Campaign obstacles hit Malaysia’s opposition amid corruption accusations against President Najib

NEWS – On Saturday the 7th of May 2016, the Sarawak semi-autonomous state will hold decisive state and federal polls for the current Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak. Indeed, the latter was recently accused of allegedly receiving more than 681 million USD on his personal bank accounts from funds financed by the royal Saud family and aimed at a sovereign investment fund for Malaysia. Therefore the political pressure is high and will set the tone for the general elections coming in two years. In consequence, several opponents to Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition have been refused entry, and campaigning, to Sarawak. 


Frustration is rising among political opponents to the ruling coalition and its head, Prime Minister Razak Najib. After being shortly renewed to power despite allegations of massive frauds at the 2013 general elections [1], ensuring the continuity of the constant rule of the United Malays National Organisation (Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu) since the independence of the country, the Barisan Nasional coalition is in a political and judiciary turmoil. 

Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in political and judiciary turmoil

Subsequently to the tremendous challenge posed by Anwar’s three party coalition in 2013, the ever standing rule of UMNO did not seem unbeatable anymore. The popularity of Anwar was rising and directly challenging the authority of the first post-independence Prime Minister elected with a minority of the votes (49%). Swiftly, Anwar was accused of sodomizing a political aide in 2008, a sexual act forbidden by law and considered as a crime in a religious (dominantly Muslim) conservative country like Malaysia. After exhausting all judicial appeals, the high court of Malaysia confirmed his condemnation of five years in jail in February 2015. “I maintain my innocence. This to me is a fabrication coming from a political conspiracy to stop my political career,” claimed Anwar after the enunciation of the verdict [2]. 

But after allegedly clearing the political landscape from Anwar’s popular dissidence by ruining his career and reputation, an unexpected judicial controversy directly hit Najib’s integrity. In July 2015 was revealed that Najib presumably received 681 million USD on his personal bank accounts. This money was meant to support the sovereign investment fund of Malaysia called “1Malaysia Development Bhd”. Najib, who headed this fund that he created in 2009, justified the presence of this diverted money on his personal bank accounts by explaining that the funds came directly from the royal Saud family to support his political campaign. A stance that the Minister of foreign affairs of Saudi Arabia confirmed [3]. Then, he was cleared by the Attorney General, Mohamed Apandi Ali, who was nominated by Najib, of any wrongdoing in this affair [4]. Still several countries are pursuing financial investigations, notably in Switzerland [5], which might reveal other surprises in this affair. 

The Sarawak electoral pulse towards Najib’s political trust

On the 7th of May, the Sarawak, which is one of the richest in natural resources and purveying the biggest delegation to the federal parliament with 31 deputies, will hold decisive state and federal elections. This semi-autonomous state, located on the island of Borneo, is first to vote before the general elections in two years, and thus, will give a pulse of the electoral consequences to the corruption affair affecting Prime Minister Najib. Najib has achieved to control the judiciary in Malaysia and as the son of a former Prime Minister of Malaysia as a vast network of supporters in UMNO. However, a new and unlikely coalition of opponents is forming under the leadership of former Prime Minister (1981-2003), Mahathir Mohamad, who is trying to convince current party allies of Najib to dismiss him [6]. Therefore, the pressure is high in Sarawak to ensure the continuity of the predominance of the ruling coalition. Prime Minister Najib multiplied the visits to this state and even organised the weekly cabinet meeting in Kuching, the regional capital [7]. The chief minister of the state of Sarawak, Adenan Satem, who is a political ally to Prime Minister Najib, has imposed a ban on so-called “unsavoury elements”. He recognised that this type of “elements” are not welcome to Sarawak during the political campaign and will thus face deportation to mainland Malaysia. But he also mentioned that this citizens would be welcomed as tourists after the closure of the polls… Adenan justified the deportations of political opponents. “I have to protect the interests of Sarawak from unsavoury elements, political or otherwise. That is my job”, he said [8]. A ruling favouring the political predominance of Najib’s allies in Sarawak. 

As such, when the lawyer Nurul Izzah Anwar (the daughter of jailed Anwar Ibrahim), who happens to be a member of parliament opposing the rule of Najib’s coalition, decided to attend campaigning events in Sarawak, she did not receive a warm welcome from the local authorities. She was denied entry at the internal border control in the airport (Sarawak is a semiautonomous state, therefore it controls its borders with the other States of Malaysia) on Monday the 2nd of May. Then she took the next flight back to Kuala Lumpur. “I am participating in legitimate political activity,” she explains. “But I found myself immediately deported as soon as I arrived” [9]. Several other political activists were submitted to the same treatment and could not carry freely their campaign in Sarawak, which is a clear obstacle to the achievement of a democratic electoral campaign and election. Already the results of Saturday’s elections must be observed with a certain distance knowing the unfair conditions framing this campaign. By tightening his political control on all dissidence in the Malaysian society, which is famous for its diversity, Prime Minister Najib threatens to weaken the traditional and peaceful sense of coexistence between all citizens. 


Jean-Baptiste Allegrini - Research assistant at the CIPADH. 



1 ABC News (06/05/2013), “Ruling coalition wins Malaysian election amid fraud allegations”, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney. <

2 Doherty, Ben (10/02/2015), “Anwar Ibrahim guilty in sodomy case”, The Guardian, London. <

3 Stancati, Margherita (15/04/2016), “Saudi Foreign Minister Says He Was Aware of Donation to Malaysia’s Najib”, The Wall Street Journal, New York. <

4 Ngui, Yantoultra and Wright, Tom (26/01/2016), “Malaysia Says Saudis Gave Prime Minister Najib Razak a $681 Million ‘Donation’”, The Wall Street Journal, New York. <

5 Le Matin (12/04/2016), “Escroquerie en Malaisie: la Suisse étend son enquête », Le Matin/ATS, Lausanne. <

6 Jacques, Harry (26/04/2016), “Is Malaysia's single-party state starting to crack?”, Chicago Tribune, Chicago. <

7 Koon, Chong, Pooi (04/05/2016), “Najib Courts Malaysia Voters With Sarawak Visits Before Poll”, Bloomberg, New York. <

8 Paddock, Richard C. (03/05/2016), “Malaysian State Bars Lawmaker Nurul Izzah Anwar From Campaigning”, The New York Times, New York. <

9 Paddock, Richard C. (03/05/2016), Ibid.