Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak must come clean on money
As determined as some Malaysians are for Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign over a financial scandal, the leader is equally resolute on staying in power. He has dismissed weekend protests calling for clean government as being unrepresentative of popular opinion. As the nation celebrated its national day on Monday, there was every indication he intended to continue to weather the crisis. The longer the stand-off continues, though, the more the economy will suffer and the country's people be polarised.
Najib said the protests were "not the right channel to voice views in a democratic country". But the tight controls the government has on politics, the electoral system, police and media gives critics few other choices. The next elections are not due until 2018 and only a revolt in the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the dominant party in the ruling National Front coalition, would threaten his leadership.
Most of the protesters were from the ethnic Chinese and Indian communities. That there was only a small involvement by majority Malays risks splitting the country along racial lines; Umno is organising a rival rally for October 10. Respected former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is spearheading the push to oust Najib, has muddied the waters by calling for a "people power" style movement.
Pressure has been building since July, when reports surfaced that investigators looking into US$11.1 billion in debts at the state investment vehicle 1Malaysia Development Berhad had found almost US$700 million in funds had been transferred into Najib's bank accounts. The amount has been explained away as overseas political donations and probes by the police, a parliamentary committee, the government's auditor-general and the Bank of Malaysia have cleared authorities of wrongdoing - unsurprising given the influence of the leadership on them. A task force set up by the attorney-general's office has been more aggressive in its investigations, but its powers are limited. Critics remain suspicious.
Malaysia has been in the doldrums over China's economic slowdown and the drop in the price of oil, the country's biggest revenue earner. But the scandal is keeping investors away, sending the currency, the ringgit, to a 17-year low and impacting trade and growth. The longer the crisis continues, the more the economy will be affected. Only by Najib coming clean on the funds can there be hope of a resolution.