Malaysian ex-PM Najib combative ahead of 1MDB graft trial

The previous prime minister Najib Razak, above, is charged with 42 counts of criminal breach of trust, graft, abuse of power and money laundering. (AFP)
Updated 11 February 2019

Malaysian ex-PM Najib combative ahead of 1MDB graft trial

  • US investigators say associates of the previous prime minister stole over $4.5 billion from 1MBD
  • The ex-PM denies the allegations and is fighting back by changing his political image through social media

KUALA LUMPUR: From appearing in an R&B music video and trolling social media to vilify the new government, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been combative before the start of his graft trial, linked to the multibillion-dollar looting of the 1MDB state investment fund that has battered the country’s standing abroad.
The trial starting Tuesday comes nine months after Najib’s spectacular election defeat, spurred by voters’ furor over the 1MDB scandal that is being investigated in the US and several other countries for alleged cross-border money laundering and embezzlement.
US investigators say more than $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014 and the ill-gotten gains were laundered through layers of bank accounts in the US and other countries to finance Hollywood films and buy hotels, a luxury yacht, art works, jewelry and other extravagances. Some $700 million from the fund that Najib set up for Malaysia’s economic development allegedly landed in his own bank account.
One of only a few Southeast Asian leaders to be arraigned after losing office, Najib has denied any wrongdoing. He is charged with 42 counts of criminal breach of trust, graft, abuse of power and money laundering in one of Malaysia’s biggest criminal trials. His wife Rosmah Mansor also has been charged with money laundering and tax evasion linked to 1MDB. She has pleaded not guilty and her trial has not been set.
The first of Najib’s multiple criminal trials begins Tuesday but instead of lying low, Najib has fought back with a political makeover on social media that aims to transform his image from an out-of-touch elitist to a leader for the working class.
A Malay-language catchphrase translating to “What’s to be ashamed about, my boss?” was coined while he was campaigning in a by-election last month and has become his new rally cry. Expensive tailored suits have been replaced by hoodies and jeans. A picture Najib posted on social media showing himself posing on a Yamaha motorcycle with his new “’no-shame” meme resonated with many Malay youths disenchanted by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s new government.
In another offbeat music video that he uploaded on social media, Najib slammed the new government as “liars” and crooned about the “slander and revenge” against him in a Malay-language rendition of the 1970’s R&B soul hit “Kiss and Say Goodbye” by the American group, the Manhattans.
He posts a dozen messages daily on social media, mostly mocking the new government and its policies, and touching on the plight of the needy.
Last month while visiting vendors at a wet market, Najib jeered government leaders on Facebook: “Let the ministers sleep on this Saturday morning.”
Bridget Welsh, political science professor at the John Cabot University in Rome, said Najib is seeking to tap into anger from those who were displaced politically and those disappointed by the new government.
“There will actually be two battles — that in the courtroom and that in the public — in which Najib has used a flush-funded social media machine to build support,” said Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert. “He has fanned two sentiments — supposed political victimization and racial insecurity — stemming from the fact that Malay chauvinists do not have the same level of political power in the new government.”
Najib’s online campaign isn’t likely to extend beyond his Malay political base but it could split Malaysia along racial lines, she said. Ethnic Malays makeup about 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million people, followed by large Chinese and Indian minorities.
Despite his smiles and cool public persona, the patrician Najib — whose father and uncle were Malaysia’s second and third prime ministers respectively — could face years in prison if convicted.
Once a towering figure in politics and literally beyond the law, Najib has fallen from grace swiftly since his historic electoral loss on May 9, which led to the first change of government since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957.
The new government soon after it took office reopened investigations into 1MDB that had been stifled under Najib. He and his wife were barred from leaving the country and grilled by anti-graft officials, and their properties were raided. Truckloads of luggage stashed with cash, jewelry and hundreds of expensive designer bags worth a staggering 1.1 billion ringgit ($270 million) were seized from their home and other properties.
The trials for both Najib and his wife will be closely watched but are expected to be long-lasting as defense lawyers could appeals up to the top court. Najib has a team of top lawyers, who are appealing Monday to delay his trial.
Farhan Read, one of Najib’s lawyers, told The Associated Press that the defense team wants a deferment to resolve a technical issue that could impair the validity of the hearing. He said Najib’s trials are scheduled back-to-back and that it was unprecedented for a person to be hit with 42 charges.

Thousands of members of the United Auto Workers have walked out of General Motors facilities in the first nationwide strike in 12 years

Updated 15 min 51 sec ago

Thousands of members of the United Auto Workers have walked out of General Motors facilities in the first nationwide strike in 12 years

  • Late on Sunday, US President Donald Trump on Twitter urged the UAW and GM to “get together and make a deal!.”
  • A strike will very quickly shut down GM’s operations across North America and could hurt the broader US economy

DETROIT/WASHINGTON: The United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike at General Motors just after midnight Sunday and about 48,000 hourly workers at its facilities are headed for the picket lines in the morning, union officials said early Monday.

US labor contract talks reached an impasse on Sunday, the UAW called for the first nationwide strike at GM in 12 years. “We do not take this lightly,” Terry Dittes, the UAW vice president in charge of the union’s relationship with GM, said at a news conference in downtown Detroit on Sunday.

“This is our last resort.” GM said in a statement that its offer to the UAW during talks included more than $7 billion in new investments, 5,400 jobs — a majority of which would be new — pay increases, improved benefits and a contract-ratification bonus of $8,000.
“We have negotiated in good faith and with a sense of urgency,” the automaker said.

Late on Sunday, US President Donald Trump on Twitter urged the UAW and GM to “get together and make a deal!.” GM spokesman Tony Cervone said the automaker “couldn’t agree more” with Trump’s call.

A strike will very quickly shut down GM’s operations across North America and could hurt the broader US economy. Prolonged industrial action would also cause hardship for GM hourly workers on greatly reduced strike pay.

GM’s workers last went out on a brief two-day strike in 2007 during contract talks. A more painful strike occurred in Flint, Michigan, in 1998, lasting 54 days and costing the No. 1 US automaker more than $2 billion.

No further talks were scheduled before the strike is set to begin, a union spokesman and GM said. Talks are set to resume on Monday at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT).

The union has been fighting to stop GM from closing auto assembly plants in Ohio and Michigan, and arguing workers deserve higher pay after years of record profits for GM in North America.

GM argues the plant shutdowns are necessary responses to market shifts, and that UAW wages and benefits are expensive compared with competing non-union auto plants in southern US states. In its statement, the automaker said its offer to the union included solutions for the Michigan and Ohio assembly plants currently lacking products.

A person familiar with GM’s offer said that could include producing a future electric vehicle in Detroit. It could also include turning a plant in Lordstown, Ohio, into an electric vehicle battery plant or going through with the proposed sale of the plant to a group affiliated with electric vehicle start-up Workhorse Group Inc.

A new battery plant could give some UAW workers at Lordstown the chance to remain with GM. The closure of Lordstown drew widespread criticism, including from Trump, who met with GM Chief Executive Mary Barra on Sept. 5. Ohio is crucial to Trump’s re-election bid in 2020.

But several Democratic presidential candidates said they backed the UAW, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Tim Ryan.

Sanders noted GM received a US-taxpayer funded $50 billion bailout a decade ago. “Our message to General Motors is a simple one: End the greed, sit down with the UAW and work out an agreement that treats your workers with the respect and the dignity they deserve,” Sanders said in a statement.

Biden said on Twitter he backed the UAW’s demand for “fair wages and benefits for their members. America’s workers deserve better.”
The union has framed the plant closures as a betrayal of workers who made concessions in 2009 to help GM through its government-led bankruptcy.

“General Motors needs to understand that we stood up for GM when they needed us,” Ted Krumm, head of the union’s bargaining committee in talks with GM, said at the Sunday news conference. These are profitable times ... and we deserve a fair contract.”

The UAW says significant differences remain between both sides over wages, health care benefits, temporary employees, job security and profit sharing.

The strike will test both the union and GM at a time when the US auto industry is facing slowing sales and rising costs for launching electric vehicles and curbing emissions.

Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR), said the strike at GM’s US facilities will also shut its plants in Canada and Mexico as the automaker’s supply chain is so integrated.

“That’s going to have a big effect on the economy,” she said. GM starts off the strike with healthy levels of inventory of some its key, high-margin vehicles.

As of Sept. 1, the automaker had 96 days supply of its Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, 59 days supply of its Chevrolet Equinox SUV and more than 100 days supply of the Cadillac Escalade.

If the strike is short, hourly workers should not suffer much. But strike pay provided by the UAW, which has been building up reserves in preparation for possible industrial action, is just $250 per week.

The automaker has 12 vehicle assembly plants, 12 engine and power train facilities and a handful of other US stamping plants and other facilities.

On Friday, the UAW announced temporary contract extensions with Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA) while it focused its attention on GM.

The union had targeted GM as the first automaker with which it wanted to conclude contract talks. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which transports some GM vehicles to dealerships, said it would honor the UAW’s GM picket lines.