The Malaysian government, which has been forced to reveal funding details for a children's foundation led by Prime Minister Najib Razak's wife Rosmah Mansor, has accused two news groups in the US of intervening in the Lead by Example award for the first lady.
Tengku Sarifuddin Tengku Ahmad, Press Secretary to the prime minister, said that the award was delayed to next year due to the "intervention" of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
In a statement, Tengku Sarifuddin said that neither Rosmah, the foundation she headed Permata, nor the Malaysian government, had applied or sought the Lead by Example award which is being held in conjunction with the 71st United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Malay Mail reports.
He said that the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) Director-General Irina Bokova had informed Rosmah that she would be given the award at an event co-hosted by the UN body, in recognition of her work in developing the potential of children through Permata.
Bokova's letter to Rosmah was released to the state national news agency Bernama on Tuesday 20 September after the organiser of the event Antiquities Coalition, decided to defer the award to Rosmah, blaming it on questions raised by the media on funding for Permata.
Tengku Sarifuddin said that Permata, a foundation created under the Prime Minister's Department, was fully funded by the Malaysian government "under an allocation transparently included in our annual government budget and approved by Parliament."
He added: "All expenditures are in accordance with government financial procedures. This is not only a matter of public record, but could have been immediately explained had we or Permata been asked before the award deferment."
The press secretary also lashed out at those who were trying to "politicise" the work of Permata, which he insisted was solely targeted at improving the lives of children. Tengku Sarifuddin however did not stop there. He also took the organisers of the award to task, according to Today online.
"We regret that those who chose to bestow the award have given in to the smears and insinuations of some who are only focused on their campaign against Malaysia, the government, and the Prime Minister. Those behind this politically-motivated campaign care nothing for the damage caused by these false allegations to Permata, its staff and all the young people they have helped and cared for."
Rosmah is the patron of Permata, which was set up in 2007. Its initiatives include Early Childhood Education and Care, Gifted and Talented, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Youth At-Risk and Children's Health and Medical Care, among others.
He said that Malaysia's Permanent Representative to the UN received an email from Professor Tudor Parfitt, Chairman of the Academic Advisory Board of the Organising Committee of the Tribute to Contributors to the Global Campaign against Violent Extremism on 18 September saying that "the award would be deferred to 2017 because of what he called 'interventions' from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times regarding the funding of Permata."
Antiquities Coalition had deferred the award to Permata this year, claiming that it had been questioned over Permata's funding sources by the media and that it had no means of verifying if Permata had legitimate sources of funding.
Following the controversy over the award, Rosmah has decided to decline the award to avoid further distractions from her work with Permata, the press secretary said.
1MDB continues to dog first couple
Todayonline noted that Najib and his wife have come under close scrutiny after the US Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit to recover more than $1bn in assets it claims were embezzled from Malaysia's state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad. Although neither Najib nor Rosmah have been named in the lawsuit, Rosmah's son from a first marriage, Riza Aziz has been named.
In March 2016, the Wall Street Journal published a damning report alleging that both the prime minister and his wife had spent $15m (£10.5m) on luxury items, including clothes, jewellery and a car.
Then in August, news website the Sarawak Report claimed that the first couple had spent thousands on hormone-based anti-aging treatments via an alternative clinic in Kuala Lumpur.