The Malaysian Whodunit
Photo: Kamal Sellehuddin/The Star
Reading about Malaysian politics is a bit like reading the National Enquirer. If it's not sodomy and nude photos, it's exploding mistresses. The stories just get weirder and weirder. Now the country's Web sites are abuzz with stories alleging that the prime minister-designate, Najib Razak, who is expected to step into the new job later this week, is connected to a bizarre sex-and-murder scandal. Najib denies allegations that he is linked to the murder of a Mongolian translator who helped facilitate the one-billion-euro sale of three submarines to the Malaysian government and that he profited from those government contracts. But an article published recently in the French daily Liberation and now circulating on Malaysian Web sites details alleged connections between the translator, who reportedly demanded a cut of the 114-million-euro commission on the deal, and Najib. According to the Liberation, the Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaaribuu, was killed--and then gruesomely blown up--in 2006 by two members of the Malaysian Special Branch. She allegedly was the mistress of a close colleague of Najib's--and may have been more than a mere acquaintance of Najib himself. The question, of course, is who ordered the killers to get rid of her?
All of this is a huge distraction from the real issue at hand: the economy, stupid! In a recent interview with Radio Australia, Clive Kessler, a professor at the University of New South Wales, argues that the Malaysian government can't afford to waste time on such scandals. The country's globalized economy is on the verge of recession. The Asia Times quoted Zaid Ibrahim, a former cabinet minister who resigned in protest over the slow pace of democratic reforms, warning: "We will not succeed in promoting a united country . . . if we do not subscribe to the rule of law. We need the openness, freedom and social justice that will be possible only with [the rule of law] in place and democracy."
The great news is that tourism has not been affected by all the scandals. In January, 17,000 Americans traveled to Malaysia, up 10 percent from the same period last year. That's probably because Malaysia is such a fun multicultural destination: a place where you can eat fabulous, cheap Malay, Chinese, and Indian food; visit temples, mosques, and picturesque beaches; and also have hilarious conversations about politics and, yes, sex, with everyone from your taxi driver to your waiter. There's been tremendous progress in the 15 years I've been watching Malaysia: These days, everyone has an opinion. And that's the real beginning of democracy.