Under mounting pressure over his alleged role in an escalating corruption scandal, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's effort to stifle criticism led him to make sweeping changes to his cabinet on Tuesday, replacing his deputy premier and attorney general among a handful of other officials.
It emerged earlier this month that investigators had reportedly traced almost $700 million dollars in deposits from a government fund called 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) to personal bank accounts that they believe to be connected to Najib. He created 1MDB in 2009 to help attract foreign investment and spur development, but the fund has been constantly plagued by corruption allegations in its short life and is now more than $11 billion in debt.
The prime minister has lately endured persistent calls among the opposition that he resign over the fund's management, which he oversees as both the head of the Finance Ministry and as the chair of 1MDB's advisory committee. But on Sunday Najib suddenly found himself being taken to task by none other than his immediate subordinate.
Uneasy about the scandal's potential impact on the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which is dominated by Najib's United Malays National Organization party (UMNO), Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin delivered remarks on Sunday in which he suggested that Najib personally explain the issues surrounding the 1MDB scandal for the benefit of the public.
"We cannot explain properly because even we don't know the facts. So who is going to tell us the facts? It should be the prime minister, true or not?" he said before a meeting of UMNO delegates.
Though Muhyiddin stressed that he supports Najib, he did not mince words.
"I want to give you a stern warning that if nothing is done now to manage these issues, Barisan will lose" in the 2018 general elections, he said.
On Monday, the Prime Minister's Office instructed government officials to refrain from commenting on the scandal.
"All administrative officials including the deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, should wait for the results of the investigation," it said in a statement. "Rationally, we should avoid making statements that can roil people's perceptions toward the country's leadership, government, and UMNO."
But Muhyiddin found himself replaced the following day in a sudden reshuffle that included the attorney general, who is a key member of a special task force investigating 1MDB.
"I welcome vigorous debate, and accept and tolerate criticism or even dissent," Najib wrote in a Facebook post announcing the changes. "However, this process should take place in Cabinet as part of the decision-making process. Members of the Cabinet should not air their differences in an open forum that can affect public opinion against the Government and Malaysia."
At the same time, he promoted four members of a parliamentary committee that is also investigating the fund to ministerial positions, effectively removing them from the probe.
"The only thing we can infer is that the prime minister is derailing the 1MDB investigation," Wan Saiful, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a local policy think-tank, told VICE News. "When he chooses to silence his critics rather than answer his critics, then of course people are going to ask even more questions."
The cabinet shakeup has prompted more calls among the political opposition for Najib's resignation. The prime minister took down the Facebook post after its comments section was flooded by commenters repeatedly pasting "#najibletakjawatan" (Najib resign), a hashtag that was also trending on Twitter.
It is a theme that influential former prime minister and UMNO leader Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has been regularly promoting in recent months, as he candidly noted again last week on his widely read blog.
"No conspiracy," he wrote. "Just open declaration to the whole nation that I would like to see Najib cease to be Prime Minister."
Yet while the government has not yet targeted Mahathir's blog, other media outlets reporting on the 1MDB scandal have not been so lucky. Najib's government suspended two publications last week over their coverage of the 1MDB scandal.
Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of the Malaysian human rights organization SUARAM, is concerned that the enforced silence discourages scrutiny and risks misinforming the public.
"This is against media freedom, basic freedom of expression, and against democratic principles," Sevan told VICE News.
Ibrahim Suffian, program director of the Merdeka Center, a Malaysian opinion research firm, told VICE News that most Malaysians remain unaware of or apathetic to the various scandals afflicting 1MDB. A poll of more than 1,000 voters in March 2015 found that about 70 percent of respondents admitted to knowing "not very much" or nothing at all about the fund.
Following the cabinet drama, rumors have abounded that opposition groups might unite with disillusioned Barisan members and advance a vote of no confidence in parliament — a development that would have been unthinkable prior to Muhyiddin's removal.
Muhyiddin "is still deputy president of UMNO," noted Wan Saiful. "This is someone who could still attract enough numbers if he wanted to."
But Dr. Oh Ei Sun, who served as Najib's political secretary from 2009 to 2011, thinks otherwise. The cabinet reshuffle, he told VICE News, "was an act of consolidation of power and support."
"By purging the cabinet of those who harbor doubts on 1MDB and by extension his leadership, Najib has thus availed himself of a united front in countering the various allegations hurled by Dr. [Mahathir] and the opposition," Oh remarked.
He stressed the importance of patronage in Malaysian politics, suggesting that votes can be swayed only by those who are already in power. UMNO has dominated Malaysian politics since independence, after all.
"The recent series of events surrounding 1MDB of course imprint themselves heavily on the political scale and on the social fabric," Oh conceded. "However, it's unlikely to affect UMNO's grasp on power in 2018. As long as UMNO is in a position to disburse benefits and favours to its members and rural folk, its support base will remain rock solid."
"Plus," he added, "Malaysians have short political memories and forgive handily."
_Follow Adam Ramsey on Twitter: _@aporamsey