Justice Served in Malaysia
Affirmation of former prime minister’s guilty verdict a cause for jubilation
By: Dennis Ignatius
Rarely has a nation waited with such anxious anticipation for a court verdict as the one handed down on December 8 in Malaysia’s Court of Appeal confirming a lower court decision that former Prime Minister Najib Razak was guilty of abuse of power, money laundering and criminal breach of trust. The court also let stand the 12-year prison sentence and RM210 million fine that the High Court had imposed.
Never before has so much – our international image, the integrity of our judicial system, the rule of law, hope for the future – hinged upon a single judgment. For Malaysians, weary of the many twists and turns as the case wound its way through the courts, there was audible relief. And hope, too, that the nation can now begin the arduous task of repairing the damage that has been done on so many different levels.
The judgment is not just a scathing indictment of Najib but of all the officials who colluded with him and attempted to cover up his misdeeds. If not for a change of government, if not for Mahathir Mohamad’s determination to bring him to justice, if not for the critical role played by the former attorney-general Tommy Thomas, this day might never have come.
That no less than the prime minister – a man that the nation trusted with its highest office – would turn out to be nothing more than a common thief, is a shame, a national disgrace that will take a long time to live down. As Justice Abdul Karim Abdul Jalil remarked, far from acting in the national interest, Najib’s actions were a “national embarrassment.” Hopefully, there will be some deep soul-searching about where we are at as a nation before we move on.
Najib waged a relentless campaign to convince the public that he was but a victim of a politically inspired witch-hunt. Few were persuaded. They had seen all the photographs of his opulence – crates of foreign currency, jewelry, watches, expensive holidays, shopping sprees, etc. There was no way he could explain it all away. His claims about Saudi largesse were simply too dubious to believe. Indeed, Justice Karim, who chaired the three-member Court of Appeal panel, dismissed it as a tale straight from a collection of middle eastern folk tales The Arabian Nights.
The Court of Appeal decision, though still subject to final appeal to the Federal Court, is a major blow to the former prime minister. It will be almost impossible for him to salvage either his reputation or his political ambitions after this. In time, even his most ardent supporters will drift away.
During the long-drawn-out legal process, many Malaysians came close to losing faith in the nation’s justice system. They watched helplessly as case after case of corruption stalled and charges were withdrawn or amended. Najib himself appeared to have received privileged treatment; his trial was delayed time and again for seemingly trivial reasons. Controversially, he was also allowed his passport to travel to Singapore for the birth of a grandchild. There were doubts that justice would ever be served on such a powerful political figure with an illustrious pedigree. The Appellate Court’s decision will now go a long way to restoring faith in the system.
Following the decision, chat groups lit up with praise for the three justices involved; many called them heroes for having had the courage of their convictions. I’m sure the justices do not see themselves that way. For them, it was about law and duty above all else. Nevertheless, we can all be proud that despite everything that has happened, there are still men and women of integrity to be found.
Edmund Burke famously remarked that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Conversely, all that is necessary to restore righteousness to the land is for good men and women to act with integrity, to honor their oath of office. Good men and women have spoken; justice has triumphed.
It was such a momentous decision that Malaysians are still struggling to wrap their minds around the possibility that Najib will actually go to jail. As Asia Sentinel reported on December 8, rumors abound that perhaps the Federal Court will reach a different conclusion or that a royal pardon awaits him if all else fails. He is free on appeal and still holds his passport and his parliamentary seat. But all that is for tomorrow; for today, let us all rejoice that justice has been served and faith restored. It’s a good day for Malaysia.
Dennis Ignatius is a former top Malaysian diplomat and ambassador. He writes regularly for Asia Sentinel. The author of the best-selling book 'Paradise Lost: Mahathir and the End of Hope,' he is the host of the Kuala Lumpur-based talk show, Critical Conversation.