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Umno’s smear campaign explained

Yin Shao Loong  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | Umno knows that it cannot clean itself up from the stain of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) money laundering scandal. Umno cannot rehabilitate its corrupted image in time to win back support for the general election.

Umno cannot rise to the higher moral ground. So, its strategy is to drag its opponents down to its level by smearing them with allegations of corruption and scandal.

Last Thursday, this strategy was deployed against Umno’s key threats in the Opposition: Dr Mahathir Mohamed and Anwar Ibrahim were both fingered by a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) with the blame for Bank Negara’s old foreign exchange market losses; and, Azmin Ali saw a relative remanded by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) based on a tenuous link to a sand-mining firm.

The fact that the most prominent Malay Opposition leaders were smeared in a single day smacks of an orchestrated political move. Umno doesn’t view them separately, we shouldn’t either. Umno-affiliated bloggers knew of the MACC raid days in advance.

Where there is a weakness, Umno will exploit it. Where there is no corruption, Umno will manufacture it. As the 14th general election draws closer, we can expect more strikes to be launched against the Opposition and Selangor, particularly against its popular menteri besar.

The 1MDB scandal involves massive losses of billions of ringgit from Malaysia. It also involves Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and members of his family as beneficiaries. Because Najib is haunted by these allegations of financial mismanagement and nepotism, Umno is now trying to discredit the opposition in these same areas.

Thus, they hope, the public will believe that Anwar and Mahathir are worse financial stewards than Najib, or that Azmin’s relationship with his family can in any way be compared to Najib’s.

It has long been part of Umno’s playbook to use national institutions such as the RCI and MACC to pursue party interests.

Earlier this year, the MACC made a spectacle out of raids on Selangor’s Universiti Selangor (Unisel) by inviting the press to witness it firsthand. The much-hyped investigation has yet to yield any charges.

Shafie another victim of political persecution?

Leading Sabah Opposition politician Shafie Apdal was also arrested by MACC but ended up looking very much the victim of political persecution. Charges have also yet to brought against him. After a week in remand, no charges have materialised against Azmin's nephew. If the case had any ground, how long does MACC need to hold him?

Umno propagandists will protest that Umno MNO members too have been arrested by MACC, but observers have pointed out that those investigated tend to be those out of favour with Najib. The MACC is not an independent body as it operates directly out of the Prime Minister’s Department. Under its current leadership the organisation is well under the PM’s control.

Attempts by previous MACC chief commissioner Abu Kassim Mohamed (photo) to assert independence and pursue Malaysia’s biggest corruption case - 1MDB - were crushed in an internal purge that also saw attorney-general Abdul Gani Patail being replaced.

The new attorney-general and the new MACC chief, once comrades, are now in conflict over who exerts influence in the PM’s inner circle. Since the MACC Chief has also been weighed down by allegations of a personal scandal, he doesn’t need direct instructions to act, he needs to prove his value ahead of the party assembly.

Last week’s attacks on the Opposition rest on a mix of plausibility and misdirection.

The forex losses have been public knowledge for decades and sand mining in Selangor has long suffered from a negative image due to years of corruption and mismanagement under Umno state governments. However, since 2008 the industry has been turned around under the Pakatan Harapan government, with a mix of enforcement, improved governance and open tenders that have delivered improved revenues to public coffers.

Umno doesn’t have to bundle many contexts with these allegations, since the party plays on existing impressions. This helps it to misdirect voters away from Umno’s inability to reform and the massive 1MDB scandal.

When all political choices appear equally bad, Umno hopes voters will choose the more familiar of two evils, or even just stay at home in disgust on voting day. Yet, outside of Malaysia, 1MDB refuses to go away.

On Monday, the US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions (photo) revealed to the Global Forum on Asset Recovery how much corruption money linked to 1MDB that the US has seized:

“[N]early half of the $3.5 billion in corruption proceeds we have restrained is related to just one enforcement action.

“That action was related to a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund known as 1MDB. 1MDB was created by the Malaysian government to promote long-term economic development for the benefit of the Malaysian people.

“But allegedly corrupt officials and their associates reportedly used the funds for a lavish spending spree: $200 million for real estate in Southern California and New York. $130 million in artwork. $100 million in an American music label. Not to mention a $265 million yacht.

“In total, 1MDB officials allegedly laundered more than $4.5 billion in funds through a complex web of opaque transactions and fraudulent shell companies with bank accounts in countries ranging from Switzerland and Singapore to Luxembourg and the United States. This is kleptocracy at its worst.”

This week the country’s reigning kleptocrat will preside over a massive rally of the troops. They will attack the Opposition, they will attack Selangor, they will abuse the law and institutions which should, by right, be independent and operating without fear or favour to hunt down acts of kleptocracy such as 1MDB.

In short, prepare your minds for an onslaught of manufactured scandals and lies. This will be the dirtiest general election ever. The Umno general assembly now going on is just a teaser trailer of what is to come.

The attacks against Mahathir, Anwar and Azmin will continue because Umno fears their popularity with Malay voters. Umno is saddled with the most unpopular prime minister in Malaysia’s history. They fear that the fragmented Malay electorate will look to veteran statesmen and dynamic young leaders instead of a party trading on fear, intimidation and dishonesty.

YIN SHAO LOONG is strategic communications director at the Selangor Menteri Besar’s Office.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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