When it comes to corruption on a colossal scale, the heads of state within the Malay Archipelago have always set the standard. Perhaps you might recall the former Indonesian president Mohammed Suharto, Asia’s supposed ‘bulwark’ against communism, whose family pillaged state coffers for as much as $35bn until his ouster in 1998. Then there was the infamous Ferdinand Marcos, who funneled up to US$ 10bn into myriad personal Swiss bank accounts during his 14 years as the head of the Philippines.
Now it looks like the Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak is doing his best to avoid joining this ignoble club. In early July, the WSJ reported that almost US$ 700 million in cash moved through government-related entities and banks linked to Malaysia’s state development fund, popularly referred to as 1MDB, before surfacing in Najib’s personal bank accounts. 1MDB was formed in 2009 when Najib’s administration took over the sovereign wealth fund of the resource-rich Malaysian state of Terengganu, and turned it into a federal development initiative. On 5 August, Malaysia’s anticorruption commission announced that the source of the US$ 700m was actually a ‘donor’ from the Middle East – but gave no explanation for the donation. The government has been busy tying up loose ends in recent weeks, including suspending two of the only newspapers which were legitimately covering recent developments, and firing its deputy prime minister and the attorney general – the two public officials which had spoken to the press about the investigation.