Anwar, Najib face off on Thursday in debate on ailing government-linked firm ahead of expected election

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (left) and former prime minister Najib Razak will face off in a public debate on May 12. PHOTOS: ANWAR IBRAHIM'S OFFIC, REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and former prime minister Najib Razak will face off in a public debate on Thursday (May 12) on whether the government should bail out ailing oil and gas company Sapura Energy.

The debate has raised controversy because Datuk Seri Anwar is seen as giving a public platform to Najib, who has been convicted of graft-related charges linked to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Najib 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 debate, expected to start at 9pm, will be aired on the social media platforms of several media outlets and Astro.

It will be the first time that the politicians will be facing off in a public debate, amid discussions in political circles on how soon the Umno-led government will call for a general election, which will have to be called on or before July 2023. Najib, 68, is an Umno MP.

Both leaders hope their political stature will rise with the face-off.

Mr Anwar, 74, president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), has been struggling to retain his party's relevance after losing badly in state elections in Melaka, Sarawak and Johor.

Najib 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.

"These two have been losing ground recently, so they need more exposure. Najib doesn't hold any (government) positions, so he needs something like this to reaffirm his public standing as a leading politician in Malaysia," said Professor James Chin, the director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. "As for Anwar, there has been a lot of criticism against him, and he needs to reaffirm his position as the leading politician on the opposition side."

The topic for discussion is whether Sapura Energy, a government-linked company (GLC) which announced a loss of RM8.9 billion (S$2.8 billion) last year despite receiving large investments from state-owned investor Perbadanan Nasional Berhad (PNB), should be bailed out. PNB owns a 40 per cent stake in the ailing GLC.

The veteran politicians are also expected to talk about Malaysia's economic and political future, and take part in a question-and-answer session moderated by online news site Malaysia Gazette's editor Haslina Kamaludin.

Najib has said he is in favour of a bailout for Sapura Energy. But PKR vice-president and aspiring deputy president Rafizi Ramli, who had initially challenged him to the debate, has said it would only benefit "a handful of elites".

Mr Anwar, in a Twitter video posted on Wednesday, said netizens have asked why he took up Najib's challenge to a debate.

Mr Anwar said he had requested for a debate with Najib many years ago, when the latter was the deputy prime minister and later became Malaysia's prime minister.

"Now, if I reject (the debate), people will say that I'm a coward. Now that I have accepted it, people are saying I'm glorifying Najib. So, what should I do?"

Mr Hafidzi Razali, senior analyst at risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia, said the planned debate highlights a changing political culture where debate is embraced, instead of shunned.

"Only several years ago, Najib's administration would have refused such an invitation and ordered clampdowns on public debates deemed 'sensitive'.

"Najib is only using Sapura's financial crisis as a platform to build on his political momentum and rechart his relevance at national level," said Mr Hafidzi.

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