By: John Berthelsen

The arrest of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been inevitable since the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which had ruled for more than 60 years, lost national elections in a landslide on May 9.  He was to be charged this morning (July 4) after spending the night in jail.  He has vowed to clear his name in court.

The question is where Malaysia goes now, with a reform movement supposedly in full swing. A special task force has announced that more than 400 bank accounts involving RM1.1 billion have been frozen from individuals, political parties and NGOs.  Crony companies have lost contracts, government-linked company officials have been deposed.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission must be reformed, the courts must be cleaned up, a long list of Malaysian institutions including government-linked companies must undergo deep cleansing before the country can be truly regarded as on its way back.

The Philippines after Ferdinand Marcos, Indonesia after Suharto, Thailand after the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis, all began with dramatic reform movements. They all failed and today are all largely mired in corruption. Chen Shui-bian, elected as a reformer to end the reign of the Kuomintang in Taiwan, is on medical parole after being sentenced to 19 years in prison. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks the Philippines 111th of 180 nations, Indonesia and Thailand are tied at 96th. 

It remains to be seen if Malaysia, now ranked 62nd despite Najib and UMNO’s depredations, can escape that curse, especially with Mahathir Mohamad, whose 22-year reign, ending in 2003, set the stage for much of the corruption that Najib controlled so completely.  For instance it was with Mahathir’s full knowledge, according to French prosecutors, that Najib orchestrated the purchase of French submarines at the end of the past century that netted €114 million in kickbacks.  The 93-year-old premier’s circle of wise men includes such figures as Daim Zainuddin, who was widely suspected of enriching himself during Mahathir’s previous reign. One hopes the retreaded premier is wearing new spots.

Beyond that, Najib’s fall is spectacular and saddening. Well-spoken, with a plummy accent, Najib, the son of Malaysia’s respected second prime minister, golfed with President Barack Obama in Hawaii and was extolled as a moderate Muslim reformer all the while he was flensing billions off the public treasury. In early 2017 he received a 3 am telephone call from the current President, Donald Trump, who invited him to visit the White House. He met frequently with British prime ministers.  He addressed the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 as an exemplary moderate Muslim leader.

Imelda can now breathe easy

Nonetheless, Imelda Marcos, Ferdinand Marcos’s widow, can now step aside as the foremost example of Asian corruption excess. Imelda has endured derision for more than 30 years for having a mere 3,000 pairs of shoes. Najib’s grasping, portly wife, Rohmah Mansor, has taken the crown following the massive list of bling found in the couple’s homes.

Najib’s excesses have basically destroyed the United Malays National Organization,  the country’s once-dominant political party, and the coalition it led despite spectacular attempts to protect itself in the May 9 election. The country was gerrymandered to the extent that the opposition Pakatan Harapan had to win at least 60 percent of the vote to take power. The press was muzzled, opposition leaders were threatened with arrest for sedition, vote-buying was rampant. UMNO sought to use religion and suspicion of the Chinese minority to rally rural voters, resulting in a religious and ethnic divide that will take vast resources and goodwill on all sides to heal.

But after the dust settled, the Barisan, driven from power by general disgust and irritation over an ill-conceived goods and services (GST) tax, received only 36 percent of the popular vote. Najib’s attempt to charter a private jet for Indonesia on the night after the election was too little too late. He was barred from leaving the country.

Long List of Charges to Follow

Although he has only been charged with the disappearance of US$10.6 million from a British Virgin Islands-based oil exploration firm called SRC International,  a long list of other charges is expected to follow for the ex-premier’s involvement in 1Malaysia Development Bhd., from which at least US$4.5 billion disappeared, according to the US Justice Department, into an orgy of conspicuous consumption including luxury real estate in the United States and overseas, gambling expenses at Las Vegas casinos, more than US$200 million worth of artwork, lavish gifts for family members and associates, investment in a major New York real estate development project, and funding for the production of major Hollywood films, according to the US government.

So far, in addition to the seizures by Malaysian officials, the US government’s kleptocracy unit has sequestered more than US$1 billion in assets and is hunting for more. But that leaves perhaps US$2-3 billion still out there somewhere, hidden in banks across the world under nominee names. After all Najib was the architect of the successful plan to take kickbacks from the French munitions maker DCNS at the turn of the century.  He has been thought to have been looting the public purse in Malaysia since he was named chief minister of Pahang in 1982.

Bling on bling

Beyond what has been identified by the US Justice Department, Najib and Rosmah amassed a stunning cache of stolen money, exemplified by the list of goodies that investigators took from the couple’s homes in Kuala Lumpur. The value of those items has been put at a staggering RM910 million-1.1 billion (US$193.0-233.4 million).

As reported before, the items taken from their homes appear virtually all to have been intended to adorn Rosmah’s frame. They include US$28 million in 26 different currencies and 25 bags containing 12,000 jewelry items worth at least US$108 million, The bags include 1,400 chains, 2,200 rings, 2,800 pairs of earrings and 14 tiaras. The most expensive piece of jewelry was a yellow gold necklace with white diamonds estimated to cost US$1.23 million. The loot included 567 handbags, of which 267 are estimated to total US$12.6 million from 73 brands including Birkin from Hermes, Chanel and Bijan. Six bags contained 423 watches including brands like Rolex, Chopard and Richard Mille. There were 234 pairs of sunglass brands such as Versace, Dior and Gucci.

Najib was to be charged at a Kuala Lumpur court, with the new Attorney-General Tommy Thomas, leading the prosecution team. Bernama, the state-owned news agency, said the case would be before Sessions Court Judge Zainal Abidin Kamarudin, and then transferred to the Criminal High Court before Justice Azman  Abdullah.

Says it isn’t my fault

An UMNO spokesman claimed the arrest was politically motivated and a result of “political vengeance” by Pakatan Harapan, now led by Mahathir, who returned to power on a campaign to put Najib in jail.

“The arrest of Dato Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak by [the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission] today was to be expected as since taking over the government, Pakatan Harapan leadership has ‘delivered the guilty verdict’ against the former premier in public,” the spokesman said in a statement.  “The SRC charges against Dato Sri Mohd Najib tomorrow as well as the on-going 1MDB and AMLA investigations against Dato Sri Mohd Najib are politically motivated and the result of political vengeance by the Pakatan Harapan coalition.”