Commentary: Does party president Ahmad Zahid’s acquittal represent darker days for UMNO?
UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is milking his recent acquittal in a corruption case for all it is worth. But the jury is out as to whether the day has dawned for the party going into the next general elections, says this academic.
KUALA LUMPUR: When Najib Razak became the first Malaysian prime minister to be jailed in August, United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi lamented on Facebook how party members were “extremely sad”.
Najib supporters who had gathered outside the courtroom that day “cried inconsolably”. Like a general marshalling his troops in battle, Ahmad Zahid urged his supporters to remain calm and determined to “correct the flaws in the system to ensure justice”.
“We believe when there are the darkest of nights, there will surely be the brightest of days,” wrote Ahmad Zahid.
RAYS OF SUNSHINE?
It appears Ahmad Zahid has captured a ray of sunshine. A month after Najib’s jailing, the High Court acquitted Ahmad Zahid of 40 charges of corruption.
A few hours later, UMNO’s Baling member of parliament (MP), Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim was conditionally freed (discharge not amounting to an acquittal) from nine corruption and money laundering charges. Another UMNO MP, Bung Moktar’s corruption trial was, too, temporarily suspended the same afternoon.
Flanked by 100 “hardcore” UMNO supporters and Ahmad Maslan, an UMNO MP who was acquitted last year for corruption, Ahmad Zahid said that his acquittal was a vindication after being “humiliated” and “punished by the court of public opinion.” This was the fruits of UMNO’s “struggle” — the brightest days for the grand old party appear to have dawned.
Judge Mohd Yazid Mustafa exonerated Ahmad Zahid because he found that the prosecution failed to prove a prima facie (true at first impression) case. The judge scrutinised the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses, took into account all reasonable inferences, and asked himself: “If I now call upon Zahid to make his defence and he elects to remain silent, am I prepared to convict him on the evidence before me?”
The answer was no.
The crux of the case came down to whether Ahmad Zahid had corruptly received cash from foreign visa operator Ultra Kirana Sdn Bhd (UKSB) as reward during his time as the minister of home affairs, for the extension of UKSB’s foreign visa system contract. The prosecution relied on the testimonies by UKSB directors and a company manager, as well as a ledger, as proof that Ahmad Zahid received the money.
As told to the court, the witnesses frequently visited Ahmad Zahid at his Country Heights and Seri Satria residences to talk about business. After these discussions, Ahmad Zahid would mention UMNO’s need for funding. He never mentioned the amount he wanted but said that the money should be in cash and Singapore dollars.
Between 2014 to 2018, the UKSB witnesses made deliveries of cash in envelopes, once a month after 10pm. They drove past the guards into Ahmad Zahid’s residences.
Soon after, Ahmad Zahid asked for a higher contribution. UKSB’s witnesses said this would sponsor Ahmad Zahid’s overseas trips, his wife’s birthday celebrations and Hari Raya celebrations.
Giving this monthly contribution — totalling to roughly RM40 million (S$12.4 million) over 4 years — was meant to “build and maintain a good relationship with the Government of the day to ensure the smooth running of the business,” one witness said. UKSB needed to secure its position as the “sole contractor for the visa facilitation services.”
However, Judge Mohd Yazid was unpersuaded and found that UKSB witnesses lacked credibility. He found discrepancies between what they told the court and what they wrote in their witness statements.
He also said that the ledger was incomplete. The “remark” column in the ledger was mostly empty, and notations such as “YB”, “Z”, “ZH”, and “Monster” did not conclusively refer to Ahmad Zahid, due to contradictory testimonies by the witnesses.
“There should be no weightage given to the ledger,” the judge wrote. “I hereby acquit and discharge the Accused from all charges without calling his defence.”
Despite the acquittal, the Attorney-General’s Chambers have filed an appeal on the first weekday after the judgment. In any event, Ahmad Zahid still faces 47 charges relating to the Akalbudi Foundation case where he was accused of misappropriating the foundation’s funds meant for an Islamic charity.
In contrast to the UKSB case, the Akalbudi case is a prima facie one that has reached the defence stage at the High Court. A verdict will likely be reached in the next few months.
This means Ahmad Zahid’s relief is only temporary because the timeline for the pending Akalbudi verdict has not changed. Instead of easing pressure on Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob to call for an early election, Ahmad Zahid will likely use the UKSB acquittal to press harder — both for an early election and for the prosecution to drop the case.
The difference is that this time, he could use his UKSB acquittal as proof of the supposed political persecution that was orchestrated during the Pakatan Harapan administration against UMNO politicians.
REFORMED OR VICTIMISED?
When the Federal Court confirmed Najib’s conviction in August, there was an existential question in UMNO about whether they ought to use the crisis as an opportunity to reform or use Najib and his victimhood to elicit sympathy from voters.
Going into the country’s 15th general election, is UMNO a reformed party or a victimised party?
Now, Ahmad Zahid will likely use the UKSB acquittal as proof of his and other UMNO politicians’ innocence. They will likely attempt to consolidate the power of the Old Guard within the party and, given their stranglehold, will likely succeed to sideline dissenters and any attempts at reform.
However, the strategy of sticking to its old ways might not go down well with the voters.
In a 2020 survey, Merdeka Center found that 61 per cent of Malaysians agreed with Najib’s guilty verdict. Malay voters in UMNO’s strongholds in rural areas think likewise: A clear majority of 57 per cent agreed with the decision. The online petition to block Najib’s pardon request outnumbered that of his supporters.
These could be interpreted to mean that, whilst UMNO’s past contributions are widely acknowledged, voters still think that corruption should be punished. The rise of Bersatu and Parti Islam Se-Malaysia in the past few state elections showed that a segment of voters has switched from UMNO to Malay-based parties untainted by corruption scandals.
Ahmad Zahid may think that this is the start of UMNO’s brighter days. But could it turn out darker than its darkest days?
James Chai is Visiting Fellow of the Malaysia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary first appeared on the Institute's blog, The Fulcrum.