phenomenon of university academics needing to meet pre-determined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Pre-determined, often enough, by university administrators more concerned about pleasing their political masters than they are about the welfare of their staff and, even less, about any commitment to a particular academic ethos.

Hence, meaningful university teaching and research be damned. Instead, a bureaucratic or mechanistic view of what higher education, particularly the role of universities and academics, is advanced. Indeed, in Malaysian academia, increasingly it has become a case of institutions and individuals having to meet certain, often quantifiable and quantitative, targets.

And achieving high international rankings yearly has become the name of the game. For some public universities, especially those designated as `research’ universities, publishing in top-tier Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) and Scopus journals now is the main, sometimes determining, criterion for promotion.

It is within this cauldron of quite rapid change and shifting of priorities – often directed by politicians and their ministries – that we find many of our public universities and their faculty members.

Things have gotten worse for Malaysia under Najib Razak

This, of course, hadn’t been the case for a long time. Indeed, it could be argued that the slide began the moment politics and notions of what has derogatorily been called kulitocracy (skin based meritocracy) took top priority from the 1980s onward.

Policies that led to the recruitment of faculty due to their skin tone and, more subtly, their political affiliation, rather than the grey matter in their head, led to a culture of conformity and mediocrity being developed. For some critics this gradually replaced the emphasis on dedicated teaching and learning, and doing good research that had been cultivated in the 1960s and 1970s.

‘Carma’ academics

This was facilitated by (administrative) structures that policies and strategies that (still) disproportionately reward what the national laureate, A Samad Said, has rightly called the ‘carma’ (cari makan) academics.

These often are the apple polishers, those who turn academia into an arena where rapid advancement means getting on with their bosses and courting top UMNO leaders and moving up the administrative ladder; from section to department head, to program chair, to head of school, to dean, deputy vice-chancellor and vice-chancellor. Stopping briefly on the way, of course,to obtain a datoship from corrupt political leaders.

And this group has grown significantly as the number of public universities has rapidly increased. Often quite clueless as to what constitutes good – let alone path-breaking and innovative – research, yet now needing to ‘publish or perish’, they look high and low for the ‘right’ ingredients, however “halal” or “haram”, to enable them to come up not only with publishable papers in referred journals, but also those that often have to meet international criteria and standards for scholarly research and peer recognition.

Unfortunately, when the environment all this while has not helped to nurture whatever research and writing skills they may have, and they now have to regularly produce ‘international’ publications, many find themselves in a ethical quandary.

And so the illicit options become more enticing.Indeed, more widespread, arguably, is this practice of putting one’s name as a co-researcher on the work done by one’s research assistant or graduate student. Even when all the work was done solely by another person.

Of course, dodgy publishing houses have cottoned on to this widespread desperation by academics. So, we have the case of academics (often aided by their institutions) paying substantial sums to purportedly international publishers to get their articles published in  journals and books of questionable quality.

Needless to say, it is within this wider context – of dodgy academic standards, a legacy of a mediocre research culture and environment and a rapidly changing academic milieu and, of course, a general lack of integrity from the top downwards – that we have to locate the alleged offences committed by the UM4 and others.

Virtually nothing happens in a vacuum. Yes, if found guilty, the wrongdoers must be truly punished – and not just transferred to some other university where they are promoted later.

But issues of integrity, dignity and ethics will not and cannot be simply resolved that way. More detailed and critical examination of the environment, the policies and the strategies that have led to this sorry state of affairs, will need to be conducted.

This would require political will–this is sadly lacking in Malaysia today– and a genuine commitment to removing the rot that has set in public – and increasingly private – universities. And I don’t believe that many of us are so sanguine as to believe that this will happen any time soon under this regime.

Read more:

Malaysia: Rise of ‘Racist’ Strain of Islam

June 10, 2016

Malaysia: Rise of ‘Racist’ Strain of Islam

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

The Lay Preacher and Demagogue Zakir Naik

A recent article comparing the treatment accorded by the Government and the larger Islamic community to two recent Muslim visitors notes that the question as to why preacher Zakir Naik and scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im and their messages are resounding differently with the Malay Muslim community is a crucial one for Malaysians to ask


The contrast in the themes articulated by these two visitors in their lectures and public engagements cannot be more different.

The Scholar Abdullahi An-Na’im

That of the scholar is a vision of a more humanistic and intellectually more rational and defensible Islam. The other by the preacher stems from a conservative and extremist position. Based on advocacy of Islam as a superior religion, Zakir offers simplistic but popular – with the Muslim masses – opinions on topics such as dealing with LGBT’s and other non-Islamic minorities, apostasy, the treatment of other faiths in Islamic states, the evils of secularism, etc.

Similar questions have been asked by others as to why Islam in this country has taken a hard line position and turned its back on its traditionally moderate roots and associated Hindu-Buddhist values and mores. Also why the defence of secularism and secular-oriented positions such as those espoused by G25 group of prominent ex-civil servants have received little traction while, at the same time, rabble rousing groups such as the Red Shirts and ISIS type extremist views have gained ground among the Malays.

Two scholars have recently contributed insights into the rise of a conservative and hard line Islam in the country. Dr. Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hami in his paper “ISIS in Southeast Asia: Internalized Wahhabism is a Major Factor” (ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute Perspective, 16 May 2016) has dissected the impact of the Wahabbi brand of Salafism with its extremist world view from a political development perspective since the 70s.

Dr. Azhar Ibrahim, in his blog article, “Secularism as Imagined in the Malay-Indonesian World: Resistance and its Muted Counter Responses in the Discursive and Public Realms”, using a cultural anthropological cum historical approach has explained the failure of Muslim intellectuals and intelligentsia to engage and contest the anti-secularists.

Race in Malaysia’s Islamic Discourse

While the two papers are useful and timely, what is missing is a discussion of how the factor of race, and the rise of a virulent strain of Malay racism may be a key, and perhaps the major, factor explaining the recent rapid spread of an increasingly conservative and reactionary Islamic ideology and practices in the country.

Although orthodox Islam rejects race and racism, there is mounting evidence that the resurgence in Islam in Malaysia is closely correlated with the rise of anti-non-Malay sentiment, and an ethno-centricism directed at the non-Malay and non-Muslim communities.

Ahmad Fauzi and Ahzar Ibrahim are not the only two scholars who have failed to attach sufficient importance to the racial factor playing a critical role in the most recent phase of Islamic socio-economic and political development in Malaysia. Many other local scholars have chosen to ignore it or have studiously avoided the subject.

This avoidance is possibly because of the belief that Islamic extremism in Malaysia has spread primarily due to externally generated events such as the rise of political Islam in the Middle East. It may also be because of the view that an academic or public discourse on the subject – even from an academic or intellectual perspective – may be opening up a pandora’s box; or is not helpful to one’s academic or professional career; or perhaps reflects poorly on the integrity of the scholar’s own religious and racial community.

Recent events, however, have brought into the forefront the importance of putting the subject under the academic microscope and of engaging in an open and frank exploration of it, even if this discourse may be regarded as treading on sensitive concerns and issues.

The opening of this pandora’s box is also necessary because it appears that both extreme forms of the two ideologies – one religious and the other man-made – are not only converging but are also mutually reinforcing. The fused outcome – a form of Islamofacism – may be displacing, or perhaps may already have displaced, the earlier moderate mainstream forms.

Two examples of the convergence of “Ketuanan Islam” and “Ketuanan Melayu” can be highlighted, although more instances are taking place on a daily basis.

In September 2015, UMNO Supreme Council member, Tan Sri Annuar Musa, openly admitted that he is a “racist”. In his speech to participants at the “Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu” or “red shirt” rally which its organizers estimated to have attracted a crowd of 250,000, he emphasised that racism was allowed in Islam, so long as other races were not oppressed in the process.

According to him “I am racist but it’s racism based on Islam. Racism is allowed in Islam”. He was also reported to have quoted a hadith (a saying of the Prophet) on ‘assabiyah’ which he interpreted as justifying racism.

The UMNO leader may have been playing to the gallery during his speech. However what he announced reflects not only his understanding – and justification – of Islamic racism a-la its Malaysian variety. It also reveals a similar position held by UMNO’s leadership and most of the ruling party’s rank and file members since there are no reports of anyone from the party expressing dissent with Annuar Musa’s view.

More recently, the open display of the “keris” – commonly seen as the symbol of Malay nationalism – during the recent opening of PAS’s muktamar has led Dr. Mahathir to note that “PAS used to criticise UMNO for being a nationalist party, but now the opposition party is “more nationalist because their keris is longer than Umno’s”.

“We measure nationalism based on the length of the keris, The longer the keris, the more nationalistic. Now they realise that they’re Malays,” he added.

For non-Muslims and non-Malays, these new developments, and the racialism and extremism seeping into the Islamic consciousness of the Malay community, are no laughing matter.

What it means is that they cannot expect PAS, UMNO, or perhaps even Amanah, the latest of the Muslim parties and progressive Islamic NGO’s and conscientious scholars to draw attention to and fight the battle for equal rights within an increasingly Islamic Malaysian nation.

They have only themselves to rely on and should not, as in the boiling frog anecdote, wait too late to respond to the rising heat from this present incarnation of Islamic and racist resurgence in the country.

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah: What’s your deal with Najib Razak?

March 28, 2016

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah: What’s your deal with Najib Razak?

by Mariam Mokhtar

Politicians like Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah cause the electorate to lose faith in politics. Affectionately known as Ku Li, he confirms our suspicions of him. He is all spin and no substance. He joins a long list of sycophants who should have had the interests of the rakyat at heart, but at the critical moment, let down the people and himself. Where are the men of integrity and honour?

Ku Li’s betrayal may not matter now, because a majority of the population still cast their votes. In time, this number will drop because they will see politicians as untrustworthy.So, was it emotion, or political expediency which prompted Ku Li to sign the ‘Kelantan Declaration’?

The Citizens’ Declaration of the ‘Save Malaysia’ movement is supported by former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The Kelantan Declaration is just a vanity declaration, like a love letter for politicians. It is a tit-for-tat move to distract the rakyat from national issues.

So did Ku Li sign because of his 30-year-old grudge against Mahathir, whom he challenged for the UMNO party presidency in 1987 but lost by a whisker? There were irregularities in voting, and Ku Li’s supporters mounted a legal challenge. The High Court declared UMNO an illegal party and forced Mahathir to form UMNO Baru, and Ku Li, Semangat 46.

Was Ku Li exacting his revenge on Mahathir? Or did Najib Abdul Razak whisper sweet nothings into Ku Li’s ears and promised him a role more prominent than that of a mere MP? He is free to sign the Kelantan Declaration and express his loyalty to Najib, but in the past, why did he have to string some of the rakyat along, and say that he cared?

Ku Li has expressed dissatisfaction with the government on numerous occasions. When asked why he refused to leave UMNO Baru and fight for change from the opposition benches, his answer was always “No!” He claimed to be more effective, fighting for change from within.

His critique of the government convinced some of the opposition that he could be an interim prime minister should GE14 result in a hung parliament, or if the no-confidence vote against Najib had been successful. Some people may remember that at the convocation ceremony of the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), in June 2014, Ku Li moaned about the division of race and religion, the low standards of fluency in English, and Malaysian education.

He reminisced about his teenage years when athletes were selected on their sporting prowess, and Malaysians were united in their support of them, irrespective of their race. He recalled fond memories of Wong Peng Soon, the All-England badminton champion, in 1950 and 1951.Today, he supports the leader of a party which condones division in society.

In 2010, Ku Li said that in the 1980s, the government was spending money like water, and the Defence Ministry would purchase Exocet missiles, at RM2 million each, for target practice.

Why regurgitate these issues?

Why regurgitate these issues, decades later? He once held the portfolio of finance minister, and had to sign the chits, but did not complain about the frivolous spending on the armed forces.

He held two heavyweight ministerial posts, (finance and international trade and industry). His arguments would have carried weight. Why were these matters not highlighted, then?

A few days ago, Mahathir stunned Malaysians with the revelation that Ku Li and a group of UMNO Baru leaders had secretly plotted to oust Najib. Mahathir said, “He (Ku Li) came and met me, and said he wants to push for a no-confidence vote. He said he can get the majority, but he failed.”

The irony is that having been defeated, Ku Li later signed his allegiance to the man he had wanted to topple.How are we to have any confidence in our politicians, if they fail us when they fall at the first hurdle? Where is their persistence, and their moral duty?

On September 16, 2008, former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim failed in his bid to secure enough defections in UMNO Baru to oust the erstwhile PM Abdullah Badawi. Anwar was subsequently demonised by UMNO Baru politicians. Today, the same politicians keep silent about Ku Li’s tactics, which were similar, and also failed.

If there is any threat to the stability and national security of the nation, it is from politicians who have abrogated their duty to serve the rakyat.  Our enemy is not from outside, it is from within. Our enemy is made up of politicians who fail to act against corruption, injustice, and divisive and racist politics.

Members of the political elite want only one thing, to hang on to their seats. And power.You know what you must do in GE14


The Economist on Malaysia

March 6, 2016

The Economist on Malaysia

Malaysia’s Prime Minister

The Najib effect

Not only Malaysians should be worried about rotten politics and a divisive Prime Minister

March 5, 2016 | From the print edition

ONE of South-East Asia’s richest and hitherto most stable countries, Malaysia ought to be a beacon. Its constitution is liberal, and its brand of Islam generally tolerant. Its diverse, English-speaking population, combining ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians, gives it zest and vim. Yet under the prime minister, Najib Razak, the country is regressing at alarming speed. Its politics stinks (see article), its economy is in trouble, and there are worrying signs that the government is not above stirring up ethnic and religious divisions.

For the past year allegations of corruption have swirled around Mr Najib. They centre around hundreds of millions of dollars that made their way into his bank accounts before the most recent general election, in 2013 (see article). Investigators are looking into whether the money is linked to a troubled state investment firm, 1MDB, whose advisory board Mr Najib chairs. He denies wrongdoing. His attorney-general has ruled that the money was a legal donation from an unnamed Saudi Royal, and that much of it has been returned.

For Malaysians, the precise nature of what happened is not the main point. Mr Najib presented himself as a liberal out to remake the sleazy system of money politics by which the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has held power since independence. He was to open up a crony economy. And he was to do away with repressive colonial-era laws, such as that for sedition.

Now Mr Najib’s credibility is in tatters. Facing inquiries around 1MDB, he has engineered the retirement of a pesky police chief, replaced an attorney-general and promoted members of an inquisitive parliamentary committee into the cabinet, where they can do less harm. Far from loosening colonial laws, the government is wielding the sedition law with new zeal. It is blocking news websites and hounding opponents (the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, is in prison on charges of sodomy). Even yellow T-shirts have been outlawed since citizens protesting against corruption took to wearing them. The more Mr Najib cracks down, the more he alienates those who were once inclined to support him.

Foreign investors and others should be worried. The government is floundering in its responses to a sharp slowdown in the economy and to a falling currency. Cheap oil has hurt Malaysia, but its wretched politics will hold it back more in the long run. The government is now using dog-whistle politics to appeal to its ethnic-Malay, Muslim base, and is refusing to distance itself sufficiently from Islamists seeking the introduction of harsh sharia punishments.

Pro-government bigots in the street have told ethnic-Chinese Malaysians to “go back to China”. This is dangerous. Malaysia has seen race riots before, and could see them again. Nearby Singapore, with its different mix of the same ethnic groups, should also be alarmed.

Malaysia’s problems run deep. UMNO is out of ideas and seems incapable of rejuvenating itself. The fractured, rudderless opposition does not have the winning combination to overcome UMNO’s gerrymandering and harassment. And the next election is anyway still two years away. Restoring confidence will be tricky. But for as long as Malaysia is governed in the style of Mr Najib, ordinary Malaysians will suffer and their country will be deprived of the standing that it surely deserves in the world.

From the print edition: Leaders

Malaysia’s scandals

The art of survival

As Najib Razak digs in, disillusion among Malaysians grows

March 5, 2016 | KUALA LUMPUR | From the print edition

 ONLY standing room is left at the civic hall in Petaling Jaya in the western suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. Inside 1,000-odd middle-class Malaysians have gathered to consider the fallout from a corruption scandal that has buffeted the country since July. “The whole world is laughing at us,” says a retiree watching from the back rows.

At the heart of the scandal are hundreds of millions of dollars that for unclear reasons entered bank accounts belonging to the prime minister, Najib Razak (see article). You might think such a revelation would unseat Mr Najib and spell ruin for his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has held power since independence. Instead, Mr Najib appears to have strengthened his grip, by purging critics within the cabinet and police. On February 29th the grand old man of Malaysian politics, Mahathir Mohamad, stormed out of the party in disgust. Dr Mahathir was Prime Minister for 22 years until 2003 and was once a fan of Mr Najib. No more.

Across the country, dissidents are feeling nervous. Last year at least 15 people, mostly dissenters in politics and civil society, were charged under a noxious colonial-era sedition law that Mr Najib had once promised to repeal. In late February authorities blocked one of Malaysia’s most popular news websites hours after it reported that not all Malaysia’s graft-busters are convinced that the Prime Minister has committed no crime. A new anti-terror law entitles the Prime Minister to nominate broad “security zones” in which police powers may be extended—a handy tool for crushing protests, critics say. The Attorney-General is mulling stiffer sentences, including caning, for people who leak government secrets.

It has all appalled many urban and professional Malaysians. It has also made stars of the government’s most vocal critics. At the forum in Petaling Jaya, fans seeking selfies crowd around Tony Pua, an opposition MP whom police have banned from leaving the country; at dinner afterwards people at neighbouring tables insist on paying for his meal.

Malaysia is “essentially two countries”, says Ben Suffian, a pollster. Outrage is widespread in the cities, with growing numbers of young, liberal ethnic-Malays as well as most of the ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian minorities who make up about a third the population. It is rarer in UMNO’s rural heartlands, where apathy is rife and where the party is trusted to defend racial laws designed to give the ethnic-Malay majority a leg-up.

Over the decades this rural voter base has helped keep UMNO in power. Indeed party leaders have been more concerned to protect themselves from challenges from within UMNO. Loyalty is prized over ability, while patronage and convoluted party rules discourage upstarts. Mr Najib has been playing the system more ruthlessly than many imagined. Recent sackings of subordinates have sent a signal about who is boss.

It is surely a relief to UMNO that Malaysia’s opposition has mostly bungled its chance to make hay from the affair. It had formed a loose coalition of three parties, reliant on an unlikely peace between two of them, a secular ethnic-Chinese outfit and a devout Malay-Muslim one. The opposition won the popular vote in a general election in 2013 but fell short of the number of seats required to take power because of gerrymandered constituencies. Yet rather than regroup and build momentum for the election that is due by 2018, it has been consumed by bickering. When tens of thousands of Malaysians rallied last August to demand Mr Najib’s resignation, they did so not under the banner of any political party but at the request of Bersih, an unaligned group that has long campaigned for clean politics and electoral reform.

Rock solid, or rocky?

Some people assert that Mr Najib’s hold may be shakier than it appears. Even in the countryside, worries about the economy have made the Prime Minister unpopular. Low oil prices have damaged Petronas, the state oil firm, slashing the amount of money the government can pour into development projects. A new sales tax has increased prices for many everyday items, while a slump in Malaysia’s currency, the ringgit, which has fallen by more than a fifth in the past 18 months, has put many imports out of reach. It all helps make some poorer Malays more susceptible to populists painting ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian Malaysians as rent-seeking interlopers. But a new suspicion is growing among ordinary Malaysians that goings-on in Kuala Lumpur are affecting their own pocket books.

As for the party, rivals whom Mr Najib has vanquished may yet bounce back. Dr Mahathir, who has long called for Mr Najib to step down, is scheduled to attend an unusual forum of grandees and politicos from across the political spectrum who are meeting in private later this month to discuss alternatives to Mr Najib. Wan Saiful Wan Jan, of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs in Kuala Lumpur, says that some UMNO bigwigs are backing the prime minister through gritted teeth. He says that a time may come when they say that enough is enough, especially when the party starts considering its strategy for the next election. Perhaps Mr Najib may risk calling a snap election before then, both to pre-empt conspiracy and to catch out the opposition before it can patch up its differences.

For Malaysia’s rattled liberals, all this seems theoretical. Last year they watched plans evaporate for a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. They are doubtful that the current corruption scandal will ever unseat Mr Najib.

Back at the civic hall in Petaling Jaya, the mood darkens as the evening wears on. Microphones passed around the floor reveal frustration and anger. One person insists that the opposition draw up a list of government officials who should face trial if the opposition takes power. A second, shaking with rage, frets that the opposition has “no chance” of winning the next poll. This is no time to give up hope, Ambiga Sreenevasan, a prominent lawyer, tells the crowd. Once the crisis is over, she says, “we must make sure this never happens to our country again.”

From the print edition: Asia

Malaysia’s 1MDB affair

Follow the money, if you can

Investigators in several countries are trying to get to the bottom of Malaysia’s growing corruption scandal

March 5, 2016 | KUALA LUMPUR | From the print edition

 IT WAS a striking move from a country better known for hiding iffy foreign wealth than for exposing it. Frustrated by a lack of co-operation from Malaysian counterparts, Switzerland’s attorney-general declared in late January that there were “serious indications” that $4 billion had gone astray from Malaysian state concerns, some of it into accounts held by current or former Malaysian and Middle Eastern officials. The announcement fuelled an already combustible scandal that has transfixed Malaysians, battered their prime minister, Najib Razak, and could yet ensnare banks around the world.

The allegations of misappropriation centre on a Malaysian state investment fund, from which it is suspected that large sums were siphoned by businessmen and officials with links to Mr Najib. It is thought that some of this was used to help his party win an election in 2013; some was spent on buying assets at questionable prices; and some of the remainder was moved to offshore shell companies and bank accounts. All those suspected of involvement, including Mr Najib, deny wrongdoing. None has been charged with a crime.

The affair spans the globe. Caught up in it are not only Malaysian officials and money men but also several big banks and perhaps Saudi royalty. The money trail leads from Malaysia to Singapore and elsewhere in Asia, Abu Dhabi, Switzerland, the Caribbean and New York. Authorities are investigating in Switzerland, America, Singapore, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates. They face a daunting challenge in piecing together such a complex case, a task made harder by operators’ widespread use of opaque offshore vehicles.

The story’s institutional protagonist is 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). It was originally a regional development fund for Terengganu, an oil-rich Malaysian state, but in 2009 the country’s finance ministry took it over and rebranded it. Mr Najib heads the ministry, as well as being prime minister. The plan was for the fund to suck in investment through tie-ups with foreign firms. Mr Najib chairs 1MDB’s board of advisers.

1MDB got most of its financing by raising debt. A series of bond issues pushed its borrowings up to $11 billion. By 2014 questions were multiplying about its financial health, spurred by the fact that it had had three audit firms in five years. A flurry of investigations in the media drew on leaked documents. 1MDB denies wrongdoing.

Malaysian investigators concluded that deposits into a bank account held in Mr Najib’s name came through banks and companies linked to 1MDB. They found that a firm that was once part of 1MDB and is now controlled by the finance ministry, SRC International, paid $13m into the account in 2014-15. The attorney-general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, has said that there is no evidence that Mr Najib was aware of the payment. (We all overlook items on our bank statements.)

More eye-catching was an earlier payment into Mr Najib’s account, of $681m, from a shell company. This was made only weeks before the general election in 2013, which Mr Najib won narrowly. Some say it was linked to 1MDB. The official explanation is that it was a legal donation from an unnamed member of the Saudi royal family. Mr Najib has denied ever taking public money for personal gain. 1MDB says it has not paid any funds into the Prime Minister’s personal accounts.

On March 1st the Wall Street Journal reported that investigators in two countries, whom it didn’t identify, believe that more than $1 billion in total flowed into Mr Najib’s personal accounts, much of it originating from 1MDB. These investigators, it is alleged, reckon that the payments were, in part, routed through a company linked to—or made to look as if it was linked to—a venture involving 1MDB and Middle Eastern interests.

1MDB had various dealings with an Abu Dhabi-based sovereign fund called IPIC which guaranteed some of 1MDB’s bonds. The dealings included a tie-up with Aabar Investments PJS, an IPIC subsidiary. 1MDB transferred more than $1 billion to what appeared to be a division of Aabar. Yet investigations allegedly suggest the money in fact went to a firm based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) with an almost identical name to the Abu Dhabi concern.

This transaction seems not to have been recorded on the books of Aabar’s parent, IPIC. (1MDB says it stands by its own accounts, which show the payment.) The suspicion is that financial sleight-of-hand may have been used to pass off the transfers as legitimate payments between corporate partners. Investigators believe much of this money ended up in Mr Najib’s accounts after being routed through a second company in the BVI, according to sources cited by the Wall Street Journal.

IPIC is reported to be looking into what happened to the money paid out by 1MDB but not booked as coming into the Abu Dhabi fund. Aabar denies wrongdoing.

Also in the spotlight is a joint venture between 1MDB and PetroSaudi, an oil firm. 1MDB injected $1 billion into the venture. Two-thirds of this was moved to a Seychelles-based firm shortly afterwards, according to a draft report by Malaysia’s auditor-general. 1MDB later sold its interest in the venture, using some of the $2.3 billion raised to invest in a Cayman-based vehicle. 1MDB then reportedly sacked its auditor, KPMG, after the firm expressed concern over the identity and financial standing of the vehicle’s owners. 1MDB asserts that all the Cayman money is accounted for. PetroSaudi has denied doing anything wrong.

Investigators are also looking into who drove 1MDB’s complex transactions. Assuming it is genuine, correspondence obtained by Sarawak Report, an investigative website, appears to show that a key figure in the fund’s dealings with PetroSaudi was a Malaysian financier, Low Taek Jho, a family friend of Mr Najib. Mr Low reportedly also helped direct some election spending for Mr Najib’s ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional. 1MDB and Mr Low have insisted he merely advised the fund, unpaid. He denies wrongdoing.

Banks, too, face awkward questions. Several global banks handled large payments that are under scrutiny, among them arms of JPMorgan Chase and Royal Bank of Scotland. One question is whether there were grounds for the banks to suspect that any of the transactions were questionable—or whether especially rigorous checks on public officials and other “politically exposed persons”, or PEPs, were called for and carried out.

The role played by Goldman Sachs is also notable. The investment bank led 1MDB’s main bond issues, earning unusually high fees on them (Goldman has said this is because it temporarily held the risk on its own balance-sheet). Goldman’s chairman for South-East Asia, Tim Leissner, grew close to Malaysia’s elite. Last year Goldman put him on leave and now says he has left the firm.

Mr Najib’s response to the scandal has been to swipe at his critics. Muhyiddin Yassin, a Deputy Prime Minister who wanted investigations stepped up, was sacked from the cabinet last year, and the Attorney-General was replaced—supposedly on health grounds, though Sarawak Report has published documents appearing to show that charges were about to be brought against Mr Najib.

On February 27 Mr Muhyiddin called for the Prime Minister to resign, saying the outgoing Attorney-General had shown him “proof” that Mr Najib acted criminally in connection with 1MDB. The government said this was part of a “politically motivated conspiracy” to topple Mr Najib.

The new Attorney-General, Mr Apandi, has moved swiftly to exonerate Mr Najib, closing a probe into the $681m “donation” and asserting that it had nothing to do with 1MDB. The government says that most of the money was sent back to the donor after the election. Why, some ask, was so much of the payment returned if it was legal?

Not all Malaysia’s institutions have been supine. Last year the central bank urged the attorney-general to begin a criminal prosecution of 1MDB managers after concluding that the fund had moved $1.8 billion overseas based on inaccurate disclosures. This money was supposed to go to the PetroSaudi joint venture and related loans. Instead, much of it went elsewhere and is unaccounted for, according to the auditor-general’s draft report. (The final report was supposed to be released last December, but has twice been delayed.) The central bank requested a review of the finding by Mr Apandi that 1MDB did not commit any offences. This was rejected.

Malaysia’s anti-corruption commission, an independent agency, investigated the payments into Mr Najib’s account and handed its findings to Mr Apandi late last year. He returned them to the commission in January, requesting more information. The commission has denied reports, based on unauthorised briefings, that it recommended charging Mr Najib.

It was the haste with which Mr Apandi ruled out criminality that prompted the sharper tone from the Swiss authorities, who are investigating suspected bribery, corruption, misconduct in public office and money-laundering linked to 1MDB. They appear to be unimpressed with the blanket exoneration, though they say Mr Najib is not a suspect.

Through a brass plate, darkly

Singapore is also investigating suspected money-laundering and says it has frozen a “large number” of bank accounts. The case is a test of the city-state’s resolve in dealing with financial crime. Like Hong Kong, it has seen big inflows of wealth in recent years, including money of dubious provenance from Switzerland.

But the sleuths face many hurdles. The corporate secrecy offered by offshore centres makes the task of penetrating structures used to move money slow and difficult. The OECD and others have begun to try to lift this shroud, but transparency reforms are at an early stage.

Then there is the complex and clunky international system of “mutual legal assistance”, or MLA, under which countries ask each other for help in investigations. Piecing together the jigsaw is all the harder if the country at the centre of the probe is unhelpful. Malaysia has said it will assist the Swiss, but that looks unlikely. Indeed, it is using blocking tactics, for instance by telling Switzerland to file its MLA request through Malaysia’s foreign ministry. That is unusual: such requests would more typically go through the justice ministry, which is viewed abroad as less political.

Malaysian officials reacted angrily to Switzerland’s announcement about misappropriation, accusing it of spreading “misinformation”. When the Swiss and Malaysian attorneys-general met last year, the Malaysians are believed to have said they would arrange for those caught up in the affair to provide testimony in depositions, but this has not happened. Without Malaysian help, it will be hard for foreign sleuths to complete their probes. For now, though, they seem determined to keep digging, causing anxiety in the Malaysian capital, parts of the Middle East, and some of the world’s largest financial centres.

From the print edition: Asia


The U.S.-Malaysia Security Connection

February 25, 2016

 Number 335 | February 24, 2016


 The U.S.-Malaysia Security Connection

By Marvin Ott and Derek Maseloff

President Obama’s invitation to ASEAN leaders to join him in California was the latest initiative in a strategic contest between the U.S. and China to shape the future of Southeast Asia. That contest has political and economic elements but it includes an important–even core–security dimension. Defense/security ties between the U.S. and Southeast Asian states run the gamut from minimal (Laos) to intimate (Singapore) to full treaty alliance (Philippines).

These relationships have also been remarkably dynamic as U.S.-Vietnamese ties wax and those with Thailand wane. Burma/Myanmar has moved from distant and hostile toward a potential, but still uncertain, strategic entente. In all this protean complexity Malaysia stands out as particularly intriguing.

Malaya–and then Malaysia–gained independence via amicable negotiations with its former colonial overlord, Great Britain. The U.S. was a friendly, but marginal factor in Malaysia’s security equation during the first two decades of independence. The advent of the Mahathir era (1981-2003) brought a new and paradoxical tone to U.S.-Malaysia relations.

Mahathir, animated by a idiosyncratic anti-colonial zeal, seemed to go out of his way to irritate Washington with invective that portrayed America as at once arrogant, a bully, and, if not anti-Muslim, something very close to it. Yet while flagellating U.S. diplomats and political leaders he allowed security relations (defense and intelligence) with Washington to grow and prosper. The same was true when it came to U.S. corporate (particularly technology) investments in Malaysia.

The force of Mahathir’s personality and the length of his tenure left a durable imprint on Malaysian perceptions of America which were reinforced by the post-9/11 invasions of two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. The easy cordiality between Kuala Lumpur and Washington of the first two decades was replaced by a steady diet of public rancor. From a strategic perspective, Mahathir’s anti-American posturing came without serious cost because Malaysia faced no critical security threats for the three decades following the Vietnam War.

A different, almost mirror image, played out in Malaysia-China relations. During the early years of Malaysian independence China was seen as a mortal threat given Maoist support for the Malaysian communist insurgency of the 1950s and early 1960s and for Sukarno’s attempt to dismember Malaysia (1963-5). But by the 1980s Deng Xiaoping had set China on a course of normal state-to-state relations and rapid economic development. China, for Mahathir, had the additional virtue of being Asian and not America

The Malaysia that Mahathir bequeathed with his retirement, and that Najib Razak inherited upon becoming Prime Minister a few years later (2009), was overtly friendly toward China and equally overtly suspicious of the U.S. Malaysia took considerable pride in having been the first ASEAN government to normalize diplomatic relations with China in 1974. That agreement is particularly resonate because it was negotiated by the current Prime Minister’s father.

But by 2009 the strategic landscape in Southeast Asia was changing rapidly and profoundly. The dramatic growth in China’s maritime military power coupled with Beijing’s undisguised territorial ambitions in the South China Sea rendered Kuala Lumpur’s security orientation increasingly out of sync with reality. China’s determination to enforce the 9-Dash line as a sovereign boundary meant that Malaysia would–if China’s view prevailed–have to give up its own extensive maritime claims.

It was hard to have any doubt on this point when Chinese naval and paramilitary flotillas began making regular appearances at James Shoal in the extreme south of the South China Sea–where they removed Malaysian markers and challenged the right of offshore oil rigs there to operate without Beijing’s approval.

All this is within 50 miles of the Malaysian coast and well within Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone . About a third of the Malaysian government’s annual revenue derives from the oil and gas sector–much of it within the EEZ. In July 2014 an oil consortium announced the discovery of a major natural gas field 90 miles off the coast of Sarawak.

The Najib government has responded with a classic hedging strategy. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and Kuala Lumpur has gone out of its way to celebrate a “special relationship” with Beijing. Malaysia has carefully avoided public criticism or confrontation regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea. There have been no Malaysian analogs to Indonesian seizures of Chinese fishing boats or the Philippines’ legal case against China before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.

Kuala Lumpur has earned public praise from Xi Jinping for its “quiet diplomacy approach” and the Malaysian and Chinese militaries have engaged in a growing menu of joint exercises and consultations. But there is little doubt that Najib understands the implications of Chinese ambitions and methods. He also understands the critical importance of the U.S. as a counterweight to China.

Najib once quipped that U.S.-Malaysian defense cooperation was “an all too well-kept-secret.” No longer. During Barack Obama’s 2014 visit to Kuala Lumpur (the first by an American President since Lyndon Johnson) the two governments formally characterized their relationship as a “Comprehensive Partnership.”U.S. Navy ships visit Malaysia regularly and the two militaries maintain a demanding schedule of joint exercises–both bilateral and multilateral. They include jungle training in Malaysia with U.S. Special Forces and Malaysian participation in the largest annual U.S. multilateral exercise in Asia–Cobra Gold in Thailand.

Dozens of Malaysian Armed Forces personnel attend U.S. military educational institutions jointly funded by both governments. Credible reporting indicates that U.S. maritime surveillance aircraft are operating out of a Malaysian Air Force Base on Labuan Island on the southern edge of the South China Sea. Dozens of Malaysian armed forces personnel attend U.S. military educational institutions jointly funded by both governments.

The Malaysian Defense Minister has publicly expressed the hope that the U.S. will help train Malaysian Marines to be stationed at a new base in Sarawak. The two countries navies cooperate in counter-piracy operations in the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden.

U.S. expertise and equipment have been enlisted to assist Malaysia in the long agonizing effort to discover what happened to the Malaysia Airlines flight lost over the southern Pacific. Early this month Malaysia announced a deal for 6 attack helicopters–the largest purchase of U.S. military equipment in 27 years. But perhaps the most graphic evidence of the new tone in the security relationship occurred 3 months ago when news footage showed the US. Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, standing on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier underway in the South China Sea–and standing next to him with a broad smile on his face was Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s Minister of Defence.

About the Author

Marvin Ott is a Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Adjunct Professor, Johns Hopkins University. He can be contacted at Derek Maseloff was a Research Assistant, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a student at Cornell University. He can be contacted at

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