By Annabelle Lee
INTERVIEW | Back in 2015 when news about the 1MDB scandal first broke, then prime minister Najib Abdul Razak had famously claimed that the RM2.6 billion found banked into his personal bank accounts had been from an Arab donor.
This claim was swiftly backed up by his newly installed deputy at the time, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi who claimed to have personally met the donor.
The identity of the Arab donor has never been revealed.
Almost three years on and as investigations into 1MDB intensify under the new Pakatan Harapan government, Zahid’s claim has now come under scrutiny by former international trade and industry minister Rafidah Aziz.
“It must have been in his dreams. Zahid must have seen the apparition of an Arab. Because nobody has been able to pin down which Arab (donated the money).
“In the first place, which Arab has that much money and net assets to donate RM2.6 billion?” she fired in her trademark no-holds-barred style that earned her the nickname as Malaysia’s “Iron Lady”.
In an interview with Malaysiakini, Rafidah further disputed Zahid’s claim that the donation had been in “appreciation” for Malaysia’s counter-terrorism efforts.
“Please lah, don’t give me that bull. Let’s finish this story because it irritates everybody […] (let’s) get down to finding out where exactly the money came from,” she said.
After retiring from active politics in 2013, Rafidah, along with her wit and penchant for hard-hitting remarks, returned in full force to the political arena in the lead-up to the recent 14th general election.
First taking to her “Rafidah Aziz Malaysian Citizen” Facebook page to comment on current events and lambast BN leaders, she later publicly stumped for Harapan and became a main draw at its rallies.
Up close with Equanimity
Among the issues, she had criticised BN for was its inability to locate the RM1 billion mega-yacht Equanimity when she had bumped into it while on holiday last year.
Rafidah, who at 75 years old is an active diver, recounted coming face-to-face with the infamous vessel during a diving trip in the Andaman Sea in Thailand in February 2017.
She said she would spend days out in the open sea, sometimes as far as 40km off-shore.
“On the way back (from diving), I was supposed to moor our boat at the Phuket Marina when my instructor looked at his ship tracker, which is an app on his phone, and said, ‘Eh, The Equanimity is around here’.
“It was 12:30pm in the afternoon at the time, and I wanted to have a look at this Equanimity. This was a chance of a lifetime.
So they took a detour and went hunting for the super-yacht.
“We saw the boat and went around […] I stopped piloting and said, ‘I better go somewhere and take photographs without them realising who is at the wheel’ (photos below).
“I went very close, very daring you know!” she exclaimed adding she then thought little about the encounter until the yacht was seized by the US and Indonesian authorities in Bali three months ago.
“If they were looking for the boat, why were they not looking nearer to home? Even on his phone, my diving instructor could identify it, you can even do it now.
“How is it that our own apparatus, the marine police or whatever, with all their gadgets, couldn’t even identify it?” she questioned, raising her arms to emphasise her point.
Owned by Malaysian businessperson Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low, the yacht was sought by the US Department of Justice on grounds that it had been purchased using laundered money linked to 1MDB.
‘Greed and avarice’
Reminiscing about her 44 years in politics, Rafidah said it was Najib’s father and the country’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, who had made her a senator when she was a 31-year-old economics lecturer at Universiti Malaya.
Four years later, Abdul Razak’s successor Hussein Onn handpicked her to become the deputy finance minister.
“These were the people who showed us integrity, who showed us how to be straight and honest. I respected them so much and I learned so much from them, I learned how to do things right.
“Then came Dr Mahathir Mohamad. I couldn’t have lasted so long – 21 years (as international trade and industry minister) – had the leader been useless. I’m sorry to say,” she said.
Comparing her time in government with that of Najib’s administration, she said the latter had become imbued with “greed and avarice” resulting in scandals like 1MDB.
“The bottom line is greed and avarice. It’s the thing that pushes people to think that money can buy everything, that power can actually be obtained and retained through money.
“They forgot. They forgot about democracy, they forgot about the will of the Almighty. I’m no ustazah but my mother taught me, ‘Man proposes, God disposes’.
“You may have the best laid out plans but if your intent is negative, if you have malice or whatever, Almighty God will say ‘Hey, this not it, and he will pull everything away. Finish!” she said.
Rafidah was thus disappointed that Najib did not walk in the footsteps of the legacy that preceded him.
“He wanted a new legacy and now his legacy is 1MDB,” she noted.