KL opposition queries role of data firm in BN's 2013 election drive

Malaysia's ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) has become embroiled in the Cambridge Analytica scandal as the opposition questions 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.

Cambridge Analytica is being probed over claims that it improperly accessed the personal data of millions of people to support United States President Donald's Trump's 2016 election campaign. In an expose by Britain's Channel 4, the firm's executives mentioned it was involved in Malaysia's election.

The revelation spurred opposition politicians yesterday 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.

But Mr Wan Saiful's query 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. "I never knew (Cambridge Analytica) nor ever engaged them to do any work... Perhaps they were consulting with the Prime Minister's Office or BN's headquarters," he told news portal Malaysiakini.

The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement yesterday 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 Wan Saiful told The Straits Times that he was more concerned "about what Najib will do now for GE14 rather than what Kedah state did in the past," referring to the upcoming general election.

•Additional reporting by Shannon Teoh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2018, with the headline 'KL opposition queries role of data firm in BN's 2013 election drive'. Print Edition | Subscribe