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Growing Groundswell to Pardon Malaysia’s Najib
But a close look at his alleged cascade of crimes makes the idea offensive
There is an intense campaign emerging in Malaysia to free former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is currently serving a 12-year sentence for corruption in connection with the theft of US$10 million from a company connected to the ill-starred 1Malaysia Development Bhd, a government-backed investment fund that capsized in 2017 with at least US$5.4 billion lost to massive corruption and mismanagement. It is the biggest financial scandal in Malaysia’s history. Najib is yet to be tried on the central charges of corruption in growing out of 1MDB itself.
The backers of the 70-year-old British-educated economist have organized a “National Townhall for Justice Roadshow” to barnstorm the country arguing for his release via a royal pardon. The first event was held on September 30 “to create better understanding and awareness about the various high-profile cases in the country, beginning with the charges slapped on former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.” Speakers included Najib’s counsel Shafee Abdullah, himself facing charges; senior lawyer Kamarudin Ahmad, MCA Vice-President Datuk Sri Ti Lian Ker, Makkal Sakthi President Datuk Sri Thanenthiran, United Malays National Organization Supreme Council member Isham Jalil; and others.
How serious this is remains to be seen. Theoretically, he can’t be pardoned unless the other court cases in which he is involved are dismissed, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon, given the backlash over the recent discharge of the 43 corruption charges against deputy premier and UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. But as one observer pointed out with grim irony, Malaysia is the land of endless possibilities. Clearly, there is enormous pressure being exerted.
Najib, in jail, remains arguably the most effective politician in the country. He is a member of the Malay aristocracy, the son of the country’s second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak. Without him – or perhaps also because of him – the 77-year-old UMNO, the country’s oldest continuing political organization, collapsed into factionalism and crashed in the 2022 national election. He is believed to control a huge war chest of political funds, even in prison, which he withheld in the most recent national elections last November. As “Bossku,” he has a gaggle of ardent – and well-paid – troll farms and bloggers besieging the internet to try to spring him. Many think he could provide the political and organizational bulwark to keep the country from sliding into the hands of Islamist fundamentalists, a real and growing danger.
Who Najib Is
But it is important to remember who Najib is. It is worth recalling, for instance, what police found at Najib’s digs when they arrested him in 2018 on corruption charges. The loot 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, police said, were 1,400 necklaces, 2,200 rings, 2,100 bangles, 2,800 pairs of earrings, 1,600 brooches, and 14 tiaras. That didn’t count vast sums that had already disappeared into accounts overseas.
That US$273 million in an Aladdin’s cave of trinkets didn’t appear there on the relatively modest salary of a man who had been a public servant since he was named chief minister of Pahang at the age of 29. It is likely that he has never stopped being involved corruption, especially when as Defense Minister from 1990 to 1995, and again from 1999 to 2008, he ostensibly set out to line his own pockets while modernizing the armed forces with an array of weapons many of which turned out to be substandard or useless. The most egregious example was the purchase of submarines from the French defense company Thales, a subsidiary of the munitions giant DCNS, for which Najib, according to a range of documents uncovered by Asia Sentinel in 2012, arranged a US$141 million kickback to be steered to UMNO. How much ended in his own pockets is unclear. The submarines were several years later quietly retired. Peninsular Malaysia’s coastal waters were too shallow for them, rendering them mostly useless.
There is also the fact that he is reliably accused of having ordered at least one murder. Two of his former bodyguards, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, signed sworn statements saying Najib conveyed the order in October 2006 for them to kill a jet-setting party girl and translator, Altantuya Shaariibuu, through his aide-de-camp, Musa Safri, saying she was a spy. Altantuya was the jilted girlfriend of one of Najib’s closest friends and, according to reports, had been his own lover before he passed her on. She knew too much about the purchase of the submarines. It is unlikely Najib will ever be brought to trial, legal scholars say, given that Sirul’s and Azilah’s sworn statements are impeachable since both are convicted murderers. Instead, there are legal moves underway to attempt to punish Tommy Thomas, the attorney general whose office prepared the case against Najib and other UMNO figures.
Another person who knew too much was Kevin Morais, a 45-year-old official with the Attorney-General’s office who is believed to have been a key source for Clare Rewcastle Brown, whose monumental reporting played a pivotal role in bringing the 1MDB scandal to public attention. Morais’s body was found in a concrete-filled drum in a river in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Subang Jaya on September 16, 2015. Although seven individuals were charged with his murder in a revenge scheme, the real reason for his death is believed to be his decision to provide crucial information on the 1MDB case.
Empresario of kickbacks
It was as an empresario of kickbacks that Najib accelerated spending for defense across the board as defense chief. He was called “the driving force” behind Malaysia’s military modernization program by Foreign Policy in Focus. The shopping list, the think tank reported at the time, “include[d] battle tanks from Poland, Russian and British surface-to-air missiles and mobile military bridges, Austrian Steyr assault rifles and Pakistani anti-tank missiles. Kuala Lumpur is also negotiating to buy several F/A 18s, three submarines from France, and an unspecified number of Russian Suhkoi Su-30 fighter aircraft.”
Every one of those contracts was believed to have been driven by graft. And long before the current scandal involving six littoral combat ships (LCS) costing RM9 billion (US$1.95 billion) which earned the government-linked company Boustead Naval Shipyard RM6 billion without delivering a single ship, Malaysia’s Auditor General, in a report tabled in Parliament in 2007, alleged that a contract under Najib to build naval vessels given to PSC-Naval Dockyard, a subsidiary of Penang Shipbuilding & Construction Sdn Bhd, which was owned by an UMNO crony to deliver patrol boats at a cost of RM 24 billion, ended in disaster.
The submarine purchase, acknowledged to have generated the equivalent of US$141 million in “consulting fees” that by any other name were kickbacks to UMNO, also generated US$28 million, records showed, for Abdul Razak Baginda, Najib’s close friend and a party in the contract (as well as Altantuya’s faithless lover). through a shell company in Hong Kong.
“Altantuya’s murder is a sad and shocking testament of the lengths some corrupt individuals would go to in order to protect their interests – there are strong indications that her involvement as a translator and negotiator in the procurement of two Scorpene-class submarines from the French company Naval Group (formerly known as DCNS) was a key factor in her murder,” said the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, a good-government NGO in Kuala Lumpur “It bears reminding that former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was defense minister at the time, handpicked his close associate Razak Baginda and his company Perimekar as the direct negotiators of the submarines from DCNS and its parent company, Thales.”
No dupe of Jho Low
There is the case of 1MDB itself, which has been reported exhaustively. Attempts by Najib’s allies have been made to portray him as a dupe of Jho Low, the Kristal-swilling financier who dreamed up the idea of transforming an obscure Terengganu investment fund into a sovereign wealth fund. But it bears repeating that 1MDB collapsed into corruption, bribery, money-laundering, embezzlement, looting, and diversion of assets that implicated individuals in politics, banking, and entertainment, and led to criminal investigations in at least six countries.1MDB’s own accounts showed it had nearly RM42 billion (US$11.73 billion) in debt by 2015. It has been described as "one of the world's greatest financial scandals" and was declared by the US Justice Department’s kleptocracy unit as the "largest such case it had ever seen.” Documents in possession of the Justice Department demonstrated it was Najib who diverted more than US$681 million into his personal bank accounts. It is believed a good deal more, up to US$1 billion, made it into his pockets. At least US$5.4 billion has disappeared altogether into mismanagement and corruption.
Najib amassed a huge family fortune that, according to the US Justice Department, in cataloging funds bought with 1MDB funds, included assets seized in the US worth approximately US$850 million diverted to offshore shell entities. Funds stolen in 2014, “in addition to money stolen in prior years,” were used, among other things, to purchase a US$35 million jet aircraft; a 300-foot luxury yacht valued at over US$260 million that was nominally owned by fugitive financier Low Taek Jho although many believe it was built on the orders of Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor, who is enmeshed in her own corruption charges; movie rights to two Hollywood movies produced by Najib’s son-in-law Reza Aziz; interests in the music company EMI Music; artwork by Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet; high-end properties in New York and Beverly Hills, tens of millions of dollars of jewelry. A portion of the diverted loan proceeds, US officials said, “were also allegedly used in an elaborate, Ponzi-like scheme to create the false appearance that an earlier 1MDB investment had been profitable.
Najib would, if the system were rational, face additional trials for his part in this scandal. It might be inviting, among allies, to assert that Najib, the product of a fine private English education in economics, was somehow duped by a then 28-year-old Penang wunderkind. We will let him explain the houses in the US, the artwork, the airplane, and the diverted millions.
But there is no wishing away what is arguably an even bigger concern, and that is that he corrupted an entire party’s political system, and his country’s political system into the bargain. For much of the end of his reign as prime minister, the entire leadership of UMNO was paid individual bribes to keep him in power prior to the 2018 election, which the national ruling coalition lost, and which resulted in the so-called “court cluster” of Malay leaders who faced trial for corruption, trials that are now receding into obscurity because of political expediency along with that of Anwar Ibrahim’s own deputy prime minister, Zahid. That is the destruction of the moral fiber of the party and the political system. There is talk that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim wouldn’t stand in the way of a pardon, and that the call for one is expectation of a political reward being demanded in exchange for the party's support for Anwar as prime minister. if that is true, Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition has no more right to a moral standing than UMNO does
If Najib is pardoned, given his vast hidden war chest, his political skills and his clout, he is liable to be prime minister again in a year or so, the head of a country from whose taxpayers he stole billions of dollars, saddled the defense ministry with equipment that didn’t work, was at least accessory to murder, was a serial philanderer, and reduced the leaders of what was once the country’s dominant political party to lining up for illegal cash handouts. Malaysia’s king, Pahang Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, might want to think about that before he grants a royal pardon.