KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak on Wednesday (Aug 16) pledged to stay true to a decades-old positive affirmative action policy for the country's Malay majority, ahead of national polls that could be called in the coming months.
The next election, which must be called by the middle of next year, would be the toughest yet for Datuk Seri Najib as he grapples with a multi-billion dollar financial scandal, simmering discontent from rising living costs, and a growing challenge from former prime minister and mentor-turned-foe Mahathir Mohamad.
Mr Najib on Wednesday said the government had handed out RM15 billion (S$4.8 billion) in projects under the 1Malaysia People's Housing Programme (PR1MA) to firms owned by the majority bumiputera or "sons of the soil", in line with the goal of uplifting the economic standing of the ethnic group.
Mr Najib, speaking to local newswire Bernama, said: "This is a huge amount as a commitment to this project and the value that is distributed to Bumiputera companies will continue to rise in the future."
The government also began releasing the third and final payout under the annual 1Malaysia People's Aid or BR1M programme this week. A total of RM6.8 billion was allocated under the 2017 budget for BR1M, targeted at 7 million recipients.
Mr Najib lost the popular vote in the 2013 polls, and is expected to roll out a people-friendly budget in October, targeted at the rural Malay electorate.
However, he faces the threat of losing support from his core base if Dr Mahathir successfully convinces the rural electorate that their plight in dealing with a rising cost of living has much to do with the scandal-ridden state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
1MDB is the subject of money-laundering investigations in at least six countries. The United States Justice Department alleged in civil lawsuits that about US$4.5 billion was misappropriated from the fund.
Mr Najib denies any wrongdoing.
The US Justice Department said in its latest court filing last week on Thursday (Aug 10) that it was conducting a criminal investigation of 1MDB and asked for a stay on civil lawsuits it had filed to seize assets allegedly bought with money stolen from the fund.
Mr Najib denies taking money from 1MDB after it was reported that investigators traced nearly US$700 million to his bank accounts. The authorities have cleared him of any wrongdoing, saying the money was a donation from Saudi Arabia.