Najib blasts Mahathir for 'crony capitalism' in office

Malaysian PM steps up offensive against former premier now leading the opposition

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak yesterday denounced the legacy of former premier Tun Mahathir Mohamad as rife with cronyism and corruption, as the government fired another salvo to weaken his two-week reign as opposition leader.

The Pakatan Harapan alliance on July 7 unveiled its leadership structure, marking an unprecedented milestone for Malaysia's disparate opposition, with the 92-year-old who was prime minister for 22 years emerging as its chairman. This immediately drew attacks from the Barisan Nasional government.

Datuk Seri Najib stepped up the offensive in an opening address unusually heavy on politics at the InvestMalaysia conference, even comparing his administration's handling of the huge controversy over state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) favourably against alleged cover-ups by Dr Mahathir.

"Under his leadership many corners were cut, and the Malaysian people had to pay a very high price so that a few of his friends benefited, even when symbols of national pride had horrendous and catastrophic decisions inflicted on them," he said.

"Under this government, we are cracking down on crony capitalism. No more sweetheart deals. No more national follies kept going to stroke the ego of one man. No more treating national companies as though they were personal property," said Mr Najib, who became Prime Minister eight years ago.

The Premier insisted that "rather than bury our heads in the sand we ordered investigations into (1MDB) at a scale unprecedented in our nation's history". The government's task force - involving the central bank, police, public prosecutor and anti-graft agency - looking into the state-owned development firm was disbanded soon after Mr Najib denied that some US$700 million (S$953 million) found in his private accounts were from 1MDB and an audit into the company was classified as an official secret.

"Rather than funnel good money after bad to cover up any issues 1MDB may have faced - the model embraced by a former leader - I instructed the rationalisation of the company," he said of the "lapses in governance" at the firm that at one point had a RM51 billion (S$16 billion) debt pile. Investigations into alleged money laundering centred on 1MDB's funds are ongoing in Singapore, the United States, Switzerland and several other countries.

Harapan's appointment of Dr Mahathir as its chairman is seen as a crucial push for the Malay electorate, a vote bank that forms the majority in most parliamentary wards. The alliance groups four of five main opposition parties.

The Umno-led government began last week to attack the former PM's track record, just days after Dr Mahathir challenged Mr Najib to a town hall where the public would be able to grill both leaders over financial scandals during their respective times in power. Mr Najib has not responded to the challenge, although the head of the government's propaganda unit has offered to attend on behalf of the PM.

Last weekend, Umno leaders accused Dr Mahathir of undermining the judiciary, being responsible for billions in foreign exchange lost by the central bank and hypocrisy after allying with jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim despite sacking him as deputy premier in 1998.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'Najib blasts Mahathir for 'crony capitalism' in office'. Print Edition | Subscribe