Malaysia’s prime minister faces a fresh threat to his rule: royalty

We usually stay out of politics but…
We usually stay out of politics but…
Image: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad
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Normally, the royal leaders of Malaysia stay out of politics; indeed, their very existence might come as news to many outsiders. (The royal leaders consist of the sultans of nine states and the governors of the remaining four.) But they made an unprecedented call for action on Oct. 6 about the corruption claims surrounding prime minister Najib Razak.

In July, documents revealed that nearly $700 million from the troubled Malaysian state development fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), had apparently found its way into the prime minister’s personal bank accounts. Najib denied taking money from 1MDB for personal gain, and claimed the deposits were from a private donation.

Pressure quickly mounted on Najib to provide a better explanation. The deputy prime minister called upon Najib to come clean. (Najib promptly sacked him.) The nation’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, called for Najib’s resignation. Authorities in Singapore, SwitzerlandHong Kong, and the United States each launched investigations into international financial activities linked to 1MDB.

The royal leaders made their rare statement just ahead of their two-day Conference of Rulers. The government’s failure to give convincing answers on 1MDB may have resulted in a “crisis of confidence,” they said. “The findings of the investigation must be reported comprehensively and in a transparent manner so that the people will be convinced of the sincerity of the government which shall not at all conceal facts and the truth,” they added.

Najib has been accused of stoking racial tension in order to stay in power. He painted the rallies against him in August calling for cleaner government as being driven by the nation’s ethnic Chinese, an economically powerful minority. In response his party, which supports long-standing economic privileges for Malays, helped organize a nearly violent counter-rally of mostly young Malay men brought into Kuala Lumpur from rural areas.

Dealing with the royal leaders could be far trickier for Najib. They have no formal power, and their proclamations are not binding, but the centuries-old royal families are accorded great respect as symbols of Malaysia’s heritage and guardians of the nation’s Islamic faith.

Just as important, they can’t be sacked.