Muhyiddin Yassin has been sworn in as the new prime minister of Malaysia. Many people were surprised because 94-year-old Mahathir Mohammad, the oldest prime minister in the world, was widely expected to be reappointed for a third time.
Muhyiddin outfoxed the wily Mahathir, because Mahathir made two fatal errors. First, he had resigned, thus creating a vacancy. Second, he made a miscalculation about the king’s discretion. The Malaysian king appoints a person he thinks can command the majority in parliament – it has nothing to do with election results or how many MPs support you. In Australia, it’s called the “captain’s pick”.
The king picked Muhyiddin over Mahathir, and that’s that. The only way now to remove the new government is via a vote of no-confidence in parliament, which will take months.
Muhyiddin’s new ruling coalition consists of three parties: United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS) and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM or United Indigenous Party).
UMNO and PAS were the defeated parties in the historic 2018 general elections that produced Malaysia’s first regime change since independence. UMNO had been the ruling party for nearly six decades before losing to PPBM and Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope). Mahathir had established PPBM specifically to beat UMNO, and almost the entire PPBM leadership was ex-UMNO.
So now we have an interesting combination. UMNO and PPBM are essentially the same parties with similar ideologies, Malay nationalism, combined with PAS, which wants to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.
But what about the non-Malay and non-Muslim Malaysians who make up 38% of the population? Don’t they count?
The short answer is no. While the new administration will appoint a few non-Malays to the administration, make no mistake, this is an all-Malay government and its focus is on the Malay and Muslim community.
UMNO is still sore at the Malaysian Chinese and Indian population for voting en bloc against UMNO in 2018, which led it to lose government. Now it’s payback time. Expect more Malay-centric policies that will punish the Chinese and Indians.
Many are worried about the direction Malaysia may be heading in the short term.
First, there is concern that corruption trials relating to the infamous 1MDB scandal involving ex-prime minister Najib Razak may now go nowhere. Najib’s wife is also charged with corruption in a different case, along with several other ministers in the last UMNO-led government.
In fact, the UMNO president, Zahid Hamidi, who is facing 47 charges of money-laundering (the legal term for corrupt money), is trying to get a cabinet post in the new Muhyiddin administration. The attorney-general has resigned and his replacement will probably not go after high-profile UMNO individuals now that UMNO is back in government.
High-level corruption was one of the main reasons UMNO was defeated in 2018 and UMNO has not reformed. Now it’s back in government, most people expect “business as usual”.
There is credible fear that Muhyiddin cannot stand up to UMNO as UMNO is now the largest party among the three core parties. UMNO and PAS also have a political pact, which means PPBM will definitely not be able to stop the senior coalition partner if it insists on certain public policy.
Second, people are extremely worried about PAS. Since its founding in 1951, PAS has advocated the idea of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state. It has introduced huhud (Shariah) law at the state level in Kelantan and Terengganu, but cannot enforce the law because it conflicts with Malaysia’s federal constitution.
Now that PAS is one of the troika in power, will PAS push the new administration to amend the constitution? There is already talk that PAS will get the government to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act, or RUU355. This will indirectly allow for hudud to be implemented.
Third, and perhaps most worrying, the new government has broken the political convention that it always has a significant number of non-Malay voices to represent the diverse population. This government was built purely on the concept of ketuanan Melayu Islam (Malay Islamic supremacy). Non-Malays to be appointed to the new administration will know exactly where they stand – as window dressing.
Despite its racial and religious tensions, Malaysia has always been seen by the international community as a modern, moderate Islamic country with strong Westminster institutions. It was always understood that the political elite would choose the middle path at the end of the day, no matter how heated the politics became.
This may no longer be the case.
If there is a lesson to be learnt here, it is that regime change does not guarantee progress. In May 2018, there was joy that Malaysia had finally joined the club of newly democratising countries via the ballot box. Almost two years down the road we are seeing a complete reversal via an elite game.
If there is one thing about Southeast Asia, it is that the votes of the ordinary people do not matter when it comes to power games. Power here is a zero-sum game and, in this case, the non-Malays and non-Muslims in Malaysia are the losers.
Amid the news last week that the perpetrators responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) will be put to trial next March, a report was released identifying further suspects responsible for escorting the missile to and from the launch site.
Who were the investigators behind the report? The CIA? MI6? No. It was Bellingcat, a large group of mostly volunteers working from laptops using only information available to anyone with an internet connection.
In February, Bellingcat also identified a third suspect alleged to have been involved in the poisoning of MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the United Kingdom last year.
Bellingcat describes itself as citizen journalists, but its activities illustrate a growing phenomenon my colleagues and I call “citizen intelligence.” This is work that would count as intelligence gathering or analysis within an intelligence organisation, but it’s undertaken by citizens operating outside the traditional intelligence ecosystem.
Citizen intelligence has been made possible by the internet in various ways.
Since its advent, we’ve seen an explosion of “open source” information. That is, data that’s accessible without any special organisational privileges. For example, just by opening Google Earth you can view satellite data of the kind only available to analysts in government agencies not many years ago.
There are now free new tools for gathering and analysing these vast troves of information, such as the analysis platform Maltego. Aspiring citizen analysts can now train themselves using resources available online or in workshops offered by various organisations.
Expertise in intelligence work is no longer the preserve of those hired and trained by traditional organisations. Powerful collaboration platforms, such as Google Docs, allow interested individuals to work effectively together, even when scattered around the world.
We’ve all seen how global, cloud-based marketplaces such as Amazon, Airbnb and Uber have transformed their respective domains. Citizen intelligence could grow even faster if a suitable marketplace is developed. At the SWARM Project, we’ve begun exploring the potential design of a platform where those seeking intelligence can transact with those willing to provide it.
What might that look like? A marketplace for citizen intelligence could be built on a “sponsored challenge” crowdsourcing model.
Imagine an organisation with an intelligence question. Say, for example, the organisation wants to identify potential threats to a proposed infrastructure development in an unstable region. The organisation pays to have the question posed as a challenge on the platform, with a prize for the best answer. Groups of citizen analysts self-organize and submit reports. When the deadline is up, the best report garners the prize – and bragging rights.
There are reasons to think that crowdsourced citizen intelligence could match, or outperform, traditional intelligence organisations on some kinds of tasks. Traditional organisations have advantages, such as access to classified information and highly trained analysts, but crowdsourcing has compensating strengths.
Many intelligence organisations are small and under-resourced for the number and complexity of issues they are supposed to handle. Crowdsourced intelligence can potentially draw from much larger pools of citizens. For example, the analytics crowdsourcing platform Kaggle has over a million people signed up, and it gets literally thousands of teams competing on big challenges.
With scale comes diversity. Large groups inherently possess more diverse knowledge, expertise and perspectives. A question like the one in the example above might require fluency in an obscure dialect, or specific technical know-how. No intelligence agency can maintain in-house everything it might need for any problem.
Crowds can be more agile than agencies, which are risk-averse bureaucracies. For example, individuals can more quickly access and use many of the latest analytical methods and tools.
Perhaps most importantly, intelligence work by unpaid volunteers is driven primarily by passion. Passion certainly exists within agencies, but is often stifled in various ways.
The SWARM Project ran a tournament-style experiment in 2018 that illustrated how everyday citizens can sometimes beat the professionals. Teams tackled four tough, fictional intelligence problems over four weeks. Some teams were made up of analysts provided by organisations with intelligence functions, some of analysts recruited via Facebook, and some of citizens (non-analysts) recruited via Facebook.
On average, the citizen teams outperformed the professional analysts – and some of the citizen reports were astonishingly good.
Citizen intelligence will likely create some headaches for intelligence agencies. For example decision makers might increasingly look to citizen sources over formal intelligence agencies – particularly where citizen intelligence delivers reports more quickly, or with more “convenient” findings.
On the other hand, citizen intelligence could have a lot to offer intelligence organisations. A suitably designed marketplace might enable the traditional agencies to take advantage of the power inherent in the crowd. Such a platform could be a “force multiplier”, at least for certain aspects of intelligence.
In view of these potential threats and opportunities, the Australian intelligence community should get on the front foot, shaping the future of citizen intelligence rather than just reacting to it.
This is a condensed version of a presentation given at the Technology Surprise Forum, Safeguarding Australia Summit, Canberra May 2019
Dutch prosecutors will launch a criminal trial in The Hague on March 9, 2020. But the accused are beyond the jurisdiction of the court, and will most likely be tried in absentia. This means the accused will not be physically present in the court room.
The prosecutors argue the four accused were jointly responsible for obtaining a BUK TELAR missile launcher (a launcher for self-propelled, surface-to-air missiles allegedly owned by the Russian military) in the city of Kursk, and launching it from Ukraine.
They say the four men are responsible for the atrocity because they had the intention to shoot down an aircraft, and obtained the missile launcher for that purpose.
While investigators have not accused any suspects of actually firing the missile, they say in future they may identify others with that responsibility.
For the victims and their loved ones, these Dutch criminal trials present the best hope of legal acknowledgement for the tragedy.
On July 17, 2014, flight MH17 was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over Ukraine.
The Joint Investigative Team (JIT), led by Dutch authorities and comprising investigators from Malaysia, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine, concluded in 2016 that the flight was shot down by a Russian BUK missile.
The JIT identified the launch location as a field in eastern Ukraine, which at the time was in territory controlled by pro-Russian fighters.
The countries central to the investigation – including Australia, which lost 38 people – and the victims’ families have explored a range of legal strategies to assign blame for the attack.
Some civil claims on behalf of victims’ families are ongoing before the European Court of Human Rights.
And hearings are ongoing before the International Court of Justice, where Ukraine seeks to make a case against Russia. Ukraine cites the MH17 atrocity as characteristic of broader Russian aggression and lack of respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected this week’s announcement, in line with its earlier rejections of the JIT conclusions. It said:
Once again, absolutely groundless accusations are being made against the Russian side, aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation in the eyes of the international community.
Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier called the crash a “terrible tragedy”, but said Russia bore no responsibility for it.
Russian officials have claimed they were prepared to assist the investigation but had been “frozen out” of it.
Three of the four accused are Russian nationals, believed to be living in Russia.
Igor Girkin is a former colonel in the Russian security service. At the time of the atrocity, Girkin was the minister of defence in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian separatist region of Ukraine.
The other two Russian accused, Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, are former Russian military intelligence agents who worked under Girkin.
Leonid Kharchenko is the only Ukrainian national accused. Investigators are not certain of his current location. At the time of the atrocity, Kharchenko led a separatist combat unit.
The specific charges in relation to the four named suspects will be:
Causing the crash of flight MH17, resulting in the death of all persons on board, punishable pursuant to Article 168 of the Dutch Criminal Code
The murder of the 298 persons on board of flight MH17, punishable pursuant to Article 289 of the Dutch Criminal Code.
The investigation is ongoing and continues to call for witnesses to assist.
Dutch investigators will issue international arrest warrants for the four accused and place them on international wanted lists. But they won’t issue extradition requests because they know already that no extradition of nationals is available under the Ukrainian or Russian constitutions.
It seems impossible for the Dutch court to gain actual jurisdiction over the Russian accused. Potentially, should Ukrainian authorities apprehend Kharchenko, he could be tried via video-link.
The Netherlands and Ukraine have entered into an agreement that would permit such an arrangement and – should Kharchenko be convicted – allow for his imprisonment in Ukraine.
The charges and any penalties originate in Dutch, rather than international, criminal law. Convictions for murder or the intentional downing of an aircraft could result in sentences of up to life imprisonment.
It’s fair to question the value of a prosecution without a court having actual jurisdiction over the accused. The only real answer is that such a trial would enable the presentation and adjudication of evidence and the judgement of a court as to whether charges are made out.
As time goes, the chances of successful prosecutions decline. Meanwhile, interested countries and the victims’ families continue to call for legal redress for the atrocity.
It is also legitimate to ask whether a court can ensure a fair trial for accused persons tried in absentia.
Although it is not explicitly prohibited by international human rights law, the absence of defendants and presumably any legal representative from the courtroom means the accused will not hear the evidence against them or have the ability to present a defence.
Given the four named accused are beyond the actual jurisdiction of the Dutch courts, it can be argued that they (and, at least in the case of Russia, their country) are wilfully avoiding the process of justice. This may be, for some or many observers, sufficient justification for trying them in their absence.
The corruption trial of Najib Tun Razak, the former prime minister of Malaysia, has finally begun following two postponements and an attempt on the opening day of the trial for a third. Many Malaysians were starting to wonder if Najib would ever get his day in court.
Najib’s lawyers have used every legal manoeuvre at their disposal to try to delay the trial as long as possible. These tactics verged on the ridiculous a month ago when Najib’s main lawyer claimed his pet dog had injured his wrist. The move worked – the former PM was granted another reprieve.
The trial over Najib’s role in a financial scam involving Malaysia’s 1MDB sovereign wealth fund will certainly not proceed smoothly, and the defence is sure to file new objections to higher courts to try to stop it again.
The reason Najib wants the trial delayed is simple: if he is found guilty, it will have a major impact on other upcoming trials.
His wife is also charged with money-laundering in connection with the scandal. (She’s accused of splurging on designer clothes and handbags during million-dollar shopping trips.) If Najib is found guilty, this would undoubtedly strengthen the case against her. Several ministers who served under Najib have also been charged with corruption.
Najib himself also faces several other trials related to the 1MDB scandal. For the government, the current trial is by far the simplest and easiest to prosecute. It involves 42 million Malaysian ringgit (A$14.5 million) that made its way from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB, to Najib’s personal account. All these transactions occurred in Malaysia, unlike the other cases, which involve international transactions and multiple jurisdictions. The paper trial for this trial is straightforward.
Najib has pleaded not guilty to all charges and claimed the money in his accounts did not come from SRC International.
If Najib is found guilty, he will automatically lose his seat in parliament and face possible jail time. Being an MP gives him the platform to influence politics and say anything he likes against the current government, led by his political rival, Mahathir bin Mohamad.
Najib is already working on his political comeback – part of the strategy is to maintain a high profile as an MP through social media.
Many Malaysians want the trial to proceed without any more interruptions, because it would show the accountability process is finally working in Malaysia. Najib and his government were ousted from power in last year’s election because voters wanted the PM (and his wife) to face trial over the corruption allegations. Previously, it was understood that if you held a high political office, you were likely to get away with corruption.
If Najib isn’t convicted, many will likely wonder if there was any point to the change in power. The new government knows this and must deliver a credible trial. There is no other political option.
If Najib and his expensive lawyers are able to continue delaying the trial, Malaysians may start to lose faith with the new administration. Mahathir has publicly pledged to jail Najib for corruption before he hands over power next year to party leader Anwar Ibrahim, and if he cannot deliver on this, it will damage his successor’s political capital.
Najib may even try to delay his trials until after the next election, due in 2023, so he can continue to mount his political comeback.
Far more important for Malaysia, however, is the issue of political immunity. No previous leader has ever been charged with corruption and it is vitally important the rule of law is applied here for future generations.
This has regional implications, as well. Many activists in countries such as Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand see the Najib trial as a benchmark for tackling corruption in their own countries.
In many Southeast Asian countries, a culture of impunity persists at the highest levels of government. There is a belief among many political leaders that once they leave office, the sins they committed while in power will not lead to jail. It is as if this is one of the benefits of being elected to office.
In the coming days, expect more delay tactics by Najib’s defence team. The case might even be halted again due to a legal challenge on a point of law.
But given the stakes involved, I have no doubt the new Malaysian Attorney-General, Tommy Thomas, will make sure Najib’s trial goes ahead. Malaysia as a nation cannot have closure over the 1MDB affair until he is called to answer for his alleged crimes.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has launched a strong attack on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, declaring he has “form” in being anti-Semitic.
Frydenberg, who is Jewish, was responding to Mahathir’s criticism of the Morrison government for considering whether to move the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Mahathir said on Thursday he had pointed out to Prime Minister Scott Morrison during their meeting at the East Asia Summit in Singapore that “adding to the cause for terrorism is not going to be helpful”.
Frydenberg told a news conference that Mahathir “has called Jews hook-nosed people. He has questioned the number of people that have been killed in the Holocaust.
“He banned Schindler’s List as a movie being shown (in Malaysia), though it showed the amazing story of a righteous gentile who saved many people from persecution.”
Frydenberg made similar comments earlier in the day to ABC, saying Mahathir had “form” on making derogatory comments about Jews.
Frydenberg said Morrison was “absolutely right” to begin a process of considering where the embassy should be.
Indonesia is also highly critical of any embassy change, which was
reiterated in the talks Morrison had with Indonesian President Joko Widodo this week. The Indonesians have delayed the signing of the free-trade agreement until Australia makes a decision on the embassy.
Taking a decision on the embassy will be difficult and potentially divisive for the government. Members of the right in the Liberal Party and in the commentariat have been urging the move, but the pragmatists and many in the foreign policy establishment believe the government should stick with the status quo.
While saying that “no one is pre-empting the outcome” of the consideration, Frydenberg in effect made a case for moving from Tel Aviv.
“Australia already recognises Israel’s sovereignty over West Jerusalem. It’s where the Israeli Parliament is. It’s where the Australian ambassador presents his or her credentials. It will be the capital of Israel under any two-state solution,” he said.
“People who say ‘do not put the embassy in Jerusalem’ are making the point that we need to maintain more leverage over the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The reality is that those negotiations have frozen. ”
Frydenberg said Israel was the only country in the world where Australia did not put its embassy in the nation’s capital.
He also criticised what he saw as “a double standard within parts of the United Nations and the Human Rights Council when it comes to Israel, compared with the treatment of other countries.
“The UN General Assembly has passed more anti-Israel resolutions than nearly all resolutions against other individual countries combined.”
Frydenberg said it was inevitable Australia and Indonesia would have
different views on the relationship with Israel.
“Indonesia doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel. Next year
Australia is enjoying 70 years of diplomatic ties with Israel. Of
course we are going to have a different view about that relationship.”
Morrison, now in Darwin to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, said of Frydenberg’s remarks that he was “filling in the history of (Mahathir’s) record on various issues over time”.
Morrison repeated that Australia decided its own foreign policy, not
The 93-year-old Mahathir, recently re-installed as Malaysia’s prime minister, was the object of criticism by then-Prime Minister Paul Keating a quarter of a century ago. When Mahathir refused to attend an APEC summit, Keating condemned him as a “recalcitrant”. Mahathir demanded an apology. The incident embittered relations between the two countries.
The latest report into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 says that investigations have failed to find any explanation as to why the aircraft went missing with 239 passengers and crew on board.
The 449-page main report (with additional appendices) from the Malaysian government builds on previous reports on the investigation into the missing aircraft but admits it is “limited by a significant lack of evidence”.
It’s been four years since the Boeing 777-200ER went missing from its routine flight between Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur and China’s capital Beijing.
The aircraft was later found to have deviated from that flight path, with calculations showing that it probably disappeared somewhere in the Indian Ocean, off the Western Australian coast.
Some parts identified as confirmed or almost certain to have been from the missing aircraft have been recovered, washed up around the Indian Ocean.
The aircraft itself has not been located, and neither the aircraft’s Flight Data Recorder (FDR) nor the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) has been recovered. The only information available to the investigators was from other sources, making triangulation and validation of evidence difficult, if not impossible.
The report notes that MH370 went missing on March 8, 2014, soon after a routine handover from the Malaysian to Vietnamese air traffic control. Communications with the aircraft were lost less than 40 minutes after takeoff.
Both Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic controllers delayed initiation of emergency procedures once communication could not be established with the aircraft following the crossover from one air space to another. This, the report says, delayed any search-and-rescue response.
Given that the initial search area was north of the Malaysian Peninsula on the aircraft’s intended track, and any information suggesting the aircraft might have flown back over the peninsula didn’t emerge for some time, the initial delays in initiating the search-and-rescue phase may be moot.
The report covers several other issues related to the flight, aircraft maintenance, the crew, the cargo etc, but its conclusion ends with the line:
…the (Investigation) Team is unable to determine the real cause for the disappearance of MH370.
Clearly, someone or something was responsible for the loss of the aircraft, passengers and crew. But without evidence from the flight recorders it’s unlikely that any of the many theories as to the cause will be proven.
The report suggests that from the available information and simulations, the aircraft was manually turned off the planned track, suggesting an intent on behalf of whoever was flying the aircraft. The turning off of the transponders that allow the aircraft to be tracked by civilian radars also suggests intent.
Hence the report goes to some lengths to suggest that unlawful interference with flight MH370 cannot be ruled out.
But extensive background checks of the captain and other crew found absolutely no evidence of anything other than a dedicated, professional team who set off to do their job as they had done many many times before.
So the causes of the tragedy are likely to remain conjecture for some considerable time, unless new evidence comes to light.
Clearly the families of those who perished onboard MH370 will not gain much closure from this report. It contains very few answers for them.
But it needs to be said that the air safety investigators need data from multiple sources to try to establish with a reasonable degree of certainty the causes of crashes.
Aviation is a very complex socio-technical system that requires reliable analytics to fully understand the system interactions and deviations. Yet without the recorded flight data and no access to the wreckage, the ability to find cause is critically hampered.
Since the loss of MH370 there has been a global push to improve tracking of airline aircraft. Clearly the travelling public want air traffic control authorities to know where all the aircraft are all of the time, without fail and without the capacity for anyone to turn the tracking system off.
Many in aviation would like that ideal world too. But the current tracking systems don’t have that capacity. The amount of data that would entail is well beyond the capacity of the present systems, and the cost of upgrading the systems to cope with that would be exorbitant.
For example, the current satellite constellation would need to be expanded or significantly enhanced. So, there has to be a compromise.
As the report suggests, it’s likely that improvements to the system will result in airborne aircraft “handshaking” with the tracking system every 15 minutes with GPS position, altitude, heading and speed data.
This should significantly improve the probability of finding an aircraft lost, but it will not guarantee a lost aircraft’s location will be known.
For example, if the aircraft is cruising at 350 knots (about 650kph) when it makes its last handshake with the tracking system, in 15 minutes it could be anywhere in a search area with around a 300km diameter, still representing a significant search conundrum.
Changes in emergency locator beacon capability are also arising from the MH370 experience. The problems with underwater signal acoustics will remain problematic. So design changes in future will likely see beacons that have the capability to detach and float to the surface if an aircraft crashes into water.
From the perspective of the families and from the basis of needing to understand the real lessons from MH370, ideally the search for the aircraft should continue.
But the real challenge is where to look. Without new data to inform a new search effort, the only thing really known is the aircraft is most likely in the Indian Ocean somewhere. That’s the message from the wreckage that has washed ashore.
The arrest of Najib Razak, the former prime minister of Malaysia, on Tuesday was widely expected. In fact, many Malaysians were hoping he would be arrested immediately after the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), was defeated in the May 9 election.
Najib was the main reason why UMNO lost – he was widely seen as corrupt and the main person behind the scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund.
US prosecutors have accused Najib of diverting US$731 million from 1MDB into his personal bank account. Many people assume Najib’s arrest is connected to this fund, but legally speaking, he faces charges relating to a company called SRC international, a one-time subsidiary of 1MDB.
SRC took a loan of about US$1 billion from a state-run retirement fund and Najib is alleged to have siphoned off about US$10.5 million from the top. The money allegedly ended up in his bank account, the same account that was implicated in the 1MDB affair.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing, and on Weddnesday pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Why was Najib not charged in the 1MDB probe?
The simple answer is that the 1MDB investigation covers multiple jurisdictions. At the last count, money involved in the 1MDB affair is believed to have passed through the following financial systems: the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore, Switzerland, Australia, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, among others.
It is simply not possible to put such a complex case together in such a short amount of time following the election of opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad two months ago.
The good news is that, under the new Mahathir administration, foreign governments will now have access to Malaysian documents related to the 1MDB probe. The US, Singapore and Switzerland are among the countries investigating the scandal. When Najib was in power, all financial institutions in Malaysia refused to cooperate with these foreign probes.
Why is SRC International different?
The key factor here is a star witness, a former director of SRC International who decided to come forward to testify for the prosecution. This individual was too afraid to come forward when Najib was prime minister. That is no longer the case.
There are several key witnesses in the 1MDB scandal who may be thinking along the same lines as the former SRC director. With Najib no longer in control, some of these witnesses may now turn against him, as well.
Top of the list is Jho Low, the accused mastermind of the 1MDB scam. He is believed to be dividing his time between Macau and Taiwan, both places where extradition to Malaysia is not possible.
Another important witness under tremendous pressure to come forward is Tim Leissner, the former Southeast Asia chairman for Goldman Sachs, the bank that handled most of the 1MDB bond sales. He was pushed to resign from Goldman Sachs in February 2016, and both Singapore and US securities regulators have banned him from working again in the financial industry.
An interesting side note is that he is better known in the US as the husband of Kimora Lee Simmons, an American model and fashion designer and the former wife of hip hop mogul Russell Simmons.
What’s next in the Najib case?
By charging Najib, the Mahathir administration is keeping an electoral promise to take action against the former leader. But more importantly, the new government is also sending a strong message to Malaysians and the international community that it is serious about cleaning up the mess left by Najib’s government, especially when it comes to corruption.
For Najib, this will likely be the first of many trials he will face, as more charges are expected in the 1MDB case. It’s also likely that Najib’s family members, including his wife, stepson and son-in-law will face charges, as they are alleged to be direct beneficiaries of the stolen funds.
Malaysia’s dire democratic crisis
And this will likely bring an end to the Razak political dynasty in Malaysia for the time being. Najib’s father was Malaysia’s second prime minister and many of his immediate relations used to hold political office. Until the election in May, Najib’s cousin, Hishammuddin Hussein, had been Malaysia’s defence minister.
UMNO will also need to shed its associations with Najib in order to rehabilitate its image among the Malaysian people. Last weekend, the party elected a new president, former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
All in all, Najib’s arrest represents a clean break from the past for all of Malaysia. The end of one-party rule has opened up the possibility of a new era of good governance in the country, which was unthinkable just three months ago. In today’s “new” Malaysia, anything is possible – even calling to account a former prime minister who was just defeated.
More importantly, going forward, the Malaysian public will demand full accountability from their leaders, both past and present.
When Malaysians woke up on May 10, the world looked and felt different. For the first time in years, many Malaysians feel a sense of optimism that was missing in their lives. For the past six decades, Malaysians have been living under the rule of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
UMNO had won every election since 1955. In the May 9 general elections, Najib Razak, UMNO’s leader and prime minister, was not only confident, he was telling close aides that he was aiming for two-thirds of the seats in the 222-seat parliament. By the time the final vote was counted, UMNO had only 79 seats and lost power.
What happened? This will be the question preoccupying political scientists for years to come.
Suffice to say, Najib lost due to three main reasons.
First, his personal brand had become synonymous with kleptocracy. He was alleged to have received close to US$1 billion from a Malaysian sovereign fund via complex international transactions. It did not help that Najib’s wife, Rosman Mansor, was widely regarded as a spendthrift with a passion for diamonds and designer bags.
Second, Dr Mahathir Mohamad was no ordinary opponent. Mahathir was Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, from 1981 to 2003, and had come out of retirement to fight Najib.
Third, and perhaps most important, UMNO was simply seen as an organisation for political patronage, and a purveyor of racism and crony capitalism. It was no longer seen as a Malay nationalist party. In the past few decades, UMNO has been regarded as vehicle for making big money, government corruption and spreading hate towards the Chinese community in Malaysia.
The rural Malays, the mainstay of UMNO political power, could not stomach Najib’s toxic reputation as “Mr Kleptocrat”. They could see that under continued UMNO rule, their lives would be economically ruined. The GST brought in by the Najib administration was the last straw. Prices of basic necessities went up across the board despite Najib’s insistence that the GST would bring down prices.
There is tremendous goodwill towards Mahathir. Yes, he was dictatorial when he was prime minister the first time around. But most Malaysians I spoke to say this time it will be different. Mahathir is 92, and it is obvious he is a transitional leader.
He has said many times that once his jailed former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, can get a royal pardon and a seat in parliament, he will hand over power to Anwar. Many Malaysians believe he will keep his word: after all, he cannot be going for re-election when he is 98.
Mahathir will also be constrained by the opposition’s organisational structure. His party, Pribumi Bersatu, has the third-smallest number of MPs of the four parties in Pakatan Harapan (PH) (Alliance of Hope). He is not in a position to bully.
Finally, what will happen to Najib Razak? Will he go to jail for 1MDB and the missing billions? In the short term, the answer is “no”. The new government will not immediately arrest Najib, or his wife. It will instead likely establish a committee to look into the 1MDB affair and get a definitive answer as to where the US$5billion disappeared to.
If the investigation panel shows Najib is behind the scam, then, yes, Najib will probably end up in jail. But this is a long process. It is more likely that any prosecution against Najib will start outside Malaysia.
Several governments, notably the US, are interested in sorting out the 1MBD issue. Thus far they could not complete their investigations because Najib used his position to stop Malaysian institutions from cooperating with the US Department of Justice probe into 1MDB.
There is a potential new angle to 1MDB, which is related to Australia. The bank account Najib used to launder 1MDB’s money is actually part-owned by ANZ Australia. Many believe some of the money from 1MDB passed through the Australian financial system.
On January 8, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad announced his intention to contest the next general election, due sometime before August this year.
In an unprecedented political turnaround, Mahathir is now leader of the alliance of opposition parties bidding to oust the incumbent, Najib Razak. Mahathir handpicked Najib in 2009 to head his former party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and the coalition it has led since the 1970s, Barisan Nasional.
To add further intrigue, Mahathir now appears to be on a unity ticket with his old enemy, Anwar Ibrahim, for control of the country.
Mahathir, who first rose through UMNO ranks to become prime minister in 1981, is 92. His decision to stand again has raised questions about the state of politics in this young nation, whose median age is 28. Malaysian and international media outlets alike have carried comments along the lines that nominating somebody so old is a “laughable” choice.
Yet the key to this decision is not in the nation’s age profile but the calculus of building electoral coalitions in a diverse nation bearing the scars of political battles fought since 1998.
Look also to Mahathir’s singular skillset in building such coalitions over decades, through a combination of Malay nationalism, a pro-capitalist Islamist ethic and selective minority representation. During his career, Mahathir mastered the use of such political themes, alongside tactics such as granting favours and opportunities to allies while exerting civil and judicial pressure on opponents.
Mahathir led Malaysia for 22 years. In that time, he transformed the nation for better and for worse, depending on which constituency you consult. He resigned in 2003, after famously sacking his deputy and finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998.
Anwar, who became his most formidable opponent, has since led the opposition alliance that Mahathir now heads, with Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, as his deputy.
Anwar himself has nearly completed a second prison term – the first instigated by Mahathir, the second by Najib – and is only due for release in June, at which point he is likely to seek a royal pardon to readmit himself to political life. Anwar’s convictions have resulted from charges of corruption and sodomy – a criminal offence in Malaysia – both of which he has consistently denied.
Unless Anwar wins a pardon from the king, he will not be able to participate in politics for an additional five years after his release. Nonetheless, the plan is to find a way for Anwar to take over – presumably from Mahathir, or potentially from Wan Azizah.
In 2013, at the last election, Anwar led the opposition parties to win the national popular vote. But he did not win sufficient seats to form government, which Barisan retained.
Anwar has perfected a form of political code-switching, which allows him to argue for democratic reforms using both Islamic and secular liberal principles. This is a skill many voters, Muslim and non-Muslim, consider impressive.
Nevertheless, he failed to win important rural seats – whose largely Malay Muslim voters hold disproportionate power in this largely urban nation. Many voters in these seats view their economic and political interests as tied up with UMNO and Barisan, along with their development schemes, subsidies and loans that have propelled many Malay Muslims into better jobs in a modernising economy.
Appointing Mahathir as opposition figurehead is a bid to win these seats: the one missing ingredient in the opposition parties’ 2013 bid for power. It is for this reason that the “nonagenarian”, as Najib calls him, is suddenly running again. He is a critical component of an opposition pitch to these voters, sending the message that the opposition will not turn their lives or the polity upside down, as many fear it will.
That these fears exist is not a mystery. They circulate in comments made in public forums both by government ministers and by other figures linked to UMNO and its affiliated NGOs. They include the assertion that the opposition is un-Islamic because it includes parties like the Democratic Action Party, whose membership is largely ethnic Chinese.
Allowing this coalition to come to power, the argument goes, would allow it to dismantle the web of state protections that protects Malay Muslims not only from poverty but also from the country’s other “races.” It would also lead to an ethnic Chinese bid for power that would displace Malay Muslims in their own nation – from which they only ejected their last group of colonisers at independence in 1957.
Installing Mahathir as a figurehead is a signal to these voters – and their political patrons – that there will be no dismantling of Malay Muslim privileges. Nor will there be a public reckoning for members and officials of UMNO if their party falls, as Mahathir signalled earlier this week.
Instead, the logic goes, voting for the opposition will only rewind and reset the nation at the point it had reached 20 years ago – when Mahathir and Anwar were last leading the nation together, as the leaders of the very same Barisan that these voters continue to support.
There are two important additional constituencies that Mahathir aims to reassure, even while they express concern over a potential second era of “Mahathirism” and seek to delimit how much power he might wield in a new government.
These are non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and “other” minorities, along with so-called “liberal” Malay Muslims – a term generally given to urban professionals comfortable with interracial and mixed-gender politics. Many of these voters are already comfortable with the opposition, and may fear not only Barisan, but also the government’s new apparent allies, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
PAS has left the opposition alliance and is now working in co-ordination with Barisan. It commands a large following of supporters, although it has lost some leaders and supporters to a new party that subsequently split from it, Amanah, which has remained in the opposition.
If the opposition fails, and Barisan wins decisively, minorities and liberals will not like the price PAS will likely extract from Barisan in return for its support – which many fear includes hudud laws and a wholesale Islamisation of the state and public life. But such a transformation would be risky for Malaysia, and destroy its cultivated reputation as a safe and diverse nation in which “moderate” Islam prevails.
Through the 1990s, Mahathir presented himself to these voters as a bulwark against PAS, which he has characterised as similar to the Taliban and opposed to minority rights. A strong argument along these lines might disrupt Barisan-PAS co-ordination, and potentially deliver Barisan a weak win, whose legitimacy the opposition parties will likely challenge.
Najib has instigated a new battery of national security laws that he might consider using if political disaffection continues after a weak result. But, again, using them will be risky, as Malaysia also projects itself as a democracy.
As for the likelihood of an outright opposition win – this would take a surge of energy that seems not to be evident in supporters demoralised by the seeming impossibility of dislodging Barisan and especially UMNO. Even the multi-billion-dollar scandal that broke in 2015, and which remains the subject of a Department of Justice investigation in the US, seems not to have weakened its position.
Nonetheless, the campaign has begun in all but formal terms.