Latest scandal gives Abdullah a reprieve

Posted by SM Maulana

Turmoil makes it hard for Najib to challenge PM, prolonging the spell of weak leadership

The push for Mr Abdullah to hand over power to Mr Najib is weakened by claims that the latter is involved in a murder.

By Leslie Lopez, The Straits Times

THE high-stakes political poker waged by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has bought embattled Malaysian Premier Abdullah Badawi some wiggle room.

But the temporary reprieve for Datuk Seri Abdullah in his struggle to cling to power is not doing any good to this multiracial South-east Asian nation now staring at one of its worst political and economic crises in decades.

The tensions, which have pushed Malaysia into unknown political terrain, are hurting the country’s image as a global model of a functioning Islamic democracy, analysts say.

It is also shaking the country’s economic fundamentals, which are being rocked by the knock-on effects of higher fuel prices and sharp spikes in the cost of living.

Private economists fear that unless Mr Abdullah displays decisive leadership soon, the country’s economy, which relies heavily on foreign investment, could suffer irreparable damage.

‘The Malaysian system is very top-down, and the government has a huge say in the economy. That is why any leadership crisis will have an outsized effect on the economy and business,’ said Mr Manu Bhaskaran, a regional strategist and partner with US-based Centennial in Singapore.

The crisis has already taken a toll on the country’s stock market. The benchmark composite index closed yesterday at 1,134.14 points, its lowest level in 15 months, due to heavy selling by locals and foreigners.

‘The sentiment among foreigners has reached a new low this week, and they are getting out,’ said a head of research at a European stockbroking firm in Kuala Lumpur.

The electoral setbacks suffered by the Barisan Nasional coalition under the onlslaught of Mr Anwar’s opposition alliance in the March general election significantly weakened Mr Abdullah’s grip on power and prompted calls from within his own Umno that he should hand over power to Datuk Seri Najib sooner rather than later.

Until about a month ago, there were murmurings in Umno that Mr Najib had secured enough support from the party’s roughly 200 divisions to force Mr Abdullah to relinquish the presidency and the premiership that comes with it, before the party’s internal elections in December.

But the Najib political juggernaut has hit bumps in recent weeks, largely because of the recurring allegation that the Deputy Premier and people close to him were in some way involved in the murder of a Mongolian woman.

Abdul Razak Baginda, a former political adviser to the Deputy Premier, is being charged with two commando specialists previously assigned to Mr Najib’s security detail for the murder of Ms Altantuya Shaariibuu in October 2006.

Two weeks ago, the Najib camp was seriously singed when a prominent Malaysian blogger alleged that Mr Najib’s wife and two military personnel were at the scene of the crime before the victim’s body was blown up with explosives.

The allegations, which were denied vehemently, were followed by claims on Thursday by a private investigator engaged by Abdul Razak of a government cover-up over the murder and that Mr Najib knew the victim well.

Hardly 24 hours after making those claims, the private investigator retracted the allegations. Supporters of Mr Najib are insisting that the attempts to sully the Deputy Premier’s character are part of a plot by Mr Anwar to divert attention away from a police investigation into allegations that he sodomised one of his personal assistants.

Mr Anwar is accusing Mr Najib of also resorting to diversionary tactics. He says that the sodomy allegations are aimed at preventing his coalition from wresting power and that the surprising retraction by the private investigator only reinforced a pattern of abuse in the criminal justice system.

Mr Abdullah’s hesitation in stepping in decisively to deal with the Najib-Anwar face-off is now prompting speculation that the Premier is craftily taking advantage of the crisis to take the wind out of his deputy’s political sails.

But several analysts say this triangle also illustrates the moribund nature of Malaysia’s political leadership.

‘In a sense, the country is leaderless because the person in charge cannot impose his will,’ said Mr Khoo Boo Teik, who teaches politics at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang.

‘Those who are being led are not strong enough to remove him.’


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