With Najib Razak behind bars, could Malaysia’s corruption fight be winnable at last?

Sep 7, 2022
Najib Razak
Image: WikiMedia Commons

For the first time ever, an ex-Malaysian PM is serving time in prison for a criminal offence – and Najib Razak still faces multiple other allegations. Some see the verdict as just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and a victory in the fight to clean up the country’s politics, but Mahathir’s not so sure.

Catharsis probably best sums up what many Malaysians felt on Tuesday, when disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak began serving a 12-year prison sentence after failing in his final appeal to overturn a corruption conviction linked to a former unit of scandal-tainted fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The decision was a long time coming for Najib, who now holds the dubious distinction of being the country’s first former prime minister to be jailed for a criminal offence.

His case, involving the movement of 42 million ringgit (US$9.4 million) from former 1MDB subsidiary SRC International to his personal accounts, had kept many Malaysians on tenterhooks over four years of dramatic legal wrangling that were punctuated by numerous delays caused by everything from Covid-19 to injuries his lead counsel claimed to have suffered while playing with his dog.

The public reaction to the verdict came in hard and fast on social media, and continued in the following days as Malaysians, angered by allegations of corruption funding the opulent and big-spending lifestyle enjoyed by Najib and his family for years, felt vindicated by the apex court’s ruling.

“National rogue,” said @Hasif225, retweeting a picture of Najib, who appeared to be in handcuffs, being escorted by prison wardens to a Kuala Lumpur court on Thursday for a separate trial dealing directly with 1MDB.

Critics and the opposition were quick to declare the verdict a victory for the country and Malaysians in the fight against corruption and abuse of power, which have long been blamed on Najib’s former ruling Umno party and the Barisan Nasional coalition that it leads.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who himself had spent two separate stints in jail for corruption and sodomy – charges that he and his supporters maintain were politically motivated – said the decision by voters to remove Najib and Umno from power in the 2018 national election was a turning point in the fight against corruption.

“They stood up to a regime of kleptocrats who had grown so accustomed to winning they failed to sense the rising tide of anger and resentment against them,” Anwar said in his keynote address at a forum on Thursday.

The 14th general election was a watershed moment for Malaysia, which saw its first ever change of government since gaining independence from British rule in 1957, on the back of public anger over 1MDB and allegations of rampant corruption amid rising living costs.

Najib’s mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, had in the run-up to those polls gone to town with the allegations of billions of dollars pilfered from 1MDB, abandoning the party that he once led for 22 years to campaign for Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition and eventually becoming prime minister a second time.

SRC case just the beginning

In the years since 2018’s change of government, Malaysia has seen arguably the largest number of investigations and corruption charges levied against high-profile politicians in the nation’s history.

Besides his conviction, Najib also faces four more trials directly related to 1MDB. He has denied all wrongdoing.

His wife, Rosmah Mansor, is dealing with her own corruption trial linked to a 1.25 billion ringgit (US$279.2 million) solar power project for rural schools in the state of Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo. The High Court is expected to deliver its judgment on the case on September.

The Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Center) said that the apex court’s decision to uphold Najib’s conviction was a testament of the “strength and independence” of Malaysia’s judiciary, and proves that there is hope for justice despite the sometimes bleak outlook for whistle-blowers and advocates fighting over the years to rid Malaysia of the scourge of corruption.

Malaysia is ranked 62nd out of 180 countries in the latest edition of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

Apart from Najib, at least six other Umno figures – including current president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – currently face criminal cases linked to charges linked to corruption, money laundering, abuse of power or criminal breach of trust.

In the opposition camp, Lim Guan Eng, the chief of the Democratic Action Party and Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, the charismatic leader of Muda, a youth-centric party, are currently on trial in separate corruption cases. On both sides of the political divide, those implicated in corruption cases say they are victims of political witch hunts.

The C4 Centre cautioned that the SRC International case may be just the tip of the iceberg given the numerous corruption allegations linked to Najib, especially during his nine years as prime minister.

“As we continue in our fight against corruption and abuse of power, we should take heed that victory can only come with the collective effort of the rakyat,” the centre said in a statement on Tuesday, using the Malay term for citizens.

‘Justice delayed is justice denied’

Mahathir, who had mentored both Anwar and Najib before making enemies of them, was less sanguine about how far the other corruption trials would progress.

Mahathir was prime minister when Anwar was sent for his first stint in jail for corruption and sodomy – charges that were later overturned – and again prime minister when Najib was charged for corruption.

The 97-year-old, who was accused of defanging the judiciary during his first tenure as prime minister between 1981 and 2003, cautioned that the alleged delaying tactics employed by Najib during his SRC International case had invariably led to delays in other cases involving his party colleagues.

Mahathir predicted Najib would deploy “all sorts of excuses” to delay court proceedings in his four remaining trials, further hindering the pursuit of justice.

“Now there are many reports lodged on serious cases of corruption that have yet to be brought to trial. There is a large probability that criminals will avoid being punished for their crimes,” Mahathir said in a blog post published on Wednesday.

“It is true as the English saying goes, that justice delayed is justice denied.”

Joseph Sipalan has done extensive reporting of Malaysia, specialising in politics and more recently macro-economics. An alumnus of Reuters and several major Malaysian news organisations.

First published in South China Morning Post 28 August, 2022

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