A scandal centered on cows and luxury condos raises the chances that elections will be delayed and highlights Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stuttering efforts to push through reforms.
“Cowgate,” as it has inevitably been dubbed, is providing rich fodder for the opposition as it digs up dirt on a publicly funded cattle-rearing project that it says was used as a personal fund for the family of one of Najib’s ministers.
It is not the first corruption scandal to hit Najib and his long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), but the farmyard connection makes it a potentially damaging one because rural Malays — the bedrock of UMNO’s support — could relate to it more easily than to more obscure financial matters.
“The cow issue is God-given,” People’s Justice Party women’s section head Zuraida Kamaruddin said, following a speech at a recent rally, which she punctuated with the occasional “moo” for comic effect.
“This time we have real evidence that proves their mismanagement,” she added.
The family of Women, Families and Communities Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil is accused of using 250 million ringgit (US$83 million) in soft government loans meant to develop the cattle project to buy luxury apartments, expensive overseas trips and a Mercedes.
Meanwhile, the National Feedlot Centre (NFC) project was found by the Malaysian auditor-general to have done little to reach its initial goal of making the country 40 percent self-sufficient in beef production by 2010.
Najib last month froze the assets of the NFC, which is under investigation by Malaysia’s anti-corruption commission. With fresh allegations appearing almost daily on the country’s lively Internet news sites, the scandal adds to growing temptations for him to delay elections that must be called by April 2013.
However, with the US economy showing signs of recovery and the eurozone not yet imploding, he might feel he can wait and hope for the scandal to blow over while recent government handouts to poorer families take effect.
The risk for Najib is that the scandal could balloon further or set off other allegations of graft, implicating other members of his government and giving a further boost to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was acquitted on sodomy charges last month, leaving him free to campaign.
The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is expected to retain its parliamentary majority after historic gains by the opposition in 2008. However, the NFC scandal adds to the difficulty Najib faces in recapturing the coalition’s once impregnable two-thirds majority and winning a mandate to keep up with his tentative reforms.
That could set off an internal power struggle, with many expecting the more conservative, less reform-minded Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to launch a bid for the UMNO leadership.
Malaysia, once mentioned in the same breath as South Korea and Singapore as an Asian “tiger” economy, has mostly disappointed since the region’s financial crisis of 1997 as it struggles to revamp an economy centered on commodities and low-end manufacturing.
At the same time, corruption has worsened, with the country sliding to 60th in Transparency International’s global ranking of graft perceptions last year compared to 33rd in 2002.
Najib has reached out to Malaysia’s middle class as a reformer, promising to replace repressive security laws and wean the country off a race-based economic system that has alleviated poverty, but increasingly stunted growth, fuelled corruption and turned off foreign investors.