KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia’s ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) has become embroiled in the Cambridge Analytica scandal as the opposition on Tuesday (March 20) questioned Prime Minister Najib Razak’s role in using the big data firm to score wins in the country’s 2013 polls.
But the administration has denied employing the firm, and said any services were provided personally to former BN leader turned opposition politician Mukhriz Mahathir.
On its website, Cambridge Analytica said that it “supported Barisan Nasional (BN) in Kedah state with a targeted messaging campaign highlighting (its) school improvements since 2008”.
“Barisan Nasional won Kedah back from Pakatan Rakyat in the 13th General Election and walked away from a successful campaign. With wins in 21 out of 36 state seats and 10 out of the 15 parliamentary seats in the state, BN enjoyed a landslide victory,” it added. Pakatan Rakyat was the opposition pact then.
The London-based political consulting firm has been under scrutiny after being accused of extracting the personal data of up to 50 million Facebook users without their consent. In an undercover report by Britain’s Channel 4, the firm’s executives mentioned it was involved in Malaysia’s election.
"The revelation spurred opposition politicians on Tuesday to demand answers on the firm’s role, described by some as “foreign interference”.
“Najib should immediately explain how much was paid to Cambridge Analytica in GE13 and what was the exact nature of their work for Umno,” said Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, deputy chairman of strategy and policy at Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM).
"I was shocked to learn about the relationship between Najib's campaign with Cambridge Analytica," Mr Wan Saiful said.
He said the firm, which had been engaged by United States President Donald Trump's campaign for the 2016 election, had made use of the data it had retained to launch targeted ads to specific users in a manipulative way.
Mr Wan Saiful noted that Cambridge Analytica's investors included Republican billionaire Robert Mercer, who is known for his financial contributions to Mr Trump's right-wing campaign, and other American right-wing organisations. He added that former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who is notorious for his right-wing views, was also on the Board of the company.
But Mr Wan Saiful’s query has led back to his party colleague and former Kedah chief minister Mukhriz, who spearheaded BN’s election campaign in the state in 2013. .
Datuk Seri Mukhriz denied any knowledge of the data analytics firm. “No, I was not aware of CA (Cambridge Analytica), let alone engaged their services at any time,” Mr Mukhriz told The Straits Times.
According to news portal Malaysiakini, Mr Mukhriz said: "Perhaps they were consulting with the Prime Minister’s Office or BN’s headquarters.”
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement on Tuesday saying neither Cambridge Analytica nor its parent company SCL Group had ever been employed by BN or the government. It added that the SCL Group country representative had confirmed Cambridge Analytica provided advice on the 2013 election personally to Mr Mukhriz, and that he reported directly to Mr Mukhriz.
The statement did not name the representative, but he is believed to be Mr Azrin Zizal, a former media officer to Mr Mukhriz.
Mr Mukhriz said via Twitter on Tuesday that Mr Azrin Zizal was his media officer from 2009 to 2013 when Mr Mukhriz was at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. "He was not employed by me as a representative of SCL Group or Cambridge Analytica, and he was no longer my media officer when I became Kedah MB," he said, referring to his post as Menteri Besar.
Mr Wan Saiful said the matter was ultimately one for Mr Najib to clarify. "Usage of services like this is usually not something conducted at the state level. Operations like this would normally be run from the centre. That is why it is only for for Najib to explain," he said.
"Additionally, I am more worried about what Najib will do now for GE14 rather than what Kedah state did in the past. That is why it is important for them to explain if they are planning the same for GE14," he added.
Facebook has come under pressure after The New York Times and The Guardian newspaper reported that Cambridge Analytica had used data, including user likes, inappropriately obtained from roughly 50 million Facebook users.
Facebook has suspended the firm and on Monday hired forensic auditors to investigate and determine whether Cambridge Analytica still had the misused data.
British privacy regulators are seeking a warrant to search the firm's offices while European and US lawmakers are seeking an explanation of how it gained access to the data.