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PRESSURE COOKER

Another prominent critic of Malaysia’s embattled prime minister has been detained

Reuters/Olivia Harris
Center of attention.
  • Steve Mollman
By Steve Mollman

Weekend editor

This article is more than 2 years old.

If the administration of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak has nothing to hide, it certainly isn’t acting that way. Late on Friday (Sept. 18), authorities arrested a critic of the administration—and member of the ruling party—who was attempting to travel to New York.

Khairuddin Abu Hassan had planned to urge US authorities to investigate suspicious money transfers that went through (paywall) the California-based financial institution Wells Fargo. Malaysia charged him with “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”

In July, documents revealed that nearly $700 million from the Malaysian state development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) had apparently found its way into the prime minister’s personal bank accounts. Najib has denied taking any money from 1MDB or any other entity for personal gain. He claims the money, transferred shortly before the nation’s close-fought 2013 general election, was donated by an unnamed Arab family.

Khairuddin had already traveled to financial capitals in Europe and Asia in an effort to spur investigations into the prime minister’s dealings, according to the New York Times (paywall). He was scheduled to meet FBI agents on Monday, said his lawyer, Matthias Chang, the appointment having been made with assistance from the US embassy in Malaysia.

Khairuddin didn’t make it out of Malaysia, but, he told the Times, “I strongly believe that the US authorities have all the records on money movements.” Yesterday (Sept. 20) the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI is launching an investigation (paywall) into allegations of money laundering at 1MDB.

Authorities in Singapore, Switzerland, and Hong Kong have already been looking into 1MDB. Swiss authorities said on Sept. 2 they had frozen 1MDB-linked funds in Swiss banks. Singapore has taken similar actions. Meanwhile further questions about 1MDB-related funds have emerged, this time involving billions of dollars that have gone missing in the Middle East.

With international investigations underway, it’s possible that Najib could be arrested by Interpol should he travel abroad, suggested Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia who helped Najib rise to power but has since spoken out against him.

Meanwhile Najib has been busy silencing critics. When deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin called for the truth on 1MDB, Najib removed him from his cabinet. When publications run by the Edge Media Group reported on the 1MDB matter, the company’s publishing permits were temporarily suspended.

The daughter of detained Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim might also face arrest, should she return to the country. Last week Nurul Izzah Anwar was in Washington urging US officials to pressure Najib to release her father—a former finance minister and deputy prime minister arrested on dubious sodomy charges—and abandon authoritarian policies. Malaysian authorities are investigating her over charges that she attempted to buy stolen data on 1MDB.

With US president Barack Obama scheduled to visit Malaysia in November, she argued it is crucial that Najib not be allowed to use the visit to bolster his position. She said Najib has been promoting Malay supremacy and was encouraging radicalization and extremism. Last week a rally that was encouraged by the ruling party stoked racial tensions in Malaysia. It was a counter-rally to one held in late August calling for cleaner government.

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