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Malaysia’s Najib tones down the bling ahead of 1MDB graft trial | News

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Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – While he was prime minister, Najib Razak was often accused of being woefully out of touch with ordinary citizens’ lives.

But now, out of office and facing dozens of criminal charges in connection with an extraordinary multibillion-dollar scandal at Malaysia’s 1MDB state investment fund, the 65-year-old seems to be reinventing himself as a man of the people.

Gone are the Italian-cut suits with their carefully-coordinated ties and pocket handkerchiefs. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, in her tailor-made traditional silk outfits accessorised with diamond jewellery, is nowhere to be seen.

These days, Najib, rocking a hoodie and kicks, is hanging out with young bikers, riding pillion on the back of a moped.

Every moment is shared on his social media accounts and captioned with the slogan: Apa malu bossku? (What’s there to be ashamed about, boss?). There’s even a range of t-shirts. 

Najib’s new look comes as the prosecution prepares to lay out its case against Najib in the Kuala Lumpur High Court on Tuesday, the first time a Malaysian leader will be in the dock on criminal allegations, including money laundering, bribery and abuse of power.

The United States’ Department of Justice says that $4.5bn was siphoned from 1MDB to fund anything from luxury apartments to expensive jewellery – and even the Hollywood film, Wolf of Wall Street. Some of the money from the sovereign wealth fund, which Najib set up in 2009, is alleged to have ended up in the former prime minister’s personal bank account.

“It’s actually classic populism,” Meredith Weiss, an expert on politics in Southeast Asia at the University of Albany in New York who travels regularly to Malaysia, said of Najib’s public persona in the lead-up to the trial.

“It’s such a contrast from before the election. It’s an effort to make himself look cool. Before, it was really the images of grandeur; playing up the wealth.”


‘Ignorance and vendetta’

The scale of the corruption at 1MDB was one of the reasons for May 2018’s election shock, which propelled the opposition Pakatan Harapan into government – the first defeat for Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional coalition in six decades.






Malaysia: Ex-PM Najib Razak given bail after pleading not guilty (2:34)

Malaysians watched agog last year as the police wheeled out shopping trolleys laden with designer handbags, bags of cash and expensive jewellery from properties linked to Najib and his family.

Investigators later revealed the haul was worth as much as $273m. It took 22 people, six counting machines and three days to count all the cash, which came in 26 different currencies.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing.

In an interview with Al Jazeera’s 101 East programme last year, he said he was not aware of what was going on at the fund even though, as the country’s prime minister, he chaired 1MDB’s board of advisers and, as its finance minister, was authorised to sign off on its major financial transactions.

In a song he released over social media in January – a re-working in Malay of The Manhattans soul classic ‘Kiss and Say Goodbye’ – he accused the government of spreading lies and wanting revenge.

“Najib’s defence and strategy will mainly be ignorance and vendetta,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, a political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. “It will be very difficult for him to argue otherwise.”

Political career

Born in July 1953 in the sleepy, rural town of Kuala Lipis when Malaysia was still Malaya and a British colony, Najib was the first child of Abdul Razak Hussein, the man who would go on to become independent Malaysia’s second prime minister. His uncle would become the third.

Like many children of the country’s elite, then and now, he was sent overseas as a teenager, first attending Malvern College – one of Britain’s most expensive private schools – and later doing a degree in industrial economics at University of Nottingham.

But in 1976, Razak died and Najib was thrust into politics, taking his father’s old seat in Pekan, a small town hugging the banks of the Pahang River on Malaysia’s east coast.

Buoyed by his father’s reputation, Najib’s political rise was assured: the youngest member of the federal parliament soon became, at the state level, the youngest chief minister.

“He came into politics at a very young age – he did quite well as a chief minister even though he was the youngest [and] many people really liked him,” said Saifuddin Abdullah, who worked alongside Najib in UMNO and government before resigning from the party in 2015. 

“You can easily like him. He has very good PR, there’s no doubt about it,” added Saifuddin, who is now Malaysia’s foreign minister.

“This is someone who has been in politics since they were 23,” said Oh Ei Sun, a political analyst who worked with Najib when he first became prime minister. “So there is a sense of entitlement.”





Najib playing golf with then=US President Barack Obama in Hawaii in December 2014 [File: Hugh Gentry/Reuters]

After stints as education minister and defence minister, Najib became deputy prime minister in 2004. He took the top job five years later, vowing to build an economic and politically dynamic Malaysia, and double income per person to $15,000 by 2020.

The plan aimed to diversify the economy beyond natural resources into areas such as green energy and technology, and reduce subsidies. Politically, the focus was supposed to be on the removal of repressive laws that allowed for detention without trial and strengthening democracy.

For Saifuddin, it was the promise of transformation that caught his attention. “He seemed to be saying all the right things,” he told Al Jazeera.

Najib’s urbane manner made him popular on the international stage, and he and Rosmah made frequent foreign trips – rubbing shoulders with world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, cosying up the tech titans such as China’s Jack Ma and playing golf with ex-US President Barack Obama.

Domestically, however, support for the long-ruling Barisan continued to sag. In the 2013 election, the coalition lost the popular vote for the first time, although the winner-takes-it-all voting system magnified by the disproportionate influence of its rural heartlands helped Barisan stay in office.

While the reform programme stalled, a goods-and-services tax further undermined support for Najib’s government – but he was about to be faced with an even more serious challenge to his authority.

Scandal-tainted fund

At its launch in 2009, 1MDB was touted as multi-billion dollar investment by a Saudi oil firm PetroSaudi and a remit to target new industries that would create jobs for Malaysians.

Later, there were multibillion dollar deals with the United Arab Emirates to develop the massive Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, as well as bankroll oil and gas projects.

But suspicions about the fund’s investment strategy began to emerge, with critics pointing to ballooning debt and asking questions about the fate of funds raised from earlier bond issues.

There were questions too over Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz, and how he had got together the money to make the Wolf of Wall Street, a 2013 tale of financial excess and debauchery with Hollywood superstar Leonardo di Caprio as the lead. Suspicions also focused on a young party-loving Malaysian financier who was often seen with Riza and whose name was in the film’s credits: Jho Low, whose whereabouts are currently unknown.

As the story gathered momentum, and pressure mounted, Najib launched an investigation. But then came the bombshell. The campaigning blog Sarawak Report and the Wall Street Journal reported that hundreds of millions of dollars had been deposited into Najib’s personal bank account shortly before the 2013 election. 

Najib denied ever receiving money “for personal gain”, saying it was a donation from a Saudi prince that was then returned. 

But on the defensive, the prime minister revealed there was a harder edge to his seemingly charming public image.

In July 2015, he stunned Malaysia by firing the attorney general who had been leading the 1MDB investigation and removing senior ministers who had questioned him over events at the fund.

The Edge, a local business publication that had reported extensively on 1MDB was suspended for three months, while access to Sarawak Report and other critical sources was blocked. Opposition politicians who had raised concerns about 1MDB found themselves prevented from leaving the country and critics found themselves facing charges under the sedition law Najib had earlier promised to repeal.

“His behaviour fits with that broad pattern where you consolidate power at the expense of the ruling elite,” said Lee Morgenbesser, an expert on authoritarian governments at Australia’s Griffith University. “Then he had this corruption scandal that left him little room for manoeuvre.”

For Oh, the political analyst, Najib could often seem “cold and detached,” but he was also a “good listener” who was comfortable with figures and charts.

He recalls Najib chatting with Christine Lagarde, the current head of the International Monetary Fund who was then finance minister in France. “They were throwing economic terms at each other, comparing notes,” he said. “I thought his is someone who knows his portfolio.”





Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, arriving in the Philippines for an ASEAN summit in November 2017 [File: Erik De Castro/Reuters]

Najib insists that when it came to 1MDB, he was not aware of what was going on.

In October 2018, he told Al Jazeera’s 101 East that he was proud of what he had done as prime minister and would be vindicated.

“There was progress in country,” Najib said of his years in power. “There was more wealth in the country when I left, so I’m proud of the record that I achieved at prime minister.”

Najib faces nearly 40 counts; Rosmah around 20. Former allies are also due in court on corruption charges.

With appeals, the cases could take years to grind their way through the courts, keeping Najib in the spotlight even without his regular social media updates.

But history is likely to prove a more demanding judge than the bikers in their “bossku” shirts.

“Najib’s legacy will be the historic loss of Barisan Nasional,” Asrul Hadi said. “He cannot escape that no matter what he says on social media platforms. Unfortunately for Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, the name Razak will be associated with Najib and 1MDB for generations to come.”

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A tale of 2 subways: Comparing Ottawa’s LRT to Montreal’s Metro

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Ottawa’s 13-stop, 12.5-kilometre Confederation Line has been under construction for more than six years and missed four deadlines.

More than 50 years ago, the City of Montreal managed to build a complex, 26-stop subway system — including a connection below the St. Lawrence River — in less than five years, on time and on budget.

So how was Montreal able to pull off a project twice the size, and do it in less time?

1. Keeping deadlines

The City of Montreal designed and built its $213-million Metro with an eye on Expo 67, and in a 1963 interview then mayor Jean Drapeau promised the rubber-tired subway would be ready in time and on budget.

Drapeau delivered, and the Metro opened in 1966.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson made no such promises. However, he had originally hoped to have the above-ground portion of the Confederation Line completed by Canada Day 2017, and for the trains to be up and running by the following spring.

The Rideau Street sinkhole put a wrench in those plans.

This archived February 2016 screenshot from the City of Ottawa’s Confederation Line website shows that the plan was initially to have full LRT service launched by the spring of 2018. (www.ligneconfederationline.ca)

2. Different safety standards

According to Benoît Clairoux, the Montreal Transit Corporation’s unofficial historian, 70 per cent of the Metro’s tunnels were blasted through the rock using explosives. The rest involved ripping up streets or vacant lots.

Ottawa’s $2.1-billion system is less disruptive, at least on the surface: its 2.5-kilometre tunnel was dug entirely with three subterranean boring machines.

The Montreal project was also marred by a series of serious construction accidents, claiming the lives of 12 workers before the first trains ran.

With more stringent safety standards, the Confederation Line project has seen a few injuries, but no fatalities.

“We want to ensure that during construction and after, we always have something safe and reliable,” said OC Transpo spokesperson André Brisebois.

This machine is one of three used to bore the 2.5-kilometre tunnel under downtown Ottawa. (City of Ottawa)

3. Different technology

You might assume that as technology advances, the length of time it takes to complete such major infrastructure projects shrinks. But you’d be wrong.

According to Brisebois, the Confederation Line is a much more sophisticated system than the Montreal Metro when it was first introduced.

In 1966, human operators controlled the Metro trains. When Ottawa’s LRT system finally opens its doors to passengers,  human operators will still be in the driver’s seat, but machines will be running the system.

Everything is computerized, but that takes more time to develop, install and to test. OC Transpo said it doesn’t want to compromise the safety and efficiency of its LRT network.

Ottawa’s LRT system, including these turnstiles at Parliament station, will be far more technologically advanced than Montreal’s Metro when it was introduced in 1966. (City of Ottawa)

4. Public vs. private

From beginning to end, the City of Montreal was the prime contractor on its Metro project. Ottawa hired a private consortium, Rideau Transit Group (RTG).

University of Ottawa law professor Gilles LeVasseur said there’s an assumption the private sector is more effective at managing projects and reducing costs, but that’s not always the case.

Just ask the City of Ottawa.

“We trust the private sector because the private sector makes promises, with delivery and deadlines that seem very attractive. The problem is that they’re often not able to meet the requirements, and are always asking for delays,” LeVasseur said in French.

The latest deadline for Ottawa’s light rail project is now August.

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Recycling plant’s closure leaves Ottawa Valley towns scrambling

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A swath of the Ottawa Valley has nowhere to send its recycling following the abrupt closure of a sorting plant in Renfrew, Ont.

Beaumen Waste Management Systems shut down Sunday after more than two decades in business, leaving 32 workers jobless. 

“People are upset,” said mechanic John Greer, who was at the plant Wednesday to pick up his personal belongings.

Greer, who worked at the plant for four years, said employees received no warning about the closure. He fears the plant is likely closed for good.

Workers were expecting their final paycheques Wednesday, but have been told they’ll have to wait until Friday. 

The company’s president and CEO, Andrew Shouldice, did not return calls from CBC.

Beaumen Waste Management Systems Ltd. closed its plant in Renfrew, Ont., on Sunday. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Challenge for municipalities

The closure poses a major challenge for municipalities from Renfrew to Arnprior that relied on the company to pick up and sort their recycling.

Beaumen had contracts with Renfrew, Arnprior, Horton, Admaston/Bromley, McNab/Braeside and Whitewater Region.

The City of Brockville also sent some of its blue box material to the plant for sorting.

Renfrew Reeve Peter Emon said he was shocked by the sudden closure. Emon said he was part of a delegation of municipal officials who toured the plant just three weeks ago, and there was no hint it was about to close.

Reeve of Renfrew shocked to find out recycling plant has closed 00:00 00:43 Reeve of Renfrew shocked to find out recycling plant has closed 0:43

However, there had been signs in the past that the company was struggling, Emon said. Last year the company urged the Town of Renfrew to up its per household pickup fee in order to generate an extra $60,000, he said.

“[Beaumen’s president] said, ‘Look, I’m having difficulties,'” Emon said. According to Emon, Shouldice cited China’s strict new rules restricting the import of foreign waste.

“We agreed at that point to increase our payment to him, so we were a bit surprised that this happened,” Emon said.

Scramble for new facility

For the time being, Renfrew residents are being asked to hang onto their recyclable waste, but town officials are worried their patience will wear thin and all that plastic, glass and paper will end up in the local landfill.

Renfrew resident Ray Yolkowskie said he’s uncomfortable with the idea of throwing recylcables in the trash, but he’s not going to let it pile up forever.

“It’s going to be a lot more garbage in the dump, but what can you do?” he said. 

Longtime Renfrew resident Ray Yolkowskie isn’t happy with the idea of letting his recycling pile up, but doesn’t want it to end up in the dump, either. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Beaumen is not the only recycling company in financial peril, and Emon fears it could be a canary in the coalmine, with recyclers across Canada struggling to remain sustainable as the rules of the game change.

Earlier this month, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario applauded the Ontario government’s initiative to examine how manufacturers can be made more responsible for the cost of municipal blue box programs. 

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New Ukraine president, and former actor, to meet Trudeau in Toronto

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Ukraine’s new president will visit Toronto next week for a major international conference on his country’s future that Canada is hosting, and where he will meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau’s office said he and Volodymyr Zelenskiy will discuss Ukraine’s reform efforts and its path toward integration with Europe.

Zelenskiy, a popular actor and comedian, but a political neophyte, ran away with this spring’s presidential election, unseating Petro Poroshenko.

He is now tasked with guiding his country through its ongoing conflict with Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and fomented a pro-Kremlin insurgency in the country’s east that has left more than 13,000 dead.

The Ukraine Reform Conference is a three-day gathering that begins Tuesday, which the government said will include key international friends and partners to support Ukraine.

Trudeau said in a statement that he wants to use the meeting with Zelenskiy to reaffirm Canada’s deep commitment to the Ukrainian people.

“Canada and Ukraine share a deep and historic friendship built on shared values and strong people-to-people bonds,” said Trudeau.

Ben Rowswell, the president of the Canadian International Council, said the conference will underscore the West’s and Canada’s commitment to Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.

“Canada has been a real stalwart defender of democracy in Ukraine, part of a broader approach we have to the international order to ensure that countries, even if they’re very close to Russia are able maintain their sovereignty and to operate as democracies free from the interference of hostile foreign powers like Russia,” said Rowswell, who most recently served as Canada’s last ambassador to Venezuela.

Canada became the first Western country to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Canada has supplied it with $785 million worth of military, legal, financial, development and political assistance since 2014 when President Vladimir Putin tried to bring the country back into Russia’s sphere of influence as Ukraine was poised to deepen its integration with the European Union.

With the federal election set for October, Ukraine’s turmoil has implications for Canada’s domestic politics: the 1.3 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent comprise one of the country’s most influential diaspora communities.

That reality was not lost of on the Conservatives under former prime minister Stephen Harper, who visited Kyiv repeatedly and sent special teams of Canadian election monitors to support Ukraine’s various ballots over the years.

The Trudeau government has followed suit. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s own Ukrainian heritage has helped keep the country near the top of her agenda.

Freeland was one of the first Western politicians to visit Zelenskiy in Kyiv after he was declared the victor last month.

A senior Canadian official who was in the room for their meeting, but was not authorized to speak for attribution, said that while the new president and his entourage have little political experience, Canada isn’t worried he will shift Ukraine back towards the Kremlin and away from Canada and its western allies.

Zelenskiy is frequently compared with former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, who went from being a Hollywood actor to the California governorship before winning the Oval Office.

Though Zelenskiy lacks political experience, the long-running political satire in which he portrayed a fictional Ukraine president demonstrated a well-researched and sophisticated understanding of politics and corruption, the Canadian official said, comparing him to Canada’s Rick Mercer.

Canada has offered Zelenskiy’s officials training on how to actually run a government because they lack experience and are running a country whose institutions are not as strong as those in the West.

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