Money stolen from the troubled Malaysian state fund 1MDB was laundered in jaw-dropping ways: multi-million dollar real estate in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and London; art worth US$130 million; and funding for Hollywood movie The Wolf of Wall Street, among others.
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) is trying to seize US$1 billion in assets traced to 1MDB, its largest ever such endeavour.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak is the chief of 1MDB’s advisory board as well as the country’s finance minister, and the scandal surrounding the fund hangs heavily upon him.
As the allegations pile up, Najib has defied gravity, even strengthening his position domestically by removing opponents at key state institutions like the Attorney General’s Office and the Central Bank, and clamping down on critics in the media.
Najib has persistently denied any wrongdoing, stating he did not take any money for personal gain. He has refused to resign, claiming the allegations are a political plot by adversaries.
Many are now wondering: will the unfolding US investigation bring him down?
It is a natural enough question, given how the 1MDB scandal is impacting on Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy. Any political instability could also stymie joint efforts by the Muslim country and US and Australia to fight terrorism, which analysts fear will be reinvigorated in the region by returning extremists from ISIS-controlled territory.
But those hoping for a swift end to Najib’s rule are likely to be disappointed for three main reasons: the PM's substantial political support; a lack of united opposition; and, finally, some powerful foreign allies.
1. Political support at home
Firstly, Najib commands solid support from his political party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and has flushed out all dissenters.
UMNO’s Supreme Council, the most important party organ, threw its support behind the party leader soon after the DOJ announcement, warning others 'not (to) make any conclusion because no one can be said to be guilty until proven in the court'.
Last month it sacked prominent party members critical of Najib, including former deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and MP Mukhriz Mahathir, eldest son of Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
'This move (by the DOJ) will not dent his position because he is strong domestically and his party members fall in line. They are beholden to him,' said one source in the government’s inner circle who declined to be named.
2. No united opposition
Najib's political foes are weakened and the opposition parties fragmented.
An early supporter of Mr Najib, Dr Mahathir now leads the charge to bring him down. But the 91-year-old, who once wielded considerable political leverage as Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister, now sees his influence waning. The latest indication of this came in May, when Dr Mahathir called for voters in elections in east Malaysia to punish Najib. Instead, the ruling coalition won a bigger-than-expected margin.
'It also reflects the reality that many rural voters — who make up the majority of the population in some states — do not relate to 1MDB; they have no idea what it is and why it matters because all they see is that the ruling coalition has provided them with the basics,' said a Kuala Lumpur management consultant, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, the opposition coalition is in disarray after leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed last February for the second time in his career on a sodomy charge many believe was politically motivated. His once-powerful opposition alliance fell apart after rejecting the plans of the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party to enforce Islamic law in the state it rules.
Another alliance member, Democratic Action Party, is in full damage-control mode after the arrest of its secretary-general Lim Guan Eng on allegations of corruption.
3. Foreign friends
Finally, Najib still has the support of foreign allies, like Saudi Arabia.
The Malaysian attorney-general claimed that funds deposited into the PM’s bank accounts were a 'personal donation' from the Saudi royal family.
US-Malaysia relations initially blossomed under Najib as he forged a closer friendship with his American counterpart, President Barack Obama, who became his golf buddy. The US needs regional support to combat extremism and mitigate the rise of an ever more aggressive China. It sees Malaysia as a crucial partner on both fronts and Mr Najib’s ouster could undermine what has been a constructive and important relationship.
Malaysia is trying to play the US off against China, which has become an important friend to Najib since this scandal broke. China provided a lifeline to 1MDB when China's state-owned energy company invested in 1MDB’s energy assets worth US$2.3 billion soon after the Chinese Premier promised to help Malaysia overcome its economic woes.
So, even as his image takes a further hit, Mr Najib’s position looks solid for now.
The 63-year-old son of Malaysia’s second prime minister is renowned for this survival skills.
He pulled through a scandal as defence minister, when two former members of his security detail were jailed for killing a Mongolian model in 2006 and blowing up her body, all amid allegations of dark dealings.
Now his resilience is on display once again. So far Najib has outmanouvered his domestic foes. If the US DOJ were to charge him with a criminal offence, it may finally be enough to bring him down.
But, with much to lose and few credible challengers at home, Najib seems set to hold on.
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