Malaysian ex-PM’s arrest puts focus on Anwar’s corruption fight

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Former leader Muhyiddin Yassin denies wrongdoing and calls the allegations against him a political witch hunt.

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Speaking at an investment forum this week, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said his administration will not tolerate corruption, regardless of official rank or political connections, and vowed to fight misconduct “without fear or favor.”

Less than 48 hours later, former Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was indicted on multiple counts of corruption related to direct government contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The allegations against Muhyiddin, announced on Friday following an investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), represent the most striking move against alleged malfeasance since Anwar took power last year with a commitment to clean up the politics of the South East country. Asia.

While the MACC is officially independent of the government, the allegations against Muhyiddin could bolster reformist Anwar’s anti-corruption campaign and “allow his government to show progress under his leadership,” said Grace Lee Hui Yen, head of economics at Monash University in Malaysia. .

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“This will give people hope that progress and progress can be made in the country,” Lee told Al Jazeera, calling the investigation a potential “turning point” in Malaysia’s anti-corruption efforts.

“This will also be a big vote of confidence for Anwar’s leadership and he will be credited for this development.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was elected in November on a platform promising greater transparency and accountability. [File: Mohd Rasfan/AFP]

Anwar, a former student leader whose election completed an incredible 30-year journey from future leader to imprisoned opposition leader and back, has staked much of his reputation and political legitimacy on rooting out corruption in Malaysia, which has been shaken by numerous cases of misconduct involving the wealthy and powerful. including the protracted 1MDB scandal.

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who led Malaysia from 2009 to 2018, is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for his role in abusing the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, which lost about $4.5 billion to corruption.

Respected in Western financial circles for his tenure as finance minister during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, Anwar stressed the importance of restoring investor confidence in the economy and restoring the country’s battered image abroad.

Shortly after his victory in the November elections, Anwar ordered a review of billions of Malaysian ringgits in government projects, which he says Muhyiddin’s administration undertook without going through the proper procedures during its 17 months in office.

In January, Anwar, who is also finance minister, said that Malaysia, whose per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is less than China’s, has the potential to become a developed country if it can eradicate the problem of corrupt officials. plunders his wealth.

Last year, Malaysia was ranked 61st out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, down 10 positions from 2019.

Anwar’s first 100 days in office were not without controversy, which challenged his efforts to create an image of accountability and transparency.

Last month, Anwar’s daughter Nurul Izza Anwar resigned as senior economic and financial adviser to the prime minister amid backlash against alleged nepotism.

Anwar has also been criticized for appointing Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is on trial for corruption, as his deputy prime minister in order to garner the support of the corrupt and once politically dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) for his multi-racial unity. government.

Several members of Anwar’s own Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, including former sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and Democratic Action Party national chairman Lim Guan Eng, are also facing trial on corruption-related charges.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is serving a 12-year prison sentence for his role in the 1MDB scandal. [File: Lai Seng Sin/Reuters]

Niaz Asadullah, an economics professor at Monash University in Malaysia, said many Malaysians are now skeptical of Anwar’s commitment to clearing politics.

“It is clear that Anwar is keen to see his anti-corruption campaign gain momentum,” Asadullah told Al Jazeera.

“For now, Izza Anwar’s resignation has helped position Anwar as a ‘responsive leader’ who is open to public criticism, even if it comes from members of his own family. But the public harassment of former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin Anwar, his closest political rival, presents a great and wonderful opportunity that could help kill several birds with one stone.”

There have also been allegations that the allegations against Muhyiddin, Anwar’s main rival for prime minister after the last election, may have as much or more to do with politics as the fight against corruption.

Muhyiddin, who has sought judicial review of a travel ban against him and a freeze on his party’s bank accounts, denies wrongdoing.

He and other members of his Bersatu party have characterized the accusations, including that the then ruling party wrongfully received RM300 million ($66.33 million) from contractors who received projects during the pandemic, as a political witch hunt.

On Thursday, Muhyiddin told reporters that Anwar wanted to disrupt his Perikatan National Coalition, which has strong support from a majority of ethnic Malay Muslims, in the upcoming state elections and would be “punished by the people.”

The most serious of the charges against Muhyiddin, who faces four counts of abuse of power and two counts of money laundering, carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

Malaysia Corruption
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission is officially independent of the government. [File: AP]

Anwar has repeatedly denied directing or interfering with the MACC investigations, which have been ongoing for several months, insisting that his only involvement was in exposing the previous administration’s projects that did not go through the tender process.

“We still do not know the results of the investigation, as he received a call very recently,” Anwar was quoted by the Malay Mail on Thursday. “But if you said that all the cases are politically motivated, then how are we going to arrest people in major corruption cases?”

Coalition spokesman PH Anwar did not respond to a request for comment.

Since Anwar is not directly responsible for investigating crimes or making arrests, some Malaysians will see MACC’s actions as a “bold move” that shows that he is “autonomous and empowered to act against political heavyweights, and that no one is “too big to get into trouble.” prison.” “During Anwar’s rule,” said Asadullah, a professor at Monash University.

“In reality, however, this is a potentially veiled attempt to consolidate political power by delegitimizing the biggest immediate as well as long-term political threat to Anwar’s unity government.”

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