Umno general assembly

1MDB issue draws nary a raised eyebrow

No wrongdoing, say party faithful, despite probes into the alleged theft of public funds

In Singapore, four people have been jailed and two investment banks shut down over their role in the alleged laundering of billions of dollars from state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

And just hours before Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak held a closed-door briefing for Umno leaders on Tuesday, the United States' Attorney-General called the US$4.5 billion (S$6.1 billion) allegedly siphoned from 1MDB "kleptocracy at its worst".

But the ruling party's rank and file say no crime had been committed. Umno's president, Datuk Seri Najib, had denied that some US$700 million found in his accounts in 2013 was from 1MDB.

Instead, the party is focused not just on returning him as premier after an election due by next August, but it also wants to reclaim the two-thirds supermajority it ceded a decade ago.

Never mind that the authorities in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Hong Kong are also probing the claimed theft of public funds allegedly used to buy luxury homes, expensive paintings and a yacht.

The Umno faithful either cite lack of evidence, or argue that any wrongdoing involving the state investor controlled by Mr Najib was committed on foreign soil.

"Corruption is normal in other countries, whereas in Malaysia, we take it very seriously. So I'm confident it's not happening here. Whatever news on 1MDB... you should take it with a pinch of salt," said Young Women's wing member Zainab Jaafar from Terengganu.

The damning headlines, said Negeri Sembilan divisional youth permanent chairman Mohd Haidil Mohamad, are part of a campaign to undermine and distract Umno.

"We are still looking for exactly who is involved and, if there is concrete evidence, we will not defend anyone who is involved, even if it is the Prime Minister. But so long as there is no conclusive proof, we cannot accuse anyone," he told The Straits Times.

This huge gap in perception is perhaps best explained by how Umno and the Malaysian government have dealt with past scandals involving their leaders.

In 2005, delegates were told of a scandal involving former trade minister Rafidah Aziz and approved permits for importing cars. In 2012, the so-called cows-and-condos affair surfaced, involving current Women's wing chief Shahrizat Abdul Jalil.

Both scandals allegedly resulted in multimillion-dollar losses to government coffers. But after months of angst in the party and media, the issues were shrugged off and buried. Both politicians continued to lead the Women's wing.

And just last week, a government-backed inquiry announced that RM31.5 billion was lost in foreign exchange trading by the Malaysian central bank in the 1990s when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister. Dr Mahathir also continued as Umno president for a decade after the losses were first disclosed.

Umno information chief Annuar Musa told reporters "a lot of people misunderstand" the issue. The other countries probing the state fund "acted in the context of breaking laws within their own countries, not on the issue of 1MDB".

No leader or delegate has raised 1MDB so far in this year's general assembly. As Perlis delegate Azimah Mahmud said, "even if there was any wrongdoing, we shouldn't jump the gun... Don't turn a blind eye to all the good things that (Najib's) done just because of one mistake".

•With additional reporting by Trinna Leong and Nadirah H. Rodzi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2017, with the headline '1MDB issue draws nary a raised eyebrow'. Print Edition | Subscribe