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End of the Line for Malaysia’s Najib?
Top court showing little sympathy for former premier
By: Asia Sentinel correspondents
It is starting to look like time and legal maneuvering are about to run out for Malaysian former Prime Minister and convicted felon Najib Razak, and before long he will be wearing the orange jumpsuit he feared back in 2018 when he was arrested after his government lost power amid a welter of corruption claims.
This latest hearing, a proceeding of the nation’s highest tribunal, is very different from earlier ones, with Najib’s usual claque of ‘bossku’ supporters ostentatiously absent from the court complex. It is thus a dramatic comedown from a time when Najib golfed with former president Barack Obama, spoke at the United Nations and when he and his wife Rosmah Mansor – who also faces charges – owned expensive properties all over the United States. Instead, he has joined the pantheon of Asia’s biggest crooks, a sad denouement for the son of one of the country’s most illustrious political families. His father, Tun Abdul Razak, was Malaysia’s second prime minister after independence.
When Najib was arrested in 2018 on corruption charges, the loot found in his homes included US$273 million worth of jewelry, handbags, and other valuables, the biggest haul in Malaysian history by far and a pretty penny for a man whose salary as prime minister and member of parliament was roughly US$120,000 a year. Police filled five trucks with cash in 26 currencies totaling US$28.6 million plus 457 handbags, including Hermes bags worth US$12 million, 423 watches valued at US$19 million, and 234 pairs of sunglasses worth US$93,000. Included were 1,400 necklaces, 2,200 rings, 2,100 bangles, 2,800 pairs of earrings, 1,600 brooches and 14 tiaras.
A conviction, along with the probable imprisonment of his wingman, the United Malays National Organization President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces scores of corruption charges as well, would go a long way to restoring political stability in the country and would leave the current prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob a clear field to claim undisputed leadership of UMNO, the most powerful political party. Currently, power is still very much in the hands of the ‘court cluster’ led by Najib and Zahid.
Sabri has been delaying elections over the objections of both Najib and Hamidi, who saw the polls as a last-ditch chance for political vindication. Sabri is now likely to call national elections sometime this autumn if Najib is jailed, political analysts say.
The Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest tribunal, denied Najib leave to introduce new evidence on the second day of his appeal against a 12-year sentence for corruption and money laundering in a case involving SRC International, an offshoot of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, the biggest in the country’s history. The former premier’s last gambit, an attempt to discredit and paint High Court Judge Nazlan Ghazali as having a conflict of interest in the original trial, has come to nothing. Najib won’t be granted any retrial by the Federal Court on the basis of conflict of interest.
Although Najib is likely to be imprisoned barring a last-minute royal pardon or some wholly unknown black swan event, SRC is only tangential to the central case, which accuses Najib of stealing at least US$681 million from the failed government investment fund 1MDB, which collapsed in 2016 with at least US$4.6 billion in losses from corruption and mismanagement. He faces a total of 42 criminal charges involving RM9 billion (US2.015 billion).
In another deep blow, the court has also denied Najib’s bid to postpone the appeal on the grounds that all parties had ample time to prepare although his guilt had been affirmed in the appellate court more than eight months ago. With Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Mat insisting the appeal must continue, Najib is starting to face the grim reality that he may face jail time in the next few weeks. The appeal arguments are expected to take 10 days or so, with the tribunal hearing the charges taking perhaps until late September or early October to hand down the decision that is likely to see Najib behind bars.
The appeal proper will commence on August 18. “It looks like the court is acting fed up with his delaying tactics, which might be a good omen,” said a longtime observer of Malaysian politics. “But...this is still Malaysia. It’s dangerous to get your hopes up.”
Najib’s hope that changing lawyers would lend the court an excuse to grant a three-to-four-month delay of the appeal hasn’t seemed to pay off. Many are surprised and disappointed that the new one, Zaid Ibrahim, formerly one of the country’s most prominent opposition figures, has taken up Najib’s case. Zaid himself was charged in 2015 for allegedly using offensive remarks urging Najib to step down. Zaid was not personally in court defending Najib. That was left to Hisyam Teh Poh Teik.
In an unusual state of affairs for a convicted felon facing more than a decade in prison and a plethora of other charges, Najib has been free on appeal ever since his original conviction in trial court more than two years ago, in July of 2020. In a series of moves that have damaged the country’s reputation for honesty he has used the time to serve as the driving force in a string of by-elections instrumental in taking back power from the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition.
A long range of opposition figures and other critics, however, say the former premier’s maneuverings have caused instability in the federal government led by Sabri, which is effectively only still in power because of unofficial support from the Pakatan Harapan opposition. Many claim it was Najib who caused an early Johor state election in 2021 to improve his aura of invincibility within UMNO.
The talk around town is that many Malays within the business and professional establishment are sick of the apparent favoritism dished out to Najib, and that his continued freedom is undermining both the political and legal system. The new revelations about his role as defense minister in the loss of billions of ringgit in the purchase of littoral combat ships, which have never been built, has been the last straw for many.
Many Malaysians were angered by images going viral on social media of police kissing Najib’s hand around the parliamentary surrounds earlier this month. There is a sense of hope around Kuala Lumpur that the court will now act without fear or favor and complete the job of dishing out justice.
Once this long-stalled federal court appeal is defeated, justice will finally be done, hopefully. A long-time knowledgeable source said Najib, however, will have the same sort of quarters provided for former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. That will include comfortable digs in a prison hospital, complete with television, air conditioning and possibly the internet. A longtime gourmet, he may be able to order in via Uber or Grab. Unlike Anwar, the police won’t be hostile to him.