News that prominent banker Nazir Razak was setting up a non-governmental organisation (NGO) set Malaysia abuzz about his political intentions last week, but it was not a bolt from the blue.
The Sunday Times has learnt that Datuk Seri Nazir and "like-minded friends" have been meeting for more than a year now on ways to change the direction the country is headed.
For Mr Nazir, who has spoken out increasingly about growing racial and religious intolerance and the mismanagement of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), this merely represents a shift in gears and is in part driven by a desire to preserve his father's legacy.
Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who was prime minister from 1970 until his death in 1976, is credited with working to strengthen national unity following the May 13, 1969 race riots.
On the 38th anniversary of his death in January last year, Mr Nazir penned a lengthy article published by several newspapers in which he called for a return to Tun Razak's values of inclusiveness as Malaysia was showing "signs that inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic tensions are once again approaching worrying levels".
This January, he seemingly advised his elder brother - Prime Minister Najib Razak - to emulate their father.
"I think he (Tun Razak) would say that it is time to set up another national consultative council, like he did in 1970, to discuss critical issues around preserving harmony and fostering unity amongst Malaysians," Mr Nazir said in an interview with The Malaysian Insider news portal.
"I think he would be shocked that it is 2015 and race and religion divide Malaysians even more today than during his time."
Mr Nazir said last week: "In this context I have had conversations with like-minded friends, including Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, about the need to better enable moderate Malaysians to voice their views, concerns and suggestions."
The NGO "remains just an idea at this moment", he added.
Sources said the idea for the NGO was mainly driven by Mr Nazir and Datuk Saifuddin.
The latter leads the Prime Minister's much-vaunted Global Movement of Moderates, set up to advance Datuk Seri Najib's call for progressive Islamic values. But since Prime Minister Najib took office in 2009, inter-ethnic relations in the Muslim-majority country have deteriorated.
"We met a couple of times," Mr Saifuddin told The Sunday Times, adding that this began "way before" Mr Nazir became chairman of CIMB last September.
"I believe he has been thinking about it for a while."
According to Mr Saifuddin, their aim was to bring corporate bigwigs on board to help their cause.
If they succeed in drawing away the support of the business community, that could hurt Mr Najib, who relies on the banking and corporate community as defence against growing criticism of his leadership.
Mr Najib is also facing an internal party revolt led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, especially over the debt-laden 1MDB, the Finance Ministry-owned state investment agency whose chief adviser is the Prime Minister.
The coolness between the two British-educated brothers first emerged in February.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's Office, responding to a New York Times probe into Mr Najib's wealth, said that "neither any money spent on travel, nor any jewellery purchases, nor the alleged contents of any safes are unusual for a person of the Prime Minister's position, responsibilities and legacy family assets".
Amid the ensuing public furore over the alleged size of the Razak family inheritance and questions over their father's integrity, Mr Nazir and three other siblings issued a statement saying "we take issue with anyone who taints his memory, whatever the motive".
In recent weeks, Mr Nazir, who grew CIMB from a boutique investment bank of 300 employees into South-east Asia's fifth-largest lender with a 40,000-strong payroll, has been increasingly critical of 1MDB. But the father of two has so far not attacked his brother personally.
"Nazir is a professional and a straight talker. He is quite bold but... when he speaks about 1MDB it's not a personal thing, it's because we need answers to solve the problem," said Mr Saifuddin. Mr Nazir regards his father-in- law Abdul Aziz Taha as a major influence. The latter famously resigned as central bank governor on principle in 1985 after clashing with the government over deals he deemed imprudent.
This perhaps foreshadows Mr Nazir's ongoing calls for 1MDB to be more transparent.
This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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