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The past week has almost surely been the most challenging of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak’s career. Late last week both the Wall Street Journal and the Sarawak Report, an investigative reporting website about Malaysia, reported that a group of companies linked to debt-ridden state fund 1Malaysian Development Bhd. (1MDB) had made deposits into Najib’s bank accounts. The WSJ further alleged that the biggest deposit into Najib’s account was worth $620 million, and that one of the other deposits was worth over $60 million.
The prime minister’s office denies the charges, and some Malaysian media have reported that Najib plans to sue the WSJ for criminal defamation. 1MDB’s leaders also denied the reports, saying they had never transferred any money to the prime minister. 1MDB was already being investigated by the central bank, a parliamentary committee, and the police after running up debts of over $11 billion and needing multiple cash infusions to stay afloat.
Still, over the weekend other top members of the government did not exactly rally around Najib. Some senior members of the governing coalition defended the prime minister, calling the allegations baseless. But not all came to Najib’s side, and the new charges against Najib come at a time when he and his allies appear to be struggling to gain control of the governing coalition following a public challenge to Najib by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Mahathir’s allies. “These allegations are serious because they can affect the credibility and integrity of Najib as PM and the leader of the government," Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in a statement. The deputy prime minister also called on the government to investigate the allegations made in the WSJ report. Opposition politicians, meanwhile, called for Najib to immediately stand down as prime minister while a completely independent investigation is conducted into the charges made in the WSJ and Sarawak Report’s stories.
Lost amidst the WSJ and Sarawak Report stories, Najib’s response, and the political in-fighting in the governing coalition is the fact that these revelations suggest Malaysian politics are more open than many previously believed. After all, the WSJ’s report emerged after investigations into the 1MDB fund by government investigators, apparently including investigators from the anticorruption commission, the police, and the central bank. These investigators acted even though the anticorruption agency comes under the purview of the Ministry of Finance, and Najib is the minister of finance, as well as the prime minister; and the investigation occurred even though the governing coalition wields vast political power, having ruled Malaysia since independence. Then, on Sunday Malaysia’s attorney general revealed that authorities had raided three firms allegedly linked to the payments discussed in the WSJ article.
To be sure, someone leaked documents from the investigation to the media, and without these media reports it is possible that these charges would have never come to light. Still, in a country where, according to Human Rights Watch, the government acts with impunity, persecutes opposition voices, and controls most levers of power, the fact that these stories even emerged suggests that Malaysian political discourse is becoming far more open than it was even a decade ago.