Malaysian Deputy PM’s Freeing Means Reformasi’s End
Zahid’s corruption trial ended on 25th anniversary of Anwar’s promises of reform
The decision by Malaysian prosecutors on September 4 to withdraw corruption charges against Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is a signal, if ever one was needed, that the 25-year-old reformasi movement headed by Anwar Ibrahim is dead, and that the 76-year-old prime minister has traded integrity for power.
The prosecutor asked the High Court for a discharge not amounting to an acquittal, which means Zahid could still face trial if the prosecution decides to reinstate the charges. Given the integral role Zahid plays in Anwar’s government, that seems unlikely. The deputy premier faced 47 charges of abuse of power, corruption, and embezzlement including looting his charitable foundation Yayasan Akalbudi, created seemingly for no other reason than to plunder it.
Despite deep and growing public fury, there is now no countervailing political force in the country to stand against Malaysia’s increasing slide toward endemic corruption. The opposition Perikatan Nasional coalition, headed by the 76-year-old Muhyiddin Yassin – who faces charges of money laundering involving RM200 million ($42.8 million) in the theft of funds to combat the Covid-19 threat after being acquitted in August four charges of abusing his power to obtain RM232.5 million in bribes for his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia – is no reform bloc. The Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, a youth-oriented, multiracial party formed with great fanfare in 2020, has never lived up to the rhetoric of its leader Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman. The Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and its once-fiery leader Lim Kit Siang have gone silent.
The widespread featherbedding and rent-seeking that characterized the Barisan Nasional, which ran the country from the 1960s to 2018, has never even started to be rooted out. Malaysia is a country that is stumbling from scandal to scandal –the latest a multi-billion dollar defense affair that began a decade ago but has continued into Anwar’s administration – a distressing counterpoint to Anwar’s reformist rhetoric.
In addition, a 2021 World Bank report noted that while the country could join the ranks of high-income countries as early as 2024, “the development model that worked in the past is no longer enough to help Malaysia navigate the next stage of its development.” It is growing more slowly than many of its counterparts that achieved high-income status, it has a lower share of employment at high skill levels, and higher levels of inequality. It collects less in taxes, spends less on social protection, and performs relatively poorly in terms of measures related to environmental management and the control of corruption.
“Most significantly, there is a growing sense that despite economic growth, the aspirations of Malaysia’s middle-class are not being met and that the economy hasn’t produced enough well-paying, high-quality jobs.”
Riddled with political scheming, hampered by rising fundamentalist fervor, beset by racial distrust and ethnic suspicions, with an education system in the thrall of Islamization, and a once-first-class civil service that has been deteriorating in the face of all of these issues, Malaysia has become difficult to govern, made worse by a leader who has abandoned the principles he publicly embraced that got him there. But, according to a well-connected political analyst, Anwar looks solid to fill out the rest of the four-year parliamentary term.
Since Anwar was jailed in 1999 on what has long been criticized by human rights groups as trumped-up charges of sodomy and corruption and jailed again on similar dubious charges in 2015, he has been regarded in foreign capitals as a lesser version of South Africa's Nelson Mandela or Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. That reputation is dissolving over his Pakatan Harapan government’s need for Zahid’s clout as United Malays National Organization president to stay in power.
When the reformasi movement, headed supposedly temporarily by the octogenarian Prime Minister Mohamad Mohammed, came to power after an earthquake election in 2018 that ended 65 years of domination by the Barisan Nasional, the reformers charged former Prime Minister Najib Razak and a coterie of UMNO officials with looting the country’s treasury in a long string of broadly varied criminal activities. Najib, imprisoned in July 2022, appears likely to be the only one to go to jail although his grasping wife Rosmah Mansor could end up with him in the clink, if only because she is so universally disliked.
Najib, according to a wide range of increasingly cynical sources in Kuala Lumpur, could be freed as well by the king’s pardon without ever serving out the 12-year prison term that has him incarcerated now, despite the fact that in addition to looting the government-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd investment fund, he has been credibly charged by two of his former bodyguards of having ordered the 2006 murder of a Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu. Najib’s reigns both as defense minister and prime minister enriched him and his family and deepened the corruption of his ruling coalition. But beyond the vengeance wrought on Najib by his archenemy Mahathir, no systemic reform was ever visited on the governmental or societal structure at Anwar’s behest.
The decision by High Court Judge Colin Sequerah to agree to the prosecution’s request to suspend the case stirred outrage in Kuala Lumpur including on the part of Raja Rozela Raja Toran, the lead prosecutor in Zahid’s trial, who resigned from office rather than agree to suspend the case. The court’s approval of the prosecution’s application to drop the case was “an utter waste of public funds,” Ambiga Sreenevasan, the former president of the Bar Association, told local media. “I hope no [unity government] politician dares to justify this or ever again say they are anti-corruption.
“The implications of this decision are severe – discharging a sitting Deputy Prime Minister, who is also the leader of a crucial coalition member of the Anwar administration, at a stage of his prosecution where a credible case has already been made out against him, with seemingly groundless justifications, clearly leads to doubt in the integrity of this nation’s criminal justice system,” said the Malaysia-based Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4 Center).
“Bearing in mind the fact that the decision to apply for the (suspension) stems solely from the Attorney General in particular as well as the Executive by extension, to what extent can political stability and expedience be used to justify decisions which directly contradict this administration’s professed commitment to combating corruption? Is this evidence that there are certain individuals who are wholly immune from the consequences of their actions, simply by virtue of their perceived ‘importance’?”
Zahid’s trial had been underway for 77 days with 99 prosecution and 15 defense witnesses having testified, as the C4 Center pointed out. The decision to discontinue prosecution was made after a prima facie case was made out and Zahid had been ordered to enter his defense on all 47 charges, “which means that the prosecution had already proved through credible evidence each ingredient of the offenses Zahid was charged with which would warrant a conviction if unrebutted or unexplained. In other words, the prosecution had already proved their case against Zahid at this stage.”
Anwar’s government has struggled almost since it came to power, partly because he didn’t have enough seats to form even a simple majority despite his coalition having won 82 seats, the single largest number in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, and was forced into a “unity coalition” with UMNO that was proposed by Malaysia’s king. But the government also suffers because it handed over so much of its clout through cabinet appointments to the UMNO crowd, starting with Zahid, who is also UMNO president and clearly the linchpin that has kept the government in power despite his criminal indictment.
From the start, UMNO focused on regaining power, while Anwar, as Asia Sentinel wrote in April, was unflatteringly described as Ibarat kera mendapat bunga – Malay for a monkey with a flower, pulling off a petal at a time – flitting from issue to issue instead of concentrating on the big picture. Now he is regarded as a leader who betrayed his reformist principles to stay at the top of the tree.