The national interest is not under threat from media reporting on corruption, but from Malaysia’s scandalous leaders.
The three-month suspension starting Monday of The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly, Malaysia’s leading news media, is in one sense business-as-usual.
In another sense it is the first order of business that is consistent with the intensifying impoverishment of Malaysian politics.
It is no surprise that the country is cracking up, and cracking down. It has been facing turmoil for years, continuing its trend of seriously lacking honest and decent leadership on all fronts. And if leadership does exist, it must be reserved for state-sponsored corruption and state kleptomania.
One scandal, lie and deception after another has blackened and bruised Prime Minister Najib Razak. Panic is besetting the ruling United Malays National Organistaion (UMNO) regime, which is trying to blanket Najib from investigation, indictment and prosecution.
Already there are ominous signs of a rebound to the late 1980s when Dr Mahathir Mohamad was ruler. Seared by venomous discontent from within and slanderous disquiet from without, his ruling UMNO party edged toward an acrimonious breakup.
That saga resulted in, inter alia, the besieged Mahathir dispensing his lord-of-the-manor justice – the police operation Lalang, on 27 October 1987. In the name of preventing racial riots, his regime’s Special Branch was unleashed to nab scores of opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) politicians, and, unsurprisingly, pro-regime ‘second-echelon’ Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) figures.
Other arrests included members of UMNO Youth, other political parties and non-government organisations. More notably, Mahathir abused the Internal Security Act (ISA) to indefinitely shut down three newspapers (all infamous for, among other things, their crony affiliations): The Star (MCA-owned), Watan and Sin Chew Jit Poh.
In parliament Mahathir explained the arrests were to slay the potential for public disorder and racial violence. Interestingly, the scandal-ridden Najib regime has used the same reason in its latest crackdown.
The home ministry, led by Zahid Hamidi, declared The Edge Group’s reporting as “prejudicial or likely to be prejudicial to public order, security or likely to alarm public opinion or is likely to be prejudicial to public and national interest”.
No doubt Zahid Hamidi sought to cover every conceivable base, and then some. This list of stunningly lame excuses is another sign of a regime in panic, now that the truth about Najib’s and UMNO’s financial shenanigans are becoming clearer for Malaysians and the world to see.
In fact this type of behaviour has been in plain sight for some time. UMNO has been bathing in zero political and moral legitimacy since 2008, and continues to autocratically rule the country toward bankruptcy. Not that UMNO’s Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition minnows possess any integrity either.
What’s monumentally clear, though, is that the suspension of The Edge Group’s flagship newspapers is exceedingly selective. If reporting on state sovereign fund 1MDB’s whopping debts of 42 billion ringgit and the alleged siphoning of its funds by UMNO-BN politicians gives rise to provoking racial violence, Najib should move heaven and earth to shut down Utusan Malaysia – the debt-ridden, UMNO-owned propagandist Malay newspaper.
Utusan Malaysia by far poses the single-most direct risk to public order and national security. But Najib needs Utusan to maintain what is left of his Malay kampong (village) support base, which he will acquire through money politics, using taxpayers’ money.
If the ‘national interest’ is under threat, its sole source or contributor is the Najib-UMNO regime, complicit with the BN parties who, unlike in 1987, today dare not glance sideways at their UMNO patrons. The US $700 million tracked to Najib’s personal bank accounts, which so far Najib has not denied, and traced to 1MDB’s underhanded business deals, clearly define the political and economic stakes at play.
Since the bulk of Malaysia’s media are too pliable to speak up, Mahathir, for all his faults, has unabashedly painted Najib’s prime ministership, financial ministership and his UMNO presidency as “verging on criminal”.
To be sure, The Edge Group’s reporting on the stupendous infamy surrounding 1MDB, implicating Najib and UMNO more directly, represents one of the finest pieces of journalism. It is almost up there with the Pentagon Papers, which Daniel Ellsberg released to The New York Times in 1971, and the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting that forced US president Richard Nixon to resign in 1974.
On any count, by any measure, The Edge Group’s reporting has performed a priceless national duty, service in the public interest. Malaysians do have the right to know and not be lied to habitually by their ‘government’. That the state-owned and state-controlled media calls itself the Fourth Estate is utterly shameful.
A state sovereign fund facing imminent bankruptcy and the UMNO regime’s ongoing unbridled plundering of the country impinges so immediately and vastly on the lives of Malaysians and businesses there, including the country’s financial and banking system and its pitiable currency. The Edge Group’s use of “cheated Malaysia” in its recent exposés speaks volumes, and historically, of Malaysia’s rapidly growing ‘pariah state’ status.
The Najib-UMNO regime has again shown its proclivity for ‘shooting the messenger’. Instead of facing the truth, or for Najib to tell the truth, he, as Mahathir had done, hides behind a wall of laws that are as bastardised as the country’s constitution and judicial system – thanks to Mahathir.
No question that Najib has once more failed the ‘sniff test’. And he can take heart that his latest shameless act won’t keep him in power for as long as Mahathir did.
Because the ground beneath him is opening up to swallow him whole.
Manjit Bhatia is head of research at AsiaRisk, an economic and political risk consultancy firm.