The graft charges against former Malaysian finance minister Lim Guan Eng will hardly hurt the political prospects of the Malaysian opposition, say analysts.
The 59-year old lawmaker has denied all charges of bribery and abuse of power against him, saying in Facebook on August 11 they were politically motivated. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters on August 7 that he is “inclined” to think a corruption charge against Lim, who was finance minister under him, was politically motivated.
Lim was finance minister from May 2018 to March, when the Pakatan Harapan coalition lost power in a political reshuffle. After that, Lim, who is secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), reverted to being in opposition. There is speculation that the current Malaysian prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin may call elections as early as this year to shore up his mandate if his coalition does well.
“I think it won’t have much of an effect because most people would have already decided who they would vote for. Those who back Lim and the DAP – mainly the ethnic Chinese and some Indian voters – would see the charges as politically motivated as claimed by Lim and Mahathir,” said Harrison Cheng, associate director of Control Risks, an international risk consultancy.
For the upcoming polls, voters are more likely to determine their support based on which party can address bread and butter concerns, deal with possible subsequent outbreaks of epidemics, and defend important identity-related causes, Cheng explained.
Even if DAP supporters were to be less trusting of the DAP because of the charges, they do not have a viable alternative party to support, Cheng said. The DAP, with 42 of the 222 seats in the Malaysian Parliament, is the main Chinese-dominated opposition party in Malaysia.
“The charges arrayed against Guan Eng appear to be quite general and sweeping, and wanting in details thus far,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
Until more convincing evidential details are adduced by the prosecution, the public and Malaysian opposition politicians will continue to doubt the validity of the charges, Oh said. “In addition, the timing and intensity (several cases laid against Lim in a short period) of the charges would likely add to such negative perception of the motivation behind such charges.”
On August 11, Lim was charged in a Malaysian court with abusing his position when he was Penang chief minister to obtain gratification of RM372,009 (S$121,651) for his wife, Betty Chew Gek Cheng, while a Malaysian businesswoman, Phang Li Koon, was charged with abetting him. The alleged offences were committed between 2013 and 2016 over an RM11.6 million building project. The three defendants pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
On August 10, Lim claimed trial to a charge of abusing his position as Penang chief minister to solicit RM3.3 million in benefits from a RM6.3 billion undersea tunnel connecting Penang. On August 7, he claimed trial to a charge of soliciting a 10 percent cut of the profits from this tunnel.
Lim was Penang chief minister from March 2008 to May 2018. After Mahathir’s coalition which included the DAP winning the Malaysian election in May 2018, Lim was appointed finance minister. The current ruling coalition contains people loyal to Najib Razak, who was Malaysian prime minister until Mahathir replaced him in May 2018.
“These corruption cases are unlikely to be a major factor in determining the election results. 1MDB was an anomaly because of the scale of the funds involved,” said Cheng.
While Najib was Malaysian prime minister, billions of US dollars were stolen and laundered internationally from a now-defunct Malaysian sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), allege the US Department of Justice and Malaysian prosecutors.
On July 28, Najib was sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined RM210 million on seven charges related to the 1MDB scandal. Najib, who is out on bail, faces more than 40 additional charges linked to 1MDB.
“Criminal cases involving senior politicians are typically tried not only in courts of law, but also in courts of public opinion,” said Oh.
The previous administration under Najib was widely perceived by the more educated Malaysian public and various international institutions “to be insidiously corrupt and massively kleptocratic,” Oh added. “It was then only natural that the responsible heads of such a regime be brought to justice, with previously conspicuous but ruthlessly suppressed evidence finally surfacing to see the light of the day, and especially when the extravagant opulence of their lifestyles was plain for all to see.”
In May 2018, days after Najib was voted out of office, Malaysian police raided his home, where they seized hundreds of designer handbags and jewellery belonging to Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor, as well as cash. So vast was the quantity of confiscated items they filled more than 350 boxes. Rosmah is on trial for bribery over a solar contract.
“I am upset my wife is charged because she is acting as a legal consultant….By involving my family members, this is political vengeance,” Lim said on his Facebook on August 11.
In an implicit dig at Rosmah’s extravagance, Lim said on Facebook of his wife, “She did not possess highly priced jewellery, hundreds of luxury watches, hundreds of expensive branded handbags or tens of millions of ringgit in cash. Again, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) did not find any corruption money in our bank account or in the form of cash. Where then is the corruption?”
The MACC previously investigated the undersea tunnel allegations and closed the case in November 2018. In February, Lim won a defamation suit against a Malaysian blogger, Raja Petra Kamarudin, over the latter’s articles containing allegations of corruption over the undersea tunnel.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong.