Malaysia sets sights on tycoon Mirzan Mahathir, son of former prime minister as graft crackdown expands

161700
From left to right: Mirzan Mahathir, Tun Mahathir and Tun Daim.

28th December 2023 – (Kuala Lumpur) Malaysia’s crackdown on corruption in high places has turned its sights on billionaire businessman Mirzan Mahathir, marking an expansion of investigations beyond initial targets. Authorities last week seized a landmark skyscraper owned by former finance minister Daim Zainuddin, Malaysia’s wealthiest tycoon with close ruling party ties. Now graft busters have opened a probe into Mirzan, eldest son of influential ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad.

The widening dragnet signals Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s campaign to root out entrenched business corruption will continue gaining steam in coming months. Critics claim the moves are politically motivated against Mr. Anwar’s rivals. But the prime minister insists he is merely restoring accountability, regardless of a suspect’s connections. “This is an open secret, where a person has amassed extraordinary wealth,” Mr. Anwar said after authorities confiscated Daim’s flagship Ilham Tower.

The Anti-Corruption Commission is examining a 1990s corporate deal between United Engineers Malaysia and Renong Berhad, a construction conglomerate linked to Mr. Daim and the former ruling party UMNO. Mr. Mirzan, Mr. Daim’s associate Halim Saad, and lawyer Abdul Rashid Manaf are persons of interest.

Authorities believe over US$500 million may have been embezzled in the opaque transaction. Mr. Mirzan amassed a fortune in the 1980s and 1990s through ties to UMNO patronage networks led by his father, Dr. Mahathir. The nonagenarian ex-premier exerts influence through crony capitalists and political scions like Mirzan. Seizures of Daim’s assets and probes of Mr. Mirzan thus deliver an unsubtle message.

Businessmen like tycoon Vincent Tan may grow uneasy as investigations widen. For years, politics and commerce have comprised a tight-knit ecosystem of patronage and favoritism in Malaysia. Its legacy is a class of billionaires owing success to government links rather than ingenuity. Mr. Anwar seems intent on dismantling this arrangement.

Associates of Mr. Daim and Dr. Mahathir unsurprisingly paint the crackdown as political score-settling. Both have bitter history with the prime minister. Mr. Anwar earlier pledged Daim would face “sleepless nights” under his leadership.

Regardless of motives, Malaysia’s opaque business climate needs transparency. How prosecutors proceed from headline-grabbing seizures will prove pivotal.