Disgraced Malaysian PM’s Sentence Reduced
‘Bossku’ likely to resume kingmaker role in bid to keep Anwar in power
The decision by Malaysia’s Pardons Board to free the disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak on what amounts to parole from his 12-year prison term, a sentence delivered for legendary crookedry, is yet another signal that Anwar Ibrahim, once regarded internationally as one of Asia’s most important reformers, is willing to do just about anything to stay in power.
Malaysia faces difficult economic and governance problems, many of them stemming from the political chaos that has enveloped the country almost since the current Pakatan Harapan coalition came to power in November 2022 – following 22 previous months of deadlock and multiparty infighting. Political analysts say the Anwar government has struggled to find its way since it came to power, with the leadership instead concentrating on the means of staying in power politically. Political figures from the opposition, on holiday in December, reportedly met in Dubai to scheme ways to peel away coalition MPs to topple the government although with a 154-68 bulge in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, he appears unassailable and likely to stay that way until the current government’s term ends in 2027.
Nonetheless, the country’s problems, including capital flight and a nagging brain drain, both as Chinese have fled the country in reaction to rising ethnic Malay xenophobia, have begun to cause international investors to lose confidence. GDP recorded anemic full-year growth of 3.8 percent, a sharp fall from post-Covid recovery of 8.7 percent in 2022 as exports slowed sharply, with inflation recorded at 3 percent over 2023 although it feels higher at the petrol pump and the grocery checkout, consumers say. Its currency’s worth has descended by 15 percent, from RM4.01 to the US dollar to RM4.72 since January 2022.
Anwar, analysts say, believes he can solidify his Unity Government coalition with the help of the 70-year-old Najib, who despite myriad legal problems remains “Bossku,” a kingmaker well admired by ethnic Malays who is believed to possess access to vast financial resources amassed from years of sleaze going back to his days as defense minister and later prime minister. Najib is a strong organizer who proved his mettle by winning a long string of by-elections following the 2018 electoral debacle that ended the 70-year reign in power of the Barisan Nasional even while he was free during trial or appeal from his prison sentence.
Anwar resigned from the Federal Territories portfolio and thus his seat on the pardons board several months ago, which gives him a minuscule bit of cover to deny he had anything to do with the decision. The outgoing king, Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the Sultan of Pahang, and the pardons board decided on January 30 to cut Najib’s 12-year sentence to six years, meaning he can be released after serving just two. It is the sultan’s last official decision before he gives way today, January 31, to Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, Johor’s erratic ruler, under the country’s unique rotation system for its nine sultans.
Najib was jailed 17 months ago on charges of having stolen RM42 million (US$8.79 million at current exchange rates) from SRC International, a now-defunct subsidiary of 1Malaysia Development Bhd, which collapsed in 2016 in one of Asia’s biggest financial scandals, leaving the Malaysian government with debts of US$7.8 billion. By serving another five months, he became freed on what amounts to parole for another two years.
Under the terms of his release from his 12-year sentence, which was actually a 72-year sentence on six charges being served concurrently, the suave former prime minister (2009-2018) who favored London-tailored suits and Hermes neckties, faces two additional trials – which appear likely to disappear. He won’t be allowed to participate in politics until the end of 2026, and then only as long as he keeps his nose clean. But while he can’t be a member of a political party, according to well-informed sources in Kuala Lumpur, he can likely unofficially return to his role as kingmaker with the ability to rally ethnic Malays to Anwar’s side – Anwar hopes – and stop their drift away from the now thoroughly-discredited United Malays National Organization, a component of Anwar’s ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, to the rural fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, and the Malay supremist Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or Bersatu, headed by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
For months, rumors have been circulating in Kuala Lumpur that the king would pardon Najib, whose transgressions against the law went far beyond the relatively paltry RM42 million that he pocketed from SRC. He was not only the architect, with then financial wunderkind Low Taek Jho, known during his freewheeling Broadway days as Jho Low, of what the US Justice Department described as "one of the world's greatest financial scandals” but was involved in a long list of other scandals as well involving, according to his now-imprisoned bodyguards, at least one murder, of the Mongolian beauty Altantuya Shaariibuu, and possibly a second of former Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission investigator Kevin Morais although most people don’t believe Najib was involved in the two murders despite the allegations.
Najib owes RM210 million in fines in lieu of another five years in jail on another charge, but should be able to pay it after the government returned all the money and valuables seized from him amounting to more than RM1 billion.
It is believed that the fines have been reduced to 50 million ringgit to be paid in five annual installments. If he does not pay the fines, he will be sentenced to 12 months in jail.
He is believed to have amassed far more than that from his years in power. When he was arrested in 2018 when the ruling Barisan Nasional fell from power, investigators found the equivalent of US$273 million worth of jewelry, handbags, and other valuables and cash in 26 currencies totaling US$28.6 million. At least US$681 million is known to have been transmitted into his accounts and out from 1MDB when he was still prime minister.
Can he still provide enough help for Anwar? That may be questionable, although apparently, Anwar thinks he can. UMNO, once the strongest party in the country, has fallen sharply to just 26 seats in the 122-member Dewan Rakyat, or parliament. It is headed by Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is saddled with 47 counts of corruption related to his looting of a charity, although the charges were recently put off via a “discharge not amounting to an acquittal.”
Several other UMNO politicians have faced corruption charges and are known as the “court cluster.” Najib’s own wife, Rosmah Mansor, who is considerably less popular than he is, is free on appeal of a 10-year prison sentence for seeking and receiving bribes in exchange for government contracts, just days after her husband was jailed for corruption. Rosmah, who also owes fines of RM970 million, became a figure of derision for her extravagant lifestyle and her influence over the government.
The decision to free Najib is likely to earn the enmity of a good deal of the judicial profession, and the reformers who had put their hopes on him during his long periods of incarceration at the hands of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Najib. But years of lack of success in cleaning up the government make it likely they will have little success this time around either.