HOBART: Najib Razak, the ex-prime minister of Malaysia, was found guilty of seven charges relating to criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power on Tuesday (Jul 28).
The verdict surprised many observers as most expected a “mixed verdict” - for Najib to be dealt with a slap on the wrist and at the very most, to be found guilty of some of the charges but not all.
But after the verdict on the first charge was announced, the house of cards fell. The judge rejected the defence’s request to delay sentencing. A 12-year jail term was slapped on Najib along with a RM210 million (US$49.38 million) fine.
A HISTORIC CASE
The case was historic for the simple reason this was the first time an ex-prime minister of Malaysia has been charged in court with corruption and abuse of power.
The prevailing assumption in Malaysia was that once you reached that pinnacle of power, you were virtually untouchable.
And that seemed to bear out during Najib’s time in office. Despite allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars from the 1MDB state fund had flowed into Najib’s personal bank account swirling since 2015, investigations by the Malaysian Attorney-General Chambers had gone nowhere while he was still in office.
Then Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had even publicly asked Najib to explain the corruption scandal surrounding 1MDB and was fired shortly after in July 2015.
But the historic 2018 General Election broke open the floodgates. The previous Pakatan Harapan government that stormed into power in that watershed moment made charging Najib and his wife Rosmah for corruption a central plank in their election campaign.
Highlighting that getting the country’s finances in order was a top priority, then newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pledged to return the billions lost in the 1MDB case.
The Pakatan Harapan made good on their promise and moved swiftly. Investigations commenced just days after they came into power. Three months after taking over the government, Najib was first charged.
BUT THE BOOK HAS NOT BEEN CLOSED YET
While the judgment puts to rest years of investigations, Malaysia is still some way from closing the book on Najib Razak’s involvement in 1MDB.
Najib’s lawyers have said they will file an appeal. While the case goes to the Court of Appeal, the guilty verdict will be set aside. It will take months before the appeal is heard. Meanwhile, Najib will remain free on bail and retains his position as an Member of Parliament, thus continuing to be a major political player in Malaysia.
Even if the Court of Appeal upholds the guilty verdict, there is the possibility of referring the case to the Federal Court, Malaysia’s supreme court. In other words, don’t hold your breath. Najib will only lose his position as MP once he has exhausted the appeal process, which could take years.
In any case, Najib still has four other ongoing cases relating to 1MDB.
It is still early days and too early to assess what Najib’s chances are, when the grounds for appeal have not been revealed by Najib’s lawyers.
The Malaysian courts have reversed verdicts on appeals concerning high-profile cases. Yesterday’s trial consists of a single judge while the appeal will see a panel of judges hear the case.
The most famous was Anwar Ibrahim’s first sodomy case. The guilty verdict was first maintained by the Federal Court during Anwar’s first appeal in 2002, but reversed in 2004 during his second appeal.
A more recent political case concerns former Cameron Highlands MP and Malaysian Indian Congress Vice-President C Sivarraajh who won his appeal, also on Tuesday, to squash an earlier decision to disqualify him from contesting or voting in any election for five years beginning 2018 on allegations of vote-buying.
WHO WINS, WHO LOSES
Yesterday’s guilty verdict is good news for Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Najib has been a key UMNO leaders reportedly pressuring him to hold a snap election. Ironically, the guilty verdict yesterday was exactly five years to the day Najib had sacked Muhyiddin as Deputy Prime Minister.
READ: Commentary: Muhyiddin Yassin, the all-seasoned politician, who rose to Malaysia’s pinnacle of power
Muhyiddin now has the political upper hand in the Perikatan Nasional coalition, where the verdict acts as a stark public reminder of UMNO’s association with 1MDB and kleptocracy.
Although Muhyiddin may use the verdict to grandstand and claim credit for restoring the independence of the judiciary and pursuing an anti-corruption agenda, most Malaysians will give credit to Pakatan Harapan under Mahathir, who had doggedly made holding Najib to account on corruption his key goal since coming out of retirement to form Bersatu.
Najib emerges as the biggest loser in the verdict. His legal team had planned to use the same defence of ignorance for his remaining four cases, which relies on two key arguments.
First, these financial scams were orchestrated by Jho Low without his knowledge and he too was a victim of Jho Low’s web of deception. Second, Najib had been under the impression the money in his account were donations from the Arabs.
But High Court judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali made it clear he did not believe either of these explanations. Najib’s legal team will now have to rethink their defence for the other 1MDB-related court trials.
The Razak family legacy has suffered significantly from this embarrassing saga. Tun Razak, Malaysia’s second prime minister and Najib’s father, has been held in high regard among the Malaysian populace for being a man of integrity.
Mahathir himself had previously said he had helped Najib to be prime minister in part because he is Tun Razak’s son. Yesterday’s verdict has sullied the family name forever. Even if Najib succeeds in his appeal, the guilty verdict is a stain on this hardwon family reputation.
But I would argue Najib’s political career is not over. He has merely suffered a setback. Najib is still very influential in internal UMNO politics and there is a segment of Malay population who supports him wholeheartedly.
If there is one decisive factor in his political future, it is that his future is tied up with UMNO’s future. As long as UMNO is in government, Najib will have a shot at resuscitating his political career.
If Mahathir can make a comeback at 93 in 2018, Najib has a fighting chance.
Professor James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.