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Malaysia Flexes New Graft-Busting Muscle with Jailing of Ex-PM 

FILE - Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak leaves in a vehicle from Kuala Lumpur Court Complex after his second trial proceeding related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, in Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 25, 2022.

It was a moment few Malaysians could have imagined a few short years ago in a country, and a region, where the political elite are seen to exist beyond the law.

On August 23, the Southeast Asian country’s Federal Court upheld a 2020 conviction for corruption against Najib Razak, sending a man who stood at the peak of Malaysia’s political power pyramid only four years ago as prime minister to jail with a 12-year sentence.

Najib had been out on bail for the past two years and was still serving as an elected lawmaker while fighting the original verdict, even after losing his first appeal in December.

For anti-corruption campaigners, the top court’s decision to stand behind Najib’s conviction and put a former prime minister behind bars, affirmed the newfound independence of a judicial system long seen to be lacking it.

FILE - Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, waves as he arrives at the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 23, 2022.
FILE - Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, waves as he arrives at the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Aug. 23, 2022.

Until 2018, when Najib lost the prime minister’s seat in a seismic election upset, “the public perception ... was the independence of the judiciary was questionable, always thinking that there is executive involvement,” said Muhammad Mohan, president of Transparency International Malaysia, the local chapter of the global graft-fighting watchdog.

Seeing the Federal Court hold firm and send Najib to jail, he added, “has given confidence to the public that the judiciary is independent and there is no interference from the government.”

Advocates and observers find the courts’ resolve all the more impressive given that Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organization, having been pushed out of office in the same election that ousted Najib, is back in power. The allegations behind the conviction first surfaced under Najib’s watch but went nowhere until just after UMNO’s defeat.

James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania, said Malaysia has finally broken with the “unofficial immunity” leaders enjoy not only there but across the region.

“One of the problems we face in Southeast Asia, or Asia generally, is that we lack a very simple item in good governance, which is that a political leader can be held accountable for what they did when they were in office,” he said. “This was broken in the case of Malaysia.”

Pardon potential

Cynthia Gabriel, executive director of Malaysia’s non-government Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, agreed.

“The important message for the Malaysian public would be that they will now be telling every politician that if you’re corrupt then there [are] institutions that can actually hold you to account,” she said.

The Federal Court ruling affirmed that the former prime minister was guilty on seven counts of money laundering, abuse of power and criminal breach of trust for illegal receipt of $9.4 million from SRC International, a former unit of Malaysian state development fund 1MDB.

But Najib’s legal troubles don’t end there.

U.S. and Malaysian authorities say a total of $4.5 billion was looted from 1MDB over the years and that some $1 billion of that ended up in Najib’s bank accounts. He still faces 35 charges in four other related cases.

Najib has consistently denied any wrongdoing, however, and even his critics suspect his time in jail may be short-lived.

While the former prime minister has exhausted his chances to appeal the 2020 conviction, he can still ask for a royal pardon from King Al-Sultan Abdullah. Najib is believed to be close to several of Malaysia’s powerful sultans and was photographed earlier this year celebrating Eid with the king himself.

Najib also remains popular among UMNO’s base. The day after the Federal Court ruling, hundreds of his supporters rallied outside the royal palace urging the king to pardon him.

“Najib has people in powerful places, he’s been in power for so long and he’s among the elite class of politicians, and so it becomes incredibly real that there could be an option in the future for a pardon,” said Gabriel.

Royal pardons in Malaysia are typically granted only after at least half of a court sentence has been served. Pardoning Najib much sooner than that, especially with four more cases pending, said Mohan, would “make a mockery of the judicial process.”

FILE - In this file photo taken on July 3 2015 the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) logo is seen on a billboard at the funds flagship Tun Razak Exchange under-development site in Kuala Lumpur.
FILE - In this file photo taken on July 3 2015 the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) logo is seen on a billboard at the funds flagship Tun Razak Exchange under-development site in Kuala Lumpur.

Victory by inches

Chin said a pardon seemed likely, but only after the next general elections, which are due by September 2023 but may be called early. He said Najib’s incarceration at least until then could help UMNO, heavily tainted itself by the 1MDB scandal, pick up votes by campaigning on the message it can now be trusted not to meddle in the courts.

The professor also questioned whether Najib’s jailing is quite the watershed moment some are hailing it as. He credits much of the courts’ recent performance to one woman — Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, who was appointed in 2019 in the brief interlude between UMNO governments.

“In most [court] systems in Asia, it depends on who is the chief justice,” said Chin. “As long as she’s there you can expect the judiciary to behave more independently, but there’s no guarantee that the next chief justice will be similar.”

Chin sees little sign that the rest of Southeast Asia is making even that much progress.

Gabriel is at least hopeful that new digital tools are making it tougher for kleptocrats to hide their ill-gotten cash. She cites the Panama and Paradise Papers, two troves of financial records of the world’s rich and powerful leaked to the media in recent years, as promising examples.

Mohan is also encouraged by the jailing of ex-presidents in Brazil and South Korea on corruption-related charges over the past few years. Just last year in South Africa, too, the Constitutional Court sent former President Jacob Zuma to prison in an ongoing corruption trial for contempt of court.

“That is the trend,” said Mohan, who believes the sharp rise in poverty and inequality triggered by the COVID pandemic is also making people around the world less tolerant of leaders who pilfer public purses.

“Globally, I would say that because of this post-COVID situation people are becoming very aggressive, they are asking questions, and I think they demand that these leaders are removed,” he said. “I hope that trend continues.”