Democracy Slips Another Notch in Malaysia

Deeply corrupt state official freed without trial

A June 9 decision by Malaysia’s Attorney General Idrus Harun to decline to bring corruption charges against the former chief minister of the East Malaysian state of Sabah is a depressing demonstration that the country’s legal system is far from having been cleaned up after the 2018 election drove out the indelibly corrupt Barisan Nasional coalition.

It is an equally depressing demonstration of the lengths to which the shaky government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is willing to go to stave off the loss of power, and a stain on Idrus Harun’s reputation after a deeply respected career as an appellate judge followed by a two-year stint on the Federal Court, Malaysia’s supreme judicial body. Idrus took over as attorney general in March after Tommy Thomas, an equally respected lawyer, resigned rather than serve in Muhyiddin’s government.  

Musa Aman, the 69-year-old former chief minister who ruled Sabah for 15 years before he fled the country ahead of corruption charges in 2018, was ordered freed by Idrus in the face of 46 charges for receiving massive kickbacks on illegal sales of timber and money laundering. Critics expect Musa to be followed into freedom by a list of other allegedly corrupt figures brought to book by the Pakatan Harapan coalition which lost power in February after mismanagement of both the economy and the political situation.

Despite the court’s decision to free Musa, he is said to be the target of a Swiss government investigation into the diversion of tens of millions of US dollars into Swiss accounts according to the investigative blog Sarawak Report. Allegedly the equivalent of as much as US$90 million found its way into his UBS account after being routed through UBS in Hong Kong. During the years of his reign in Sabah, timber companies denuded the state illegally of precious virgin rainforest in an orgy of destruction.  

The decision to free the former chief minister, according to several sources in Kuala Lumpur, stems from the fact that he continues to hold the key to power in Sabah despite the charges against him. Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition remains in power by no more than three seats in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament – with some believing he remains in power by no more than a single seat – and has fought ouster by simply not convening a session to forestall a vote of no confidence.  

With its power in danger, Muhyiddin’s government has fought back tenaciously, allegedly using abusive laws to investigate and prosecute speech critical of the government, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, charging that authorities have sharply heightened investigations of journalists, activists, and opposition figures, hauling then into police stations to be questioned about their writing and social media posts.

“Under international human rights standards, governments may only impose restrictions on freedom of expression if they are provided by law and are necessary for the respect of the rights or reputations of others, or for the protection of national security, public order, public health, or morals,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Restrictions must be narrowly drawn to limit speech as little as possible, and sufficiently precise that an individual can understand what is made unlawful. None of the laws at issue meet these standards.”

A key element to the Pakatan Harapan coalition threatening Muhyiddin’s coalition is the state coalition headed by the Sabah Heritage Party, or Warisan, that remains in power by a razor-thin margin. Musa, despite the corruption charges –which impelled him to flee for the UK in the face of a Malaysian Anti-Corruption commission investigation in 2018, is said to be the key to removing the Warisan government from power.

Musa is the second major figure to be freed by Muhyiddin’s government since it claimed power in February through what were called “backdoor” means after the 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad abruptly resigned from power.  The other is former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stepson Riza Aziz,  freed by Idrus on May 14 despite being accused of helping to steal millions of dollars from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd investment fund and using the funds to create, along with the fugitive financier Low Taek Jho, Red Granite Productions,  which produced “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a gratuitously profane movie based on the true story of convicted US fraudster Jordan Belfort, in an example of life imitating art. Jho Low, as he calls himself, is a fugitive from justice.

Idrus’s office applied to a court for “a discharge not amounting to an acquittal” on several charges related to 1MDB, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) announced on May 14.

"We are of the view that the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) case linked to Riza Aziz, who was let off with a discharge not amounting to an acquittal, is a sign that several other big cases involving political leaders would also reach the same settlement," said a May 17 statement by the opposition.

Hopes for reform in a country ruled by the Barisan Nasional for the prior 60 years fizzled when the Pakatan Harapan coalition which swept the ruling coalition from power in May 2018 elections, fell into a morass of mismanagement and intra-party squabbling that led to deep-rooted voter malaise.

Mahathir Mohamad, whose tiny Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia led the coalition, promised to resign after two years as prime minister but immediately started rebuilding what looked like UMNO, a Malay-supremacy party dedicated to grandiose infrastructure projects, by luring former UMNO members into his party, to the distress of his coalition partners.

In February, Mahathir abruptly resigned as prime minister after stepping away from a plan he allegedly had backed to take over the government with an all-Malay coalition. The ensuing three months have been a period of nonstop political upheaval after Muhyiddin took over as leader of Parti Pribumi in Mahathir’s temporary absence and refused to give it back. Mahathir is squabbling for leadership of the Pakatan Harapan coalition with Anwar Ibrahim and former Prime Minister Najib Razak working with UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – both of them on trial for spectacular corruption – aligning with the rural fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia to take back the government in the next election.

There is growing worry that the decision to free Riza Aziz and Musa Aman may be followed by a long list of former officials who were indicted following the May 2018 victory by Pakatan Harapan – a list headed by Najib Razak, who faces dozens of charges in the looting of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd Investment fund, and Zahid, who faces dozens of charges for, among other things, looting a charity that appeared to have been set up for Zahid to loot it.

Musa Aman is a case unto himself. The Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission was on the edge of indicting him in 2012 for aiding a Malaysian Chinese timber trader named Michael Chia via illegal timber licenses but he was cleared on charges of taking RM40 million (US$9.3 million) by the UMNO-led Prime Minister's Department. In the 2018 election, he was criticized for handing out 155 motorcycles to allies in Sandakan in the attempt to preserve his party’s position.  

After charges he threatened a political opponent, police began to search him in both of his residences in Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan only to discover he had fled to Brunei, catching a flight to London.  He was later spotted by an alert Malaysian living in the UK. The Malaysian Immigration Department said they had no record of Musa leaving the country and said he had been blacklisted by the department for having violated immigration laws.

Musa later issued a statement confirming he was in the UK for medical and other personal reasons. He later returned to Subang Jaya Medical Center in KL, where he remained, alleging he was unable to speak to police because of his medical problems. He was finally arrested on 35 charges for allegedly receiving the equivalent of US$63 million for illegal timber concessions and another 16 money laundering charges amounting to over US$30 million related to timber concessions in Sabah. He remained free on bail and is now no longer under charges.