Will Najib's trial create a precedent for fighting corruption and holding the powerful accountable?

Outside the Kuala Lumpur courthouse on Thursday, only about a hundred or so supporters of the former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak gathered in solidarity for the man currently embroiled in an international financial scandal amounting to billions of dollars, large sums of which are believed to have been deposited into Najib’s personal bank accounts.

The immediate future looks bleak for Najib. Malaysian prosecutors slapped the former premier of nine years with 25 charges to date for graft and abuse of power concerning state-owned investment fund, 1Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB)

Prime Minister Mahathir told reporters ‘many more’ charges were linked to Najib’s case. 

The atmosphere outside the courthouse was edgy, yet starkly different from the sodomy trials of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 and 2015. Anwar's cases, which many believe to be politically motivated, brought out waves of supporters, with his incarceration sparking a nation-wide reformation movement lasting two decades. 

For Najib, whose popularity has steadily plummeted over the years, no such movement is expected to appear.

The 1MDB financial scandal and a highly unpopular consumption tax cost Najib considerable loss in public support, but his power and influence took a real battering after Najib-led National Front Coalition (Barisan Nasional) suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of his former mentor, 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamed.

The significance of the electoral loss is compounded by the fact that  Najib’s own party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), lost control of the government for the first time in the nation’s 61-year history.

The Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court summoned 64-year-old Najib on four counts of abuse of power, involving 2.3 billion ringgit ($556.23 million) in relation to the 1MDB scandal.

He was also charged with 21 counts of money laundering, in addition to another seven brought against him last July for criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power.

This included $681 million deposited into Najib’s personal bank account, which the US Department of Justice claims to have originated from 1MDB.

Najib, who held positions of prime minster, finance minister and 1MDB chairman, pleaded not guilty to all the charges and has maintained that the funds in his bank account were donations from Saudi Arabia.

Indicted Former Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak after being charged with corruption, bribery and abuse of power at the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court on Thursday.
Indicted Former Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak after being charged with corruption, bribery and abuse of power at the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court on Thursday. (Joshua Paul / Getty Images)

“The charges made today will give me a chance to clear my name, that I am not a thief,” he told reporters outside the Kuala Lumpur Court.

When Najib was taken into custody by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on Wednesday, September 19, it marked the first time in Malaysian history that a former premier was formally arrested.

Najib claims these charges are politically motivated, brought against him by current Prime Minister Mahathir, who has reopened the 1MDB case as part of an electoral promise earlier this year.

Political analyst Ibrahim Suffian of Malaysia’ Merdeka Centre said: “What is important to note is that the legal action against Najib was part of the campaign promise of the (newly elected) Alliance of Hope coalition in the lead up to the election, one that has a backing of a major part of the public, and thus had to be seen trying to fulfil.”
But the bad news is not over just yet for Najib, with rumours the Malaysian attorney-general is preparing charges against his wife, Rosmah Mansor.

The latest charges are directly following Mahathir’s visit to China last month to renegotiate several deals made by the Najib, which Mahathir claimed were lopsided and “stupid” for Najib to have signed in the first place.

Najib’s office made deals with China as part of Beijing’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ trade initiative that saw Malaysia reach deals in 2016 for the 688km East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project and two gas pipelines worth US$2.18 billion.

However, Mahathir’s government has now suspended work on the projects and is renegotiating deals with China in order to keep Malaysian debts low, which Putrajaya claims has been agreed to by Beijing.

Coming to Najib’s defence, his party (UMNO) accusedthe current government of painting their former president in a bad light over accusations of selling the country’s sovereignty and blatant corruption charges.

They also claim Mahathir is using authorities to prosecute Najib, in order to maintain a grip on power after the Mahathir-led Alliance of Hope won the national election on May 9 2018. 

UMNO Supreme Council member Lokman Noor Adam claims, “There have been instructions from Mahathir to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). The MACC is being used by Mahathir,” which calls the impartiality of the proceedings into question.

However, analysts say Najib’s prosecution sets a precedent for the government that no one is above the law, even a former prime minister.

“This becomes part of the new narrative in Malaysia, where high office is no longer a refuge from prosecution of wrongdoing,” Ibrahim Suffian notes.

Najib’s troubles aside, UMNO itself is facing a series of setbacks in what has been a torrid week, with several stalwarts quitting the party just as the general assembly is slated for next week.

Senior UMNO leader and former International Trade and Industries Minister Mustapa Mohamad, who has been with the party for 40-years, quit in a sudden move this week, citing frustrations with his party increasingly taking right-wing stance and propagating a divisive rhetoric in the multiracial and multireligious country.

Mustapa was widely seen as a clean political figure, and his tenure in the trade office garnered deep respect from both sides of the political divide.

Another UMNO strongman, former Foreign Affairs ministerAnifah Aman threw in the towel saying the party did not fulfil promises to people of his home state Sabah in East Malaysia.

While defending Najib may be important to UMNO, analysts say the party should cut its losses and focus on rebuilding itself as an opposition party after the National Front coalition was dismembered, and left with only three parties from an initial thirteen.  

“UMNO needs to distance themselves from Najib and his allegations. This time, it is difficult for UMNO to defend him,” Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) political lecturer Azizuddin Mohd Sani said.

Najib, who is the son of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, will now have to fight to maintain his family’s legacy in Malaysia's political domain. Current Prime Minister Mahathir had a close relationship with Abdul Razak, whom he held in high esteem and regards as a mentor. Mahathir even claims he repaid the favour when he entered into a pre-poll alliance with Razak’s son Najib and engineered him into office, replacing political opponent Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2009.

During his election campaign before the May 9 polls, Mahathir has repeatedly apologised to Malaysians for placing Najib in power and vowed to go after him if he emerged victorious.

With Mahathir coming back for a second surprising stint in the premiership, Najib will have to prepare for a tough road ahead. US president Donald Trump’s “favourite prime minister” may create history once again, and possibly end up behind bars.