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Can the convicted prime minister make a comeback?
Former Prime Minister Najib Razak, a nattily-dressed figure whose crimes were so flamboyant that they inspire admiration in the gaudiest of scoundrels, a man who may be the most-disgraced politician in Malaysian history, has set out to rehabilitate his image. He told Reuters earlier this month that he intends to stand for his old parliamentary seat in the town of Pekan in Pahang despite the fact that his conviction on corruption charges ought realistically to make him ineligible.
That followed a breakfast meeting organized by Wong Chun Wai of the Kuala Lumpur-based Star tabloid with local editors to announce his plans as they sat there presumably with the gravest of journalistic faces. This is a man, after all, who not only was the architect of the biggest financial scam in the country’s history, he was previously behind the billion-dollar purchase – complete with US$114 million in kickbacks – of submarines the country couldn’t use because most of its coastal waters are too shallow for them to submerge. He has reliably been accused by his two one-time bodyguards of ordering them to murder the jet-setting Mongolian party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu in 2006.
Najib’s criminal exploits, Hermes tie and pocket square firmly in place, put him up there in the rare air of the Southeast Asian supercrook pantheon peopled by Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto. He was convicted on July 28, 2020, on seven counts of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering for his complicity in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. scandal, helped out by the financial wunderkind and serial pourer of Cristal champagne to Broadway blondes, Low Taek Jho, who is still on the run from prosecution.
Some US$4.6 billion disappeared into corruption and incompetence. Najib was ordered to jail for 12 years, the first premier in Malaysian history to be convicted of corruption. He was also fined RM210 million (US$50 million). In the process, he also managed to lead the United Malays National Organization out of power in an electoral debacle that ended 70 straight years of the party’s reign.
It is worth recalling 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 were 1,400 necklaces, 2,200 rings, 2,100 bangles, 2,800 pairs of earrings, 1,600 brooches and 14 tiaras.
But there’s more. The US Justice Department collected massive amounts of stolen property in what it called the biggest kleptocracy case in the department’s history. As Asia Sentinel reported in 2018, the prime minister and his enablers simply apparently believed nobody would notice that billions – not millions – billions of US dollars would disappear irretrievably, to the point where it could imperil the entire Malaysian financial system.
It wasn’t just that the money disappeared, it was the utter grandiosity of the theft. Millions of dollars in state-owned sovereign funds were steered into the making of the Wolf of Wall Street, produced by Najib’s stepson, Reza Aziz, but banned in Malaysia as too lurid for Muslim sensibilities. Reza has already been allowed to skate by Malaysian authorities without facing charges.
Nearly US$1 billion – US$681 million of that in one dose – made it into Najib’s personal bank account in 2013, with US$620 million going back out a few months later to an unknown destination. Some U$42 million appears to have been spent on shopping trips in Milan and Monaco, among other enclaves for the moneyed. His wife Rosmah –now on trial as well – has been photographed wearing enough jewelry to glitter like an iceberg in the sun.
Assets seized in the US, believed to have been acquired for Rosmah by Jho Low, included interests in the music company EMI Music, artwork by Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet, high-end real estate in New York and Beverly Hills, a US$35 million jet aircraft and a 300-foot yacht.
Normally convicted felons appeal their sentences from a jail cell. Yet Najib is not only free, he has played an energetic role in a string of by-elections won by UMNO and apparently retains a strong advisory role in the party, as does his henchman, the former UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who like Najib remains free and continuing to politick despite being arrested and charged with 87 counts of a rainbow of corruption charges involving the theft of at least RM180 million including looting a charity that appears to have been set up for no other purpose but for Zahid to loot it. Both face additional trials.
“That a man convicted of serious crimes - a convicted felon no less - can still muse about standing for election or aspire for political office is a sign of how terribly rotten and corrupt the whole governance system is,” emailed Dennis Ignatius, a retired former top Malaysian diplomat who has emerged as one of the government’s most trenchant critics. “Integrity, character, self/respect no longer matter,” he said.
Malaysia’s Federal Constitution is clear. Convicted felons can’t contest parliamentary seats. Unless Najib can somehow overturn his conviction in the Appeals Court, he would be unable to contest. The date for his appeal hasn’t been fixed and even if it were to rule in his favor, the Attorney General can appeal to the Federal Court, the country’s top court. He also faces a bankruptcy proceeding brought by tax authorities. Bankrupts can’t contest elections. But Malaysia being Malaysia, which recently was described in a Bloomberg report as a “failed state,” anything can happen.
“There are too many ifs to get over for Najib to be able to contest,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst with deep connections to the ruling elites. “My guess is he’s floating these thoughts to ensure he remains relevant and a power broker in a splintered UMNO whose prime minister needs every vote to stay in office. He’s hoping meantime to pressure the PM to push the judiciary to overturn the conviction. But while the UMNO simpletons may believe him, I don’t see this happening. The more likely scenario is that Najib’s son will contest his seat in Pekan. And - if it happens - his conviction is overturned, his son can vacate the seat for Jibby to contest in a by-election.”
The United Malays National Organization, the entire leadership of which were paid individual bribes by Najib to keep him in power prior to the 2018 election, which the national ruling coalition lost, is now back in power heading yet another backdoor coalition. UMNO could do its best to return the 68-year-old Najib to respectability, if not to power. He certainly seems to expect it. After all, this is Malaysia.