By Praveen Menon
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak sacked his deputy and four other ministers in a cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday, with the attorney general also replaced, as the fallout from a graft scandal at debt-laden state investment fund 1MDB grows.
Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was dropped days after he publicly called on Najib to explain the scandal enveloping 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which has debts of more than $11 billion and is being investigated for financial mismanagement and graft.
The 1MDB scandal has developed into Najib’s greatest challenge since he took office in 2009, and could even threaten the hold that his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party has held on Malaysian politics since independence in 1957.
Apart from the reshuffle, Najib’s government also announced that Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, who had led investigations into 1MDB, had been replaced by Mohamed Apandi Ali. It gave no reason for the change.
The Wall Street Journal reported this month that investigators looking into 1MDB had traced close to $700 million of deposits into personal accounts belonging to Najib.
Najib has denied taking any money for personal gain and said the corruption allegations are part of a malicious campaign to force him out of office. 1MDB has denied transferring funds to Najib and an interim government report has found nothing suspicious.
According to media reports at the weekend, Muhyiddin had warned that Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition of which UMNO is the major party, would lose power if it did not do better at explaining the scandal to the public.
Najib responded in a televised statement on Tuesday by saying cabinet ministers airing differences in the open could turn public opinion against the government.
“The decision to replace Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was very difficult, but leadership is about doing what you think is right,” Najib said.
“I welcome vigorous debate, and accept and tolerate criticism or even dissent. However, this process should take place in cabinet as part of the decision-making process.”
CALLS FOR PM TO RESIGN
Najib said the reshuffle would strengthen the unity of the coalition as it prepares for elections in 2018.
Muhyiddin had been a frequent critic of Najib, who was already under pressure from influential former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has called for him to step down.
Muhyiddin has been replaced by home minister Zahid Hamidi, a right-wing politician well liked by UMNO members. Others to be dropped were rural and regional development minister Shafie Apdal and senior ministers Palanivel Govindasamy, Hasan Malek and Ewon Ebin.
Najib has tried to consolidate support among the core leaders of UMNO, which represents the majority ethnic Malay community, as the divisive 1MDB scandal unfolded and his office has warned of the political damage it could cause.
Former attorney general Patail was the head of a task force, which included the central bank, police and anti-corruption commission, that had conducted raids and arrests as it investigated the heavy losses at 1MDB.
His replacement as attorney general, Apandi, is a former federal court judge with strong UMNO ties.