Ahead of polls, Malaysia’s Najib gives cash to staff of state-linked firm


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KUALA LUMPUR, March 15 (Reuters) – Prime Minister Najib Razak on Thursday announced cash handouts on top of bonuses already paid to staff of Malaysia’s largest government-linked asset management firm, as he prepares for a general election that must be held by August.

The scandal-plagued prime minister needs to consolidate support for his coalition from its traditional vote base of civil servants and the majority Malay-Muslims, to stave off an unprecedented challenge from his former mentor turned opposition leader, Mahathir Mohamad.

Najib said each of the more than 1,500 staff of Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB), which oversees assets worth about 279 billion ringgit ($71 billion), will get a payment of 2,000 ringgit, in conjunction with the firm’s 40th anniversary.

“The ex-gratia (payment) will be made in May this year, so you can celebrate Aidilfitri with joy,” he said to thunderous applause at the firm’s anniversary celebration.

Malaysia’s Muslims will celebrate the holiday of Aidilfitri, or Eid, in mid-June, ending the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

The announcement is Najib’s latest effort to win over voters as he faces down financial scandals at a state fund and a government palm oil agency.

Mahathir, who led the country from 1981 to 2003, turned on his former protege more than two years ago, after news broke of a multi-billion dollar scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Najib and the fund have denied any wrongdoing.

The prime minister also faces the prospect of losing support from palm oil plantation smallholders operating under state-owned palm oil agency Felda, which has been hit by financial scandals of its own.

In July, Najib offered hundreds of millions of dollars in cash handouts and debt waivers in a bid to win over the agency’s more than 600,000 smallholders, a key vote bank for his ruling party.

In October, Najib unveiled a national budget that promised to cut personal income tax for lower-income earners, hand out more to pensioners and spend billions on schools, hospitals and rural services to allay voters’ worries.

Earlier, he announced aid running into billions of dollars directed at the mainly Muslim ethnic Malay majority in a bid to neutralise Mahathir’s influence.

Mahathir has repeatedly criticised Najib’s populist policies, denigrating them as “livestock feed” aimed at covering up the prime minister’s scandals. ($1=3.9180 ringgit) (Reporting by Liz Lee; Writing by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)


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