Former Malaysian Premier Mahathir Under Probe for Defamation

  • Probe relates to Mahathir comments against premier Najib
  • Mahathir has called for months for Najib to step aside

Former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad is under investigation for potential defamation as the country’s longest-serving leader continues to pressure Prime Minister Najib Razak to step down.

Police opened several investigation papers after reports were made against Mahathir, Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi said in a written reply to a parliamentary question. He said the probes relate to Section 500 of the penal code on defamation, and there was no immediate information on who filed the reports.

"They are trying to send a stern warning to Mahathir but it’s unlikely the investigations will amount to much," said Oh Ei Sun, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and Najib’s political secretary from 2009 to 2011. "His arrest, if any, would invite a lot of attention both domestically and internationally, and it’s not a good political move as he still commands a high level of respect."

Opposition Democratic Action Party lawmaker Tan Kok Wai had asked what actions authorities were taking against Mahathir for his criticisms of Najib. One case will be referred to the deputy public prosecutor for review after the investigation is completed, and another has been referred to the attorney general, Zahid said. 

Nothing Wrong

While a spokesman for Mahathir said he had no immediate comment on Zahid’s remarks, the elder statesman told Reuters Thursday he had done nothing wrong. Mahathir said chances of ousting Najib before the next elections due by 2018 are slim, and opposition efforts to push through a no-confidence vote would fail because of a lack of numbers, Reuters reported.

The development comes as opposition leader Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said she filed a new motion for a vote of no confidence against Najib. While a motion faces obstacles even getting heard, let alone voted on, the opposition is looking to gain momentum from the criticisms made by Mahathir.

“I trust all members of parliament to vote according to their conscience,” Wan Azizah told reporters. “We cannot keep one man in office and have thousands lose their jobs” amid eroding sentiment in the country, she said.

Funding Scandal

Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy has been roiled by a funding scandal linked to Najib that has spooked foreign investors and contributed to a sell-off in Malaysian markets. Foreign investors pulled about 19.2 billion ringgit from stocks and bonds last quarter and sent the currency to a 17-year low. While the ringgit has pared losses it is still down more than 18 percent this year.

Mahathir said over a year ago he was withdrawing support for Najib, citing worsening race relations and a tougher business environment after the premier took office in 2009. Since then Mahathir, 90, has been on a public campaign to get Najib out, warning the United Malays National Organisation -- in power since independence in 1957 -- risked losing the next general election if he stays as leader. 

He escalated his criticisms after the Wall Street Journal reported on hundreds of millions of dollars that ended up in Najib’s private accounts before the last election in 2013.

Political Donations

Najib has acknowledged the money made it to his accounts but said it was political donations from the Middle East rather than public funds, an initial conclusion also reached by the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission. The accounts have since been closed. The receipt of political funds was to meet the needs of the party and the community and wasn’t a new practice, the official Bernama news agency reported in August, citing Najib.

Najib’s predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stepped down in 2009 as his popularity within UMNO faded, fueled in part by resignation calls from Mahathir whose influence then resonated among party members. How much power Mahathir still wields is unclear but Najib has more backing than Abdullah did.

The premier enjoys support among UMNO division chiefs as well as the party rank and file for his populist policies. He’s built a network since coming to power and won over members with a variety of pro-Malay policies. Even so there are signs of discontent, including from UMNO deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin, whom Najib fired as deputy premier in a cabinet reshuffle in July.

Cash Handouts

Najib has said he and Mahathir disagree on Malaysia’s cash handout program to low-income citizens, and a bridge that the former premier once proposed to replace an existing one linking the country to Singapore. Mahathir was also against a goods and services tax that was implemented in April to widen the tax base and sources of revenue as oil prices fall.

Mahathir has also pushed for a vote of no confidence in parliament. The Parliament website shows Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition holds 134 seats, the opposition 87 and one is held by an independent. Wan Azizah said Thursday she has "reasonable grounds to believe" a majority of parliamentarians have lost confidence in Najib’s leadership.

The government will explain to parliament in the current sitting session that ends Dec. 3 how the political donations ended up in Najib’s accounts, Azalina Othman Said, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, said this week.

In August, Najib said it was up to the people who elected him “to give and to take away” his mandate and the right doesn’t fall to any “individual, however eminent.”

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