PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia — In the end, it was left to former anti-graft activist Paul Low Seng Kuan to explain why Prime Minister Najib Razak, his current boss, was a no-show at a major anti-corruption conference organized by watchdog group Transparency International and co-hosted by the Malaysian government.
Low, the former president of Transparency International in Malaysia and now the cabinet minister responsible for government integrity, claimed it was he who advised Najib to skip the International Anti-Corruption Conference, held in Putrajaya, near Kuala Lumpur, on Sept. 2-4.
Responding to a question from the Nikkei Asian Review during the conference, Low said he advised Najib that the audience might prove “hostile … in view of the circumstances and some of the issues that are presently happening and involving him personally.”
Najib and Muhyiddin Yassin, a former deputy prime minister, were both scheduled to address the 16th annual IACC event, the first to be held in Malaysia. But both men’s biographies were taken down from the conference website after it emerged in July that Najib received a mysterious donation of almost $700 million in 2013.
Muhyiddin was sacked from office after he aired fears that the governing party would lose the next election if the issue was not properly addressed.
As the controversy mounted, the government removed other critical voices from office, including the attorney general. A task force looking into a heavily indebted state fund called 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB, was suspended and officials at the national anti-corruption commission complained of police harassment and government interference.
Meanwhile, Malaysians still await a more detailed explanation for the funds transferred to Najib’s personal bank account from the Middle East.
This issue was forcefully addressed at the conference by Jose Ugaz, the chair of Transparency International.
“Who paid the money and why? Where did it go?” Ugaz asked, as Paul Low looked on. “One man could answer those questions,” he said, referring to Najib.
Transparency International ranked Malaysia 50th out of 175 countries in its most recent annual Corruption Perceptions Index, ahead of such Western countries as the Czech Republic, Greece and Italy.
The scandal in some ways made Malaysia an ironically appropriate location for the annual anti-corruption event.
“Perhaps it was better to have the IACC here rather than somewhere where nothing happens,” said Ana Gomes of Portugal, a socialist member of the European Parliament, adding that it is “very telling” that Najib did not attend.
Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, disagreed about the significance of Najib’s absence. “What matters is that the corruption issue is linked to attacks on human rights in this country,” Shetty said, referring to the filing of sedition charges against more than 150 opposition politicians, academics, activists, lawyers and journalists, as well as the prosecution and imprisonment of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of sodomy.
The IACC took place three days after tens of thousands of Malaysians took to the streets of central Kuala Lumpur to protest against corruption and demand that Najib resign.
Most of the demonstrators were Chinese-Malaysians, who make up around a quarter of the country’s population. Relatively few members of the country’s Malay majority participated.
The prime minister scoffed at the demonstration — which drew crowds estimated at 200,000 by the organizers but only 20,000 according to the police — saying he could muster hundreds of thousands of supporters to march in his name if he so chose. On Aug. 31, he joined a national day rally of 13,000 in the same square that the demonstrators surrounded the night before.
Yet corruption scandals have divided members of his own party, the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation.
Leading backers of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, known by its Bahasa Malaysia name Bersih, such as Lim Kit Siang of the opposition Democratic Action Party, have claimed that Malaysia is veering toward becoming “a failed state” due to corruption.
Such allegations were addressed by Low at the conference. “Corruption is an issue but we have managed our economy well,” he said, pointing out that Malaysia hosts 6 million migrant workers, has full employment and may be on track to meet its goal of becoming a high-income country by 2020. “If you look around here, I don’t think these are symbols of a failed state.”
Malaysia’s per capita gross domestic product is approaching $11,000, the third-highest in Southeast Asia after Singapore and Brunei. However the Malaysian ringgit has been Asia’s worst-performing currency in 2015, and the economy has been hit by falling commodity prices.
Other officials took an even more robust line than Low against the corruption allegations.
“This government is committed to fighting corruption,” said Ravindran Devagunan, a director of the Performance Management and Delivery Unit, an agency that reports to the prime minister. “The fact that we held the conference and kept with holding it, that shows moral fortitude on the part of this government.”
“To say that Malaysia is in a crisis of corruption situation is utterly, utterly unacceptable,” said Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, chairman of the advisory board of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
Discussing the mysterious donation to the prime minister, Aziz said, “The fact of the matter is that investigations are continuing, we have the rule of law, and our criminal justice system requires that the whole process be gone through.”
Asked by NAR whether Najib should provide more details about the donation to expedite ongoing investigations, Aziz said, “Oh yes, he should,” but qualified his reply, adding, “at the present time the situation is very fluid.”