Najib Razak’s Political Career: The End of the Beginning or the End of the End?
After a span of four years, Najib Razak has exhausted his legal options and is now in jail for, among other things, criminal breach of trust. He still has some legal recourse, but at the moment things are looking good for Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob.
On 23 August 2022, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s former prime minister, lost his last legal recourse against a 12-year sentence and RM 210 million fine. The sentence was initially imposed on Najib in 2020, when Malaysia’s High Court ruled that the former prime minister was guilty of money laundering, criminal breach of trust, and corruption associated with the management of SRC, an affiliate of the ill-fated 1MDB strategic investment fund. While Najib is not totally out of legal ammunition, short-term gains appear to accrue more to Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
Following this initial sentence, the appeal process wound its way through the Court of Appeal and then Malaysia’s apex legal institution, the Federal Court. Following a series of ill-fated delaying tactics implemented by his defence, the court process concluded abruptly on Tuesday afternoon. The five-member panel of Federal Court judges ruled unanimously to uphold the initial sentence meted out by the High Court.
The outcome surprised many, who had anticipated a drawn-out and dramatic denouement. Instead, a deflated and defeated Najib, the MP for Pekan, was promptly escorted to Kajang Prison, becoming Malaysia’s first prime minister to be put behind bars. The decision could effectively end his political career, as he is not able to contest in the upcoming general election and will be barred from running for elected office for five years after his sentence is purged.
The misery does not end there. This process is just the first of five facing Najib, all of which are linked with the infamous 1MDB investment fund. Established in 2009, the special purpose vehicle was touted by the Najib administration as a means to attract investment in strategic sectors. The fund issued commercial bonds and dabbled in power generation, oil fields, and real estate projects. Najib was directly involved in the organisation’s management in several capacities. Beyond his concurrent positions as prime minister and finance minister, Najib was also Chairman of 1MDB’s Board of Advisers. The organisation’s articles of association required his personal approval for major decisions.
Allegations of financial impropriety began to surface soon after 1MDB’s establishment. Following questionable bond issuances, 1MDB’s debt ledger spiralled to more than RM42 billion (US$9.4 billion). Concerned about money laundering, in 2016, the US Department of Justice launched a civil suit against 1MDB, its affiliates, and the investment bank Goldman Sachs. The Department estimated that over US$4.5 billion was misappropriated via 1MDB, with US$730 million directly transiting through Najib’s accounts. In total, an estimated US$7 billion is unaccounted for.
Beyond the damage to Malaysia’s international reputation, subsequent moves by the Najib administration undercut the integrity of the country’s legal institutions. The Attorney-General and head of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission were replaced, and officers investigating the 1MDB case were transferred. Audit reports were shielded from parliamentary scrutiny under the Official Secrets Act. No less than the country’s Deputy Prime Minister and four ministers were removed from Cabinet for demanding that the 1MDB scandal be addressed.
1MDB then became a key driver behind Barisan Nasional’s unprecedented 2018 electoral loss. The opposition effectively capitalised on the scandal. Pakatan Harapan (PH) was also bolstered by former senior UMNO leaders such as Mahathir Mohamad joining its ranks in an attempt to unseat Najib. Two months after Barisan Nasional’s unprecedented defeat, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) charged the recently-ousted prime minister with 42 counts of corruption, money laundering, and criminal breach of trust.
This outcome has certainly reinvigorated the country’s judiciary and legal institutions more widely, which were battered over the course of BN’s six decades in power.
In 2020, Malaysia’s High Court convicted him on the first seven charges pertaining to SRC. Despite the gravity of the offences, Najib was allowed to remain at large during the appeal process. He subsequently employed a battery of barristers to contest the SRC conviction and his political fortunes enjoyed a revival of sorts, carried by a slick social media campaign.
The process from the initial charges pertaining to SRC being laid against Najib to his ultimate conviction spanned four years. In addition to passing through the three tiers of the court system, hearings were delayed for reasons including an unusual propensity for Najib’s legal team to contract Covid-19, misplace documents and, in one case, be injured by a dog. Judges at various levels were also accused of being biased against Najib.
Nonetheless, the sheer weight of evidence was hard to dismiss, and the judges across the three tiers showed unusual mettle. This outcome has certainly reinvigorated the country’s judiciary and legal institutions more widely, which were battered over the course of BN’s six decades in power.
What now for Najib? Does he have any legal recourse left, or is this the end of his options to get out of prison? First, he can apply for the Federal Court decision to be reviewed, arguing that the process behind the sentencing was unfair. The last-minute attempts by Najib’s lawyers to discharge themselves and leave him unrepresented were most likely made with this in mind. Another option is to apply for a royal pardon from the King. Should he do this within 14 days of the High Court’s ruling, he can retain his status as an MP while the application is pending. Aware of this possibility, civil society groups sought to pre-empt this by petitioning the King to deny him a royal pardon. However, in contrast to the court procedures carried out to date, these procedures will need to be carried out by Najib from prison.
That said, Najib’s allies in UMNO are unlikely to accept the High Court decision without a struggle. Other senior leaders, such as UMNO Party President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi are facing their own court cases, and — given the judiciary’s recent independence — will not be feeling reassured.
The guilty verdict is a vindication of sorts for the short-lived Pakatan Harapan federal administration, which initiated the charges against Najib. However, the coalition would do well not to rely overmuch on 1MDB-related material in the run-up to GE-15. Corruption-related themes play well in urban areas, but, as always, the challenge for PH is to appeal to the constituency-rich Malay heartland.
Furthermore, while UMNO’s prestige has taken a hit, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri is looking quite good. He is not linked to any of the ongoing scandals and may well choose to ignore calls for national polls. Ismail Sabri can then spend the months ahead crafting his own legacy as those of his rivals crumble.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.