KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and former premier Najib Razak duked it out in a public debate on Thursday (May 12) in a bid to shape voters' political views ahead of a general election that has to be called by September 2023.
The debate centred on whether beleaguered oil and gas company Sapura Energy should be bailed out.
The government-linked company recorded a loss of RM8.9 billion (S$2.8 billion) last year despite receiving large investments from state-owned investor Perbadanan Nasional Berhad (PNB), which holds a 40 per cent stake.
Najib stressed the importance of political stability while Datuk Seri Anwar pushed the integrity of governance.
Suggesting that national oil firm Petronas take over Sapura Energy, to rescue it without involving taxpayers' money, Najib said: "When the company recovers and its shares bounce back, Petronas can sell off the company and make a profit."
He claimed that Malaysians will stand to lose if Sapura Energy goes bust, as it employs more than 10,500 local employees and that its beneficiary owners include the 10.6 million investors in PNB's Amanah Saham Bumiputera unit trust.
Mr Anwar trashed the idea, saying that this would still involve public funds, and maintained that a forensic audit is needed to rule out fraud or embezzlement.
The Parti Keadilan Rakyat president questioned why Sapura Energy's former group chief executive made more than RM1 billion despite the company being in the red.
If the government keeps rescuing companies in financial trouble, "this problem will recur, over and over, until there is no integrity, good governance, or political will to rectify the system", argued Mr Anwar.
More than 400 guests gathered at the Malaysia Tourism Centre to watch the two adversaries debate on stage, with some having to stand.
The event was also aired live on social media and Astro.
Chants of "reformasi" or reformation, the battle cry of Mr Anwar's party, were heard in the hall when the two politicians arrived, and members of the audience also had to be reminded during the debate that clapping and cheering were not allowed at what organisers called a silent debate, to avoid provocation between supporters of the two rivals.
The debate, while seen purely as a political move, was controversial for the fact that Mr Anwar was effectively giving a public stage to Najib, who has been convicted of graft-related charges linked to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
Najib, who is an Umno MP, is out on bail as he is appealing against the 12-year jail sentence, and has been moving around freely and campaigning in state elections.
The 68-year-old is seeking to raise his profile beyond his Bossku social media persona, even as he makes regular court appearances to answer other graft charges with their embarrassing revelations. Bossku, or "my boss", is Najib's new moniker, after his "Malu Apa, Bossku?" campaign that essentially claimed he has nothing to be ashamed of.
Mr Anwar, 74, on the other hand, has been struggling to retain his party's relevance after losing badly in state elections in Melaka, Sarawak and Johor.