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MALAYSIA: ‘Cowgate’ Turns Opposition Fodder

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 18 2012 (IPS) - With the 83-million-dollar ‘cowgate’ scam refusing to die down, a shadow hangs over Prime Minister Najib Razak’s plans to call elections ahead of April 2013, when they are due.

What may hurt electoral prospects for Razak’s United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) is the fact that the auditor-general (AG) has taken a dim view of the National Feedlot Centre (NFC) project, that was supposed to make Malaysia self-sufficient in beef production.

In its report last year, the AG said the NFC was nowhere near meeting its mandate of setting up a network of farms to produce beef.

Najib, who came to power in 2009 on a reformation plank, has been forced to freeze the assets of NFC, thanks to relentless allegations of corruption in the media and on popular Internet sites.

While Najib is not directly involved, family members of Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, minister for women, families and communities, have been accused of milking 250 million ringgit (83 million dollars) from the project for personal luxury expenditure, including buying plush condominiums.

NFC is said to epitomise crony capitalism between the UMNO, well-connected families and businesses. Its chairman, Mohamad Salleh Ismail, is Shahrizat’s husband and all three of their children are directors.

The scandal has implications beyond the status of the minister. Whether she is sacked or not, the scandal is bound to adversely impact rural Malay voters, the bedrock of the UMNO.

Najib’s UMNO-led Barisan National coalition government has shown inability to take effective measures to combat corruption and promote accountability and transparency as promised.

“This is an issue which has great presence. The opposition can take it to the ground and to the rural areas in their campaigns, and effectively too,” said Ong Kian Ming, political analyst and lecturer at the University College Sedaya International (UCSI).

“The absurdity of cows and condos is much easier to explain (to rural voters) compared to the intricacies of the Port Klang Free Zone,” said Ong, referring to an even bigger scam which has seen court action against two former ministers.

Ong, who is on the faculty of economics and politics of UCSI, told IPS that the country’s anti-corruption agency, ‘MACC’, must get cracking on the scandal. “If MACC does not take concrete action it will raise questions about Najib’s seriousness in tackling corruption.”

The scandal has been picked up by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party or Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which effectively turned the report into a national scam with daily revelations of misuse of NFC funds by Shahrizat’s family members.

Anwar was only last month acquitted of sodomy charges, said to be trumped up by UMNO of which he was once a leading member.

The opposition wants UMNO’s ‘bumiputras’ policy – by which native Malays get preferential treatment in businesses, education and property purchases – to be extended to all races on the basis of need.

UMNO’s monopoly on power since 1957 took a hit in the 2008 polls when the Barisan National coalition suffered its worst-ever defeat, losing five state governments and a two-thirds majority in parliament to a resurgent three-party opposition coalition.

That defeat came about because of minority Chinese and Indian voters joining hands with the urban Malay poor to favour the opposition coalition.

The opposition wants the well-connected – like Shahrizat and her family – not to take advantage of preferential treatment given to bumiputras. Malays form about 50 percent of Malaysia’s 28 million people while 24 percent is of Chinese descent and 7.1 percent is ethnic Indian.

The NFC scandal adds to the difficulties that Najib faces in recapturing the Barisan National coalition’s once impregnable two-thirds majority and winning a mandate to keep up with announced reforms

Corruption has only worsened under his watch, with the country sliding to 60th in Transparency International’s global ranking of graft perceptions last year, compared to 33rd in 2002.

Najib, the son of a former prime minister, has been working assiduously since taking over to build his own mandate and was preparing to call a ‘do or die’ election, when the NFC scandal broke.

The unwillingness of Shahrizat’s family to come to answer the serious allegations suggests backing from powerful members of the UMNO.

Shahrizat has already been questioned by MACC, but the outcome has not been made public.

Besides having powerful UMNO backers, Shahrizat heads the women’s wing of UMNO, which has nearly two million members and is crucial for Najib’s poll plans.

Denison Jayasooria, a University Kebangsaan Malaysia academic and former commissioner of ‘SUHAKAM’, the national human rights organisation, says there is an “impression that there is weak monitoring and supervision.

“The Prime Minister should take steps to restore confidence in public institutions and ensure that if there was abuse of power, it is checked,” he told IPS.

“He (Najib) may be waiting for various internal investigations to be completed. But there seems to be a lack of decisive action,” Denison said. “However, in Malaysia there is a tendency not to treat reports by bodies like the human rights commission with the gravity they deserve.

“Ministers often belittle them,” he said. “This is unacceptable in a serious democracy as these institutions act as checks and balances and disregarding them undermines the very essence of good governance,” Denison said.

“The criticism in the AG’s report is being seen as an attack on a government minister, although such criticism ensures transparency and accountability,” he lamented.

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