The family feud dominating public life in Singapore has crossed the Causeway, as Malaysians marvel at the Lion City premier’s open handling of the saga – and compare it to the closed-door approach of their own leader, Najib Razak, regarding his alleged links to a scandal at the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has won widespread praise for his handling of what many believe should have been kept a private family matter. His siblings have accused him of abusing his power as prime minister to overrule the wishes of their late father – the city state’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew – regarding the fate of the family home at 38 Oxley Road. They say their father was adamant in wanting the home to be demolished after his death, but that the premier wants to go against this wish to preserve the home and derive political capital from their father’s legacy.
The Lion City premier has responded with openness. Not only did he make a statement on national television – saying he had done all he could to resolve the family conflict and apologising for any harm it may have done to Singapore’s reputation – he also gave MPs a free rein to grill him in parliament.
Najib, on the other hand, has remained largely silent regarding a scandal at the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) – where investigators claim to have traced some US$700 million wired into his accounts. Najib, who has denied any wrongdoing, is accused by critics of trying to shut down debate on the scandal. He has banned parliament from mentioning 1MDB and has removed key figures from his cabinet after they spoke out about the issue.
“The Singaporean PM has asked forgiveness from the people because of his siblings fighting. The Malaysian PM robbed billions, cricket noises,” said Twitter user @normgn. “Find it amusing to see the level of response of Singapore towards the Oxley Road house versus here for 1MDB. Just so weird,” said another, @yoongkhean. “One side got parliament seating just to explain it, one side ... ignorance is bliss.”
The contrasting approach of the two leaders has been made more obvious as new details emerge about the US Department of Justice’s investigation into 1MDB.
As the public digest the details of the saga in the usually scandal-free Singapore – which has included Facebook posts from the premier’s family and private emails made public – they are also poring over the latest details of the Department of Justice’s investigation into 1MDB. The latest filing in the case seeks to recover US$540 million in assets including a yacht, a Picasso painting gifted to Leonardo DiCaprio, and a diamond necklace purchased with money stolen from the government fund.
Department of Justice documents allege that nearly US$30 million stolen from the fund were used to buy jewellery for the wife of “Malaysian Official 1” – jewellery that is said to have included a 22-carat pink diamond necklace. The documents do not identify Najib or his wife Rosmah Mansor by name, but say the jewellery was for the wife of “Malaysian Official 1”. Cabinet minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan has identified Malaysian Official 1 as Najib.
Controversial political cartoonist Zunar responded to this revelation by drawing a picture of a witch with a beehive hairdo riding a 1MDB broomstick and waving a large pink diamond pendant. Another cartoon depicts an Inspector Clouseau-esque character, a reference to the pink panther and a large pink diamond.
Last month, Rosmah’s solicitor released a statement saying that her lawyers were closely monitoring all postings on social media platforms and other publications, cautioning the public from making any false and malicious postings and statements.
In June, model Miranda Kerr turned over jewellery worth US$8.1 million that had been given to her by Malaysian financier Jho Low, who was instrumental in the development of 1MDB.
Even opposition politicians have taken to social media to vent their frustration at the lack of debate surrounding 1MDB. Member of Parliament M. Kulasegaran tweeted: “Openness by Singapore PM on a controversial issue speaks well of a government. In Malaysia?”
And Speaker of the Selangor State Assembly Hannah Yeoh said on Facebook: “When a controversy happens of this nature, being answerable to parliament is the right response. Lee Hsien Loong, you’re a good PM & I hope 1MDB can be dealt with like this in the Malaysian parliament too. Truly, not every son of a former prime minister is the same.”
WATCH: Singapore PM says siblings’ charges ‘baseless’
Najib is the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein.
Lawyer Ong Yu Jian also shared Lee’s public address on Facebook, saying: “No matter how embarrassing or personal the issue, he has the b**** to air it in parliament, invite questions from MPs and ask the party whip to be lifted for this issue.”
Political analyst Oh Ei Sun of the Pacific Research Centre said Najib’s silence was because he was confident he had the support of voters ahead of an election that may be called as early as this year.
“At end of the day, the 1MDB scandal will not significantly affect the vote banks for the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, or even his party Umno specifically.
“Najib relies primarily on the urban and rural poor and for these people 1MDB is almost a soap opera. They may follow it but don’t feel acute hatred towards Najib as do the first group of people. They are more interested in whether they get a share in the next handout as they depend on these handouts. They won’t stop voting for the Barisan Nasional because of 1MDB. ”
Oh also said that there was less need to clarify issues in Malaysia, as Singaporean voters were “more sophisticated and educated”.
Still, many Malaysian voters and lawmakers are frustrated at what they see as a clampdown on discussion of the 1MDB scandal.
Opposition MP Steven Sim said parliament was not even allowed to mention it on the pretext that it was subjudice. “Despite investigators in at least six countries investigating and taking legal action against 1MDB-related parties, including the US Department of Justice, Najib’s government has not only removed key leaders in his cabinet and in civil service who spoke out against him on this issue – notably his deputy prime minister, second finance minister, the attorney general, and the head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission – parliament is not allowed to even mention 1MDB.
“By allowing serious and damaging allegations to be openly debated in parliament, Lee Hsien Loong demonstrated he has nothing to hide, is willing to come clean and answer to the people,” Sim said.
“The same cannot be said of Najib Razak.” ■