Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will meet Malcolm Turnbull on the sidelines of this weekend’s special ASEAN Australia Summit for a sit-down likely to prove more helpful to the scandal-plagued Asian leader’s political fortunes than to that of his host.
The meeting comes at an awkward time for Mr Turnbull, whose son Alex revealed last week that his career as a Singapore-based executive with investment bank Goldman Sachs suffered after he questioned the integrity of bonds issues which raised a combined $6 billion for the 1MDB state development fund, chaired by Mr Najib.
Mr Najib’s office confirmed yesterday he would lead a delegation to the Sydney summit just weeks ahead of an expected election in which Malaysia’s opposition will seek to turn the spotlight once again on the 1MDB corruption scandal — one of several serious graft cases linked to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
The alleged misappropriation of $US4.5 billion from 1MDB has become the subject of investigations both inside Malaysia and in foreign jurisdictions including Singapore, Hong Kong, Switzerland and the US. Mr Najib has denied any wrongdoing.
Last December, US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions described the 1MDB scandal as “the worst form of kleptocracy”.
Yet just two months earlier Mr Najib’s state visit to the White House to meet US President Donald Trump delivered him a popularity bump at home.
Lim Teck Ghee, an academic and head of Malaysia’s Centre for Policy Initiatives, said Mr Najib’s Sydney visit would likely bring a similarly handy fillip. “Najib and his team will have done the calculations on whether this visit will be a plus or minus for the election,” he told The Australian. “There will be photo opportunities that will make for a nice story in the Malay papers and he will use it for electioneering purposes. They will milk it for all it’s worth.”
For Mr Najib, whose United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) party has held power in Malaysia since 1957 thanks to decades of patronage politics, a captive media and some dramatic gerrymandering, a picture with the Australian Prime Minister is another opportunity to prove his international credentials to his domestic audience.
For Mr Turnbull it is a reminder of the unanswered questions around his son’s revelations, as well as unresolved issues surrounding ANZ’s role in the 1MDB issue as part-owner of Malaysian bank AmBank.
A spokesman for Mr Turnbull confirmed yesterday there would be no press conference after the Malaysia bilateral and that 1MDB was not likely to come up during the conversation, notwithstanding former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad publicly urging Mr Turnbull to raise it with Mr Najib. That will partly shield both leaders from embarrassing questions.
Nor is Mr Najib likely to face criticism inside the ASEAN tent given the grouping’s noninterference clause in the domestic affairs of a member nation.