Winds of Change or Gambit by Embattled Prime Minister? Malaysia, reform of the Internal Security Act and Political Scandal

Posted on | september 25, 2011 | No Comments

Personally I am not convinced that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has had a Damascene conversion that has led him to embrace political reform. While I welcome the announcement on September 15th that the Internal Security Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, and other laws will be abolished oramended, the announcement suggests that the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) may be gearing up for the country’s 12th General Election with speculation already rife that the election may be as early as November this year. (In Malaysia elections have to be held at least once every five years, though there is no minimum time that must elapse). Nevertheless by embracing political reform Najib appears to have appropriated one of the core issues that has united the three constituent parties that form the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (Peoples Pact) and potentially turned it into a Barisan initiative. It also suggests, or at least portrays, a return to the center by UMNO, the senior constituent party of the Barisan.

However, embracing political reform at this point also conveniently deflects attention from the corruption scandals that have bedeviled Najib’s premiership. Since he took overas PM in 2008 Najib has faced continued allegations and rumors concerning the murder of Mongolian business woman Altantuya Shaariibuu in 2006. Altantuya was murdered in Shah Alam in October 2006 and her remains exploded using C4 in order to try to destroy any evidence. Altantuya, variously described as a translator, student, model and paramour of one of Najib’s associates, was allegedly murdered because she had discovered that commissions had been paid by the Franco-Spanish company Aramisto the Malaysian company Perimekar for “support and coordination services,” in the sale of two French Scorpene submarines to the Malaysian government for $1 billion. The defense minister at the time was current Prime Minister Najib, Atlantuya was having an affair with his close associate Abdul Razak Baginda; and Razak Baginda’s wife was the principal shareholder of the company that wholly owned Perimekar. Altantuya is alleged to have attempted to blackmail Razak Baginda for a share of the fee prior to her murder.

Altantuya Shaariibuu

During the trial Razak Baginda’s private investigator P. Balasubramaniam, made a statutory declaration that Najib himsel fhad had a relationship with Atlantuya but had ‘passed her on’ to Razak Baginda because it would have been unseemly to have a mistress in the event of becoming Prime Minister. The following day Balasubramaniam retracted his statemen tbefore latter leaving Malaysia for India where he has since claimed that he was forced to make the retraction and allegedly offered RM 5 million (US$1.48 million) to forget his statement connecting Najib to Altantuyaby Najib’s brother, Nizam, and wife, Rosmah Mansor.

French human rights lawyer William Bourdon

While the trial was concluded in April 2009,and two police officers were executed for their role in the murder, the casehas stubbornly refused to go away. Eight months after the verdict the Malaysian human rights NGO Suaramlodged a complaint with the French government over the payment of the commission by Aramis (which is a subsidiary of French arms companies Thales and DCNS) leading to a full-scale investigation of the case by French lawyers including the prominent specialist on human rights William Bourdon. The story hit the news again in July this year when Bourdon was detained by immigration officers at Kuala Lumpur airport and then deported, ostensibly for violating the terms of his tourist visa because he had given a talk on the island of Penang the previous evening. Throw into the maelstrom that the case has caused the mass demonstration for electoral reform on July 9th, the ongoing (second) trial of former deputy Prime Minister and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy, scandals over kickbacks in the purchase of 18 Sukhoi fighter jets, and increasingly ferocious attacks by former Prime Minister Mahathir on the government’s economic policies, and one gets a sense of an increasingly embattled Najib.

So the announcement that there will be a major overhaul of some of the country’s most restrictive laws on civil rights has certainly cast the Prime Minister in a much more positive light, diverted attention from all of the above travails, and has the potential to steal one of the opposition’s most visible campaign platforms. The test however will be whether th eannouncement is actually implemented in a major overhaul or not. While it does represent a bold move, already there are calls from conservative critics to maintain the “preventive spirit of the ISA” in the two new anti-terrorism laws that are mooted to replace the Act. If Najib fails to deliver the repeal of the ISA, or if he merely rebrands it, then the effect is likely to both undermine his credibility further and galvanize the country’s opposition. What happens next is anyone’s guess but if Najib does press ahead with these reforms I would expect a snap general election to capitalize on the political dividend it could deliver.

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
E-MAIL: [at]


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