The Marcoses of Malaysia
Malaysia stunned the world two weeks ago when, without a single shot fired, it achieved something of a revolution with the ouster of its prime minister, Najib Razak, through the ballot box.
Najib’s fall from power was made even more dramatic by the fact that his replacement was his former political mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, who, after ruling Malaysia for decades and then retiring, came out swinging at 92 to challenge his erstwhile protégé.
Right up to the eve of the May 9 national elections, the bets were still on the wily, powerful incumbent who appeared to hold all the aces.
As the New York Times reported: “For nearly a decade, Mr. Najib, 64, had unfettered control of his nation’s courts and coffers. His party had thrived by unfailingly delivering huge cash handouts at election time. The media was at his disposal; journalists he didn’t like, he shut down. Political foes were shoved into prison.”
But, like many other strongmen before him lulled into a sense of false security by unfettered power, Najib apparently failed to reckon with the rising tide of anger among ordinary Malaysians at the huge corruption that marked his rule.
Among other misdeeds, he and his cronies were said to have siphoned off billions of dollars from 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a state investment fund.
The plunder case exploded into the open when the US justice department confirmed that it was investigating how, as detailed by the New York Times, “hundreds of millions of dollars from the fund appeared in Mr. Najib’s personal account and was spent on luxury items, including a 22-carat pink diamond necklace, worth $27.3 million, for his wife.
In all, some $7.5 billion was stolen from the fund, [US] prosecutors say, and spent on paintings by Monet, Van Gogh and Warhol and others worth over $200 million; on luxury real estate in the United States; and even on a megayacht for a family friend, Jho Low, who reveled in his Hollywood connections.”
Much of the Malaysian electorate’s fury was directed at Najib’s high-living wife, Rosmah Mansor, whose penchant for extravagant jewelry, handbags and shopping sprees inevitably led to comparisons with another legendary profligate, former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos.
Decades before Mansor, Imelda Marcos had set the template for dictators’ wives becoming among the wealthiest, most powerful women in the world by helping themselves to the public trough.
But the eventual ugly fate of the Marcoses — ousted in a popular revolt and forced to flee the heaving mass of Filipinos fed up with their 20-year excesses — as well as those of other corrupt families like the Duvaliers of Haiti, the Ceausescus of Romania and, most recently, the Mugabes of Zimbabwe, were seemingly not enough reminders for Najib and his wife.
When the swift end came, all their wealth and influence proved useless: The couple were barred from leaving Malaysia when they tried to leave Kuala Lumpur for Jakarta, Indonesia, ostensibly for a short holiday, but which many suspected was an attempt to fly the coop.
A subsequent police raid on Najib’s home yielded a virtual treasure trove: “72 bags of jewelry, cash in a variety of currencies, almost 300 boxes of designer handbags, and other luxury goods … which included Hermes and Louis Vuitton bags,” according to a CNN report.
That news report happens to bring up another Imelda parallel: the boxes and boxes of jewelry, cash and gold bullion that the fleeing Marcos family spirited out of Malacañang in February 1986 and tried to declare as “household goods” when these were intercepted by US authorities in Hawaii.
The hour of accountability for Najib, Mansor and their cohorts is only beginning, and Malaysia appears to be in no mood to delay going after them. Here, once again, is a reminder: Power and wealth — especially those built on the back of a put-upon citizenry — are fleeting.
Woe to the foolish who think otherwise. (But out here in this neck of the woods, the wheels of justice are snagged in a time warp.)
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