Many in Malaysia heaved a sigh of relief when former Prime Minister Najib Razak was thrown into the slammer after the Federal Court upheld his corruption conviction.
Those who believe a moral compass is vital in our daily lives felt that justice had finally been served.
However, that was not the end of the long-drawn story, much to the chagrin of those who’ve been following this protracted saga, having witnessed the sickness, ailments and the dog bite that delayed court proceedings.
Some now wonder if Najib will get the same treatment as other inmates, given his previous political status and the discriminatory practices and feudalism that still thrive in modern Malaysia.
They ask a string of questions. Why is Najib not handcuffed when he is ushered into court? Why is he not wearing prison garb? Why is he not shaven bald?
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To this, we are told these matters are up to the discretion of prison authorities.
Prison should be a great leveller in life. It shouldn’t matter if a convicted felon is used to the cushy life and his favourite coffee.
Spouses and the children of most prisoners would understandably express sadness and pine for their loved ones. But that should not change the fact that the prisoners have to do their time to pay for their crimes and wrongs and hopefully become remorseful and turn over a new leaf.
We appreciate that Najib, as a former Prime Minister, may need extra security measures. Apart from political reasons, he might also be the target of anger or even envy among some fellow prisoners, who may only dream of carrying out a heist of kleptocratic proportions!
There was even a video clip that went viral, showing Najib purportedly inspecting what looked like a house. Sceptics claimed he had been allocated a special abode within the prison compound – which the prison authorities denied.
The next thing we know, Najib was rushed to hospital because – we’re told – he had serious health complications. His hotshot lawyer Shafee Abdullah insisted the prisoner needed a blood transfusion to avert a stroke – an argument that baffled a few social media users.
Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin gave an assurance that Najib would be accorded his fundamental right to access healthcare, like any other prisoner.
In other words, there shouldn’t be people who are more equal than others in the “scheme of things”.
The Najib prison story and the Khairy clarification need to be highlighted in a society where ordinary people have seen double standards – the difference between the ‘kayangan (elite) cluster’ and the marhaen (ordinary folk) in the application of laws and procedures.
Such unjust double standards were glaring during the Covid lockdown, when certain ministers and celebrities violated the rules – often without stiff penalties meted out to them.
Many now wonder if other prisoners enjoy the same prompt access to the best healthcare as Najib does. Others want a constitutional amendment to prevent MPs who are convicted from remaining as MPs pending the outcome of their application for a pardon.
Rumours are also swirling over WhatsApp that Najib may even be sent to Cheras for some kind of ‘rehab’ in more favourable surroundings. Those at the top must respond to this and clarify if this is true and if so, on what medical grounds this is necessary.
It was only recently that many felt reassured when the five-member bench of the Federal Court, led by Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, did what was morally right and just. They were not swayed by malicious comments over social media and various forms of intimidation from those unhappy with Najib’s conviction.
Any attempt to seek executive intervention so that the court’s judgment would be swayed in favour of the appellant would put the criminal justice system on a slippery slope. So too any attempt to grant unusually favourable treatment to a prisoner. Bending the rules would only make an ass out of the law.
If executive or other interference happens, it would remind us of the bitter constitutional crisis of 1988. The recent ‘reference proceedings’ by the judiciary to honour the late Salleh Abas, who was sacked as Lord President of the Supreme Court in 1988, serves as a grim reminder of the dark recesses of our collective history.
The rule of law must be applied equally to all – irrespective of their station in life. This would go a long way towards upholding judicial independence and democracy.
Justice must prevail, and the judiciary, especially one that is fiercely independent, must serve as the last bastion of hope for the people, particularly the poor and the dispossessed.Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
19 September 2022