Prime Minister Najib Razak's decision not to give the opening speech at a global anti-corruption conference in Kuala Lumpur today highlights the awkward position he is in amid a swirling controversy over US$700 million (S$985 million) that was deposited in his private bank accounts, funds that he said were a political donation.
So the 16th International Anti- Corruption Conference (IACC) could not have come at a worse time for the Premier, already fighting the fire fanned by the huge sum of money allegedly linked to debt- laden 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), the state investment firm whose advisory board he chairs.
Attending the conference in his place today is Integrity Minister Paul Low, himself the target of similar calls to resign from those who remain unconvinced by Datuk Seri Najib's explanation that the money was a political donation from unidentified Middle Eastern sources.
Opposition parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party had earlier challenged Mr Najib to use the IACC event to "come clean" about the US$700 million and also about 1MDB's debt pile, which grew to RM42 billion (S$14.3 billion) in just five years.
"If not, the IACC should not have been held in Malaysia at all, and instead of being a pride and honour for hosting the 16th IACC in Malaysia, it has become a badge of dishonour and disgrace," Mr Lim said.
The conference also comes just after tens of thousands of people turned out in support of electoral reform group Bersih's street protests over the weekend. Mr Najib used an Independence Day address to condemn rally supporters as unpatriotic but it could not disguise the fact that the protests were aimed at seeking his resignation.
The global conference has been trumpeted as recognition of the work of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) which, until the ongoing 1MDB saga, had been seen as ineffective and being under the thumb of the ruling establishment. But the MACC gained public backing and even support from previously critical opposition politicians after the government dismantled a multi-agency task force probing claims of financial wrongdoing at 1MDB, and investigated instead the agency over alleged leaks of the task force's documents.
Two MACC directors who spoke out received notices of transfer, but these were cancelled following a public outcry over what was seen as government interference in the work of an independent agency.
Transparency International (TI), one of the IACC's organisers, said Malaysia "has so far failed to tackle corruption scandals it faces and people in positions of responsibility are acting with impunity, most notably over allegations concerning the prime minister".
"The recent removal of the Attorney-General and the ongoing manipulation of the (MACC) have turned the clock back on fighting corruption in Malaysia," said TI chairman Jose Ugaz. He was referring to the July 28 sacking of the top public prosecutor who was heading the 1MDB task force.
Several opposition figures are scheduled to speak at some of the sessions of the three-day IACC.