Ascandal centred on cows and luxury condos raises the chances that Malaysian elections will be delayed and highlights Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stuttering efforts to reform the corruption-prone Southeast Asian nation.
“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 — may relate to it more easily than to more obscure financial matters.
“The cow issue is God given,” Zuraida Kamaruddin, the head of the women’s wing of the opposition People’s Justice Party, told Reuters 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.”
The family of Women, Families and Communities Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil is accused of using 250 million ringgit ($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 auditor general to have done little to reach its initial goal of making the country 40 per cent 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.
The 58-year-old son of a former prime minister had been expected to call the polls around April, before a looming global slowdown risked hurting Malaysia’s trade-dependent economy.
But with the U.S. economy showing signs of recovery and the euro zone not yet imploding, he may feel he can wait and hope for the scandal to blow over while recent government handouts to poorer families take effect.