Sultans' rare rebuke may hurt PM Najib

Call for probe into 1MDB could sway crucial rural Malay base against Malaysian leader

 Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks at the Khazanah Megatrends Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on October 6, 2015.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks at the Khazanah Megatrends Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on October 6, 2015. REUTERS

A rare rebuke from Malaysia's nine royal rulers on Tuesday, calling on the government to swiftly and seriously investigate problems linked to 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), could help swing the crucial rural Malay base against Umno president Najib Razak, analysts say.

But even if the aim of their statement was to ratchet up pressure on Prime Minister Najib, the sultans do not have the legal power to unseat him.

Additionally, Datuk Seri Najib's political position remains quite secure as those opposed to him have failed to muster enough support in Parliament or within Umno to oust him.

The rare intervention by the nine rulers on Tuesday raised the political temperature because, while their roles in the governments of their respective states and at national level are largely ceremonial, they still wield considerable influence.

The sultans are especially influential among rural Malays who see them as guardians of their culture and religion.

The statement by the rulers is a significant change of stance as it was their first joint statement on the 1MDB affair that has dragged on for more than a year.

The Straits Times understands that there had been previous resistance from several of the sultans to openly wade into a divisive political matter.

In their joint statement, the sultans asked the government to quickly conclude investigations into the 1MDB affair and to take "the appropriate stern action" against those implicated.

A survey by independent pollster Merdeka Centre in March found that few among the rural and Malay demographics were knowledgeable and concerned about allegations regarding state investor 1MDB - which in five years had amassed RM42 billion (S$14 billion) in debt.

Rural Malays formed the bulk of support for Mr Najib and the ruling Umno in the 2013 general election.

The rulers' joint statement might thus make more rural Malays examine closer the 1MDB scandal, analysts say.

Companies linked to 1MDB have been alleged to be part of a US$700 million (S$987 million) money trail leading to Mr Najib's personal bank accounts. Government officials have claimed that the money was political funding from unspecified Middle Eastern donors.

Critics of Mr Najib have quickly called for probes into 1MDB to be restarted following the rulers' statement. The probes were frozen two months ago when Mr Najib made sweeping changes to his government, including dumping deputy PM Muhyiddin Yassin.

"I think the public would read between the lines and infer that the rulers are concerned about 1MDB. It may in the short term place some pressure on the Prime Minister," Merdeka Centre's head Ibrahim Suffian told The Straits Times.

To ensure continued support from Umno despite the new pressure from the royals, Mr Najib must be able to shield the party from the ensuing economic fallout caused by 1MDB.

The statement by the Council of Rulers, on the eve of its last triannual meeting for the year, also linked doubts over 1MDB's finances to the Malaysian ringgit's freefall and the negativity in the financial markets towards Malaysia.

"If this issue is not addressed wisely, what more allowed to prolong and take up too much time, it could potentially damage the economic condition and hurt the lives of the people," the statement said.

The sense of exasperation felt by Mr Najib's critics was given voice by former Cabinet minister Ling Liong Sik, who has been threatened by a lawsuit from the Premier.

Tun Ling had earlier said Mr Najib had taken "people's money and put it in his own personal accounts".

Mr Ling, a former Malaysian Chinese Association president, yesterday said he looked forward to meeting Mr Najib in court: "I look forward to seeing the Prime Minister take the witness stand, as no doubt he would do if he says his reputation is at stake."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline 'Sultans' rare rebuke may hurt PM Najib'. Subscribe