Anil Netto explores the political impact of the historic conviction and sentencing of former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The High Court judge hearing the SRC International case has found Najib guilty of all seven charges of abuse of power, money laundering and criminal breach of trust and sentenced him to 12 years in jail and a fine of RM210m – an outcome many had scarcely thought possible.
This is a historic day – the first time a former prime minister of Malaysia has been convicted – and sentenced to jail (suspended pending appeal). It sends a message to sitting and future prime ministers that they are not above judicial scrutiny.
Many who struggled to expose the truth over the last decade – journalists within Malaysia and abroad, especially at the Edge and Sarawak Report, activists and opposition politicians – have been vindicated.
The verdict shows the importance of freedom of the media, the fourth estate, in holding those in power accountable, something prosecutor V Sithambaram acknowledged. The prosecution team themselves deserve credit for the way they doggedly pursued the case, without getting distracted by the tactics of the flamboyant defence lawyer, Shafee Abdullah.
Ordinary Malaysians who voted for change and reforms in the 2018 general election played a huge role in making this trial possible, although their mandate for Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) was nullified by the backdoor takeover of government in late February – paving the way for Muhyiddin Yassin to become PM.
In one of the stranger twists in this whole saga, Najib’s conviction came five years to the day after he sacked Muhyiddin from his post of deputy Prime Minister.
The verdict goes some way in restoring the image of the judiciary for now and Malaysia’s reputation abroad.
The Oxford-educated judge, Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali, who has extensive commercial legal experience, clinically took apart the Arab donation cover. Najib’s ‘don’t-want-to-know’ (about his bank account) defence also failed to impress the judge. This may have implications for future corruption or money-laundering cases where the accused may be tempted to use the same line of defence.
Najib will now appeal the decision, and hopefully that process will not drag on interminably. He remains an MP until all avenues of appeal are exhausted, but he may not be able to contest any election because of his status as a convicted person.
As an aside, many were horrified that the crowd of about 3,000 Najib supporters outside court failed to observe social distancing, and not everyone wore masks. How was such a gathering allowed under the recovery movement control order?
Now that we know the verdict, all eyes will fall on Najib’s party, Umno, which is back in government, and the future of its party leadership. Where does it leave his “Malu apa Bossku?” (What’s there to be ashamed of, Boss) campaign? Will that persist – or will loyalist support for him dwindle? Whatever the case, the possibility of Najib making an early political comeback has now receded.
Will there now be more pressure for a change of guard at the top of Umno, currently helmed by Zahid Hamidi, himself facing court charges?
Where does the verdict leave the Bersatu-Muafakat Nasional pact within the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN)? Will relations between Umno and Bersatu be further strained? Perhaps Umno will now put more pressure for a snap general election, before anymore setbacks, while it still commands sizeable Malay support – that is, assuming the party is united in how it reacts to Najib’s conviction. Remember, there are different camps within Umno jostling to move up.
In the short run, Muhyiddin’s standing could be boosted for not trying to interfere with the judiciary. Will a snap election be in his interest? He is already prime minister (since March) – but will he have much say if Umno pushes the matter? If a snap election materialises, Muhyiddin’s Bersatu could find it tough going – unless the PM accepts a recent invitation to return to Umno.
Meanwhile, how will the PN vs Pakatan Harapan numbers game in Parliament be affected? Will PH now up the ante after this judicial setback for Najib? The coalition could receive a fillip, and former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad and others may now embark on even more of an offensive.
Many will also be watching Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim’s next move to see how he will respond if a few Umno MPs withdraw their support from Muhyiddin’s PN coalition.
So many questions are now up in the air – and the next few months could prove fascinating as we witness how all this plays out. But for now, Malaysians can heave a sigh of relief that the judiciary came through when it mattered most with a lesson that abuse of power, money laundering and breach of trust does not pay.