As Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak becomes increasingly besieged by revelations in a US civil suit alleging fraud in his brainchild 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), his supporters are hitting back with a textbook tactic straight from classic psychological warfare manuals.
Over the past several days leading up to Malaysia’s 59th Independence Day on August 31, senior leaders and operatives of Najib’s party, United Malays National Organisation or Umno, are claiming that the suit by the Department of Justice is the start of a US plot to topple Najib.
Comparisons have been made between the DoJ suit and the 2003 invasion of Iraq when then-US President George W Bush used destroying weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war.
By channelling nationalistic feelings that intensify at this time of year, they hope to nullify a key message in the DoJ suit which has grabbed the public’s attention – that Najib’s associates and his stepson defrauded 1MDB. And that Najib very possibly benefited from the graft.
The propaganda war around the DoJ suit also serves to neutralise the latest two threats to the political survival of Najib and Umno. The first is a series of massive rallies by electoral reform group Bersih 2.0 to pressure the government to reopen investigations into 1MDB.
The other, bigger, threat is Bersatu, a political party set up by the former premier Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s highly regarded former deputy Muhyiddin Yassin and other former Umno rebels. Bersatu aims to replace Umno as the party of choice among Malaysia’s rural ethnic Malays, a key voting bloc, and to defeat Umno and its allies in the next general election.
By using the foreign conspiracy bogeyman, Umno hopes to discredit Mahathir, the political opposition and Bersih 2.0 in the eyes of rural Malays.
The DoJ suit claims that US$3.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB and funnelled into the accounts of controversial businessman Low Teck Jho, Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz and two others. About US$1 billion of those funds were used to buy luxury properties, paintings and pay for gambling debts in the United States, the suit claims, and US$731 million deposited into the personal account of an individual called “Malaysian official One” (MO1).
Although Najib is not specifically named, the suit states that MO1 is a relative of Riza and held high positions in the Malaysian government and 1MDB. (Najib had been a chairman of 1MDB’s advisory board).
Najib has denied any wrongdoing, while Malaysia’s attorney general has also cleared him of any crime related to 1MDB.
The term “MO1” has been a lightning rod for Najib’s critics and a viral meme much to the chagrin of his supporters. Numerous news reports claim it refers to Najib and a protest is being planned to “arrest MO1”.
According to Bersatu founding member Kamarul Azman Habibur Rahman, the DoJ suit was a turning point in the public’s perception of the 1MDB affair.
For the first time, the suit spelled out in clear terms how the scandal was a crime, unlike the probes by Malaysian authorities.
“When you talk to rural folk about 1MDB it’s hard for them to grasp concepts such as bad investments, shell companies and debt,” said Kamarul Azman, who was expelled from Umno for criticising Najib.
“But the suit makes it clear that 1MDB money was stolen and these individuals have to go to court to defend themselves. So now, rural folk can see that something seriously wrong happened. And that is what Umno is so scared of,” he said.
Umno, together with its partners in the Barisan Nasional coalition, was re-elected in the 2013 general election thanks largely to rural Malays.
“Because they cannot defend themselves against these allegations they claim it’s a foreign conspiracy,” said Kamarul Azman.
Over the past three weeks, two of the party’s senior leaders, Idris Haron and Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah, have painted the DoJ suit as a foreign conspiracy to topple the democratically-elected Najib.
Similar claims were made by articles in Umno-owned daily Utusan Malaysia and its portal Umno Online. These reports also accused Bersatu’s leaders Mahathir and Muhyiddin of conspiring with foreign powers.
In the past Umno has also tarred political rivals the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Democratic Action Party as foreign agents in order to discredit them among rural folk. Ironically Mahathir used this tactic repeatedly in 1998 against then estranged Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the founder of PKR.
Umno declined to comment.
The problem with the smear campaign, said another Bersatu leader, Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, was that it did not gel with Najib’s own public persona of being a darling of the US. Najib has been fond of boasting of his cosy relationship with US President Barack Obama. “He’s played golf with Obama, he tells everyone his administration managed to bring Obama to Malaysia twice and how he’s even ridden in The Beast [the US president’s official limousine]. So there’s this cognitive dissonance there.”
Also, Mahathir’s notoriety for being a critic of Western superpowers was embedded in the Malay psyche, said Syed Saddiq.
Ibrahim Suffian, of the think tank Merdeka Centre, said the bogeyman tactic had been used too often in the past. Coupled with the inconsistencies of Najib’s own explanations of where the donation came, Ibrahim said such conspiracy theories were starting to look like a propaganda campaign to mask an inconvenient truth.
Kamarul Azman added: “Even rural folk understand that when you have to go to court to face charges, then something is seriously wrong.”
Sheridan Mahavera is a Kuala Lumpur-based journalist