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KL's maverick minister Nazri Aziz a staunch Najib defender

Mr Nazri Aziz called Dr Mahathir Mohamad, his former boss, "a liar", "the biggest fraud of all", "dictatorial" and "mad". On his long tenure in Cabinet, he said it is largely due to his honesty and his not being a hypocrite.
Mr Nazri Aziz called Dr Mahathir Mohamad, his former boss, "a liar", "the biggest fraud of all", "dictatorial" and "mad". On his long tenure in Cabinet, he said it is largely due to his honesty and his not being a hypocrite.ST PHOTO: SHANNON TEOH

Nazri makes it his priority to 'protect my Prime Minister and voters' against Mahathir

Malaysia's Tourism Minister Nazri Aziz has long been a maverick, a rare politician in a country where most lawmakers echo the party line and defer to their leaders.

He has attracted attention in the past for asking a prince to "keep out of politics", and shocked conservatives by calling religious officials "ignoramuses" for banning the word "hotdog".

Datuk Seri Nazri is firmly back in the spotlight these past few weeks as Prime Minister Najib Razak's staunchest defender, protecting his current boss against another politician who is more brash - former boss and former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

When police stopped a planned debate between Mr Nazri and Dr Mahathir for the second time last week on security grounds, the 62-year-old minister retorted that the event should perhaps be held in Antarctica.

"The penguins there don't understand the Malay or English language, so there won't be a riot," Mr Nazri said.

Dr Mahathir, 91, wanted to debate on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal which occurred under Datuk Seri Najib's watch. Mr Nazri wanted to raise the Bumiputera Malaysia Finance Limited (BMF) scandal that took place when Dr Mahathir was premier.

In the 1MDB scandal, some US$3.5 billion (S$4.9 billion) was allegedly misappropriated from the state investment fund by individuals linked to Mr Najib. BMF, a Hong Kong subsidiary of state-owned Bank Bumiputra, had in the late 1980s lost nearly US$1 billion in bad loans made to property speculators.

After a war of words conducted via the press and Dr Mahathir's blogsite, the former premier challenged Mr Nazri to a no-holds-barred public debate. Mr Nazri, ever fearless, accepted the challenge.

"I agreed because he's a liar," Mr Nazri told The Straits Times in an interview. "He's the biggest fraud of all."

Once a Mahathir loyalist, the defiant Mr Nazri said he is merely heeding Dr Mahathir's advice from years ago.

"He said that in a big ship there can be only one captain, not two or three. The captain now is Najib, he's (Mahathir) retired," Mr Nazri said.

Labelling the former premier as "dictatorial" and "mad", he said he had hoped to show that Mr Najib "has done nothing wrong".

Mr Nazri said: "I'm a big defender of the Prime Minister and, in order to bring down the PM, he (Dr Mahathir) has to bring me down."

His loyalty, he said, also extends to the Umno party and voters in his Perak constituency. Despite having in the past decade repeatedly voiced his wish to retire, he is not sure whether he will do so before the next general election, which must be called by mid-2018.

"To be honest I can go anytime," he said, but would stay if he is asked to by Mr Najib. "For as long as they want me, I'll always be there because I belong to Malaysia."

Having served under the leadership of three prime ministers, Mr Nazri said his long tenure in Cabinet is largely due to his honesty and his not being a hypocrite.

"Politics and being a minister is not everything to me," he said, adding that, if given a choice, he would retire to read, travel and wake up in the morning knowing there isn't work to attend to. "I don't think I'll stand a minute longer as minister if I'm not allowed to freely express my opinion."

His blunt views often differ from those of his Umno colleagues, whom he said are more cautious with their words out of fear of losing political power.

True to form, Mr Nazri is brutally candid even on Parti Islam SeMalaysia's (PAS) proposal for syariah courts to impose harsher punishments for Islamic law offences, which has become a huge controversy in the country.

"PAS has failed in Kelantan," he said, referring to the Islamic party's inability to stamp out vices, such as drinking alcohol, in the state.

"Why else would you ask for heavier sentences?" asked the minister.

But, with almost two decades as minister under his belt, Mr Nazri has himself been a target of criticism and accusations. Local gossip blogs have published rumours of his extravagant wealth. His son Nedim used to be tabloid fodder, with photos of him partying being widely circulated.

However, the minister is used to bad publicity, saying that he's not around "to please my opposition". He insisted his priority is to "protect my Prime Minister and voters".

"Anybody else can say anything if they're not my voters. I don't care. I don't give a damn," he said.

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Malaysia's maverick minister defending Najib
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'KL's maverick minister a staunch Najib defender'. Print Edition | Subscribe