On the face of it, this week’s guilty verdict against former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is a victory for clean government everywhere. Najib, accused of siphoning millions in state funds, has become a symbol of the graft that has dogged Malaysia for decades. That a court would have the courage to not only rule against him but also hand down a 12-year jail sentence brings hope to most Malaysians.
Unfortunately, it is too early to celebrate just yet. Najib has announced his intention to appeal — he is of course entitled to do so, but it has also raised fears his convictions could be overturned. Najib’s political allies returned to power earlier this year and the new government has wasted little time in intensifying a crackdown on independent media and civil society, many of whom played a key role in exposing the corruption charges against Najib in the first place.
Tuesday’s verdict concerned Najib’s role in the 1MDB grand corruption scandal, where government officials are accused of pillaging hundreds of millions of dollars from the Malaysian people. Najib was found guilty of charges relating to some $10 million transferred from the fund to his personal accounts. Najib claimed ignorance and said he thought that the money was a gift, but the presiding judge ruled it “would be extraordinary” if the then-prime minister was unaware of the balance in his own account. With dozens of other cases pending against him, further years could still be added to Najib’s prison sentence.
The political winds in Malaysia have changed dramatically in recent months. In the 2018 elections, popular anger over corruption and the 1MDB scandal helped unseat a coalition led by Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) for the first time since Malaysia’s independence. The new Pakatan Harapan (PH, “Alliance of Hope”) government took office on the back of promises to clean up politics and usher in a new era of respect for human rights.
While there were legitimate frustrations over the pace of the PH government’s reforms, it could still point to some key achievements – including the limited roll-back of repressive legislation and the aggressive pursuit of corruption charges against Najib and his cronies. The government also committed to signing up to key international human rights treaties – an unprecedented move in Southeast Asian politics.
In February this year, however, the fragile PH coalition fell apart amid a political crisis. Instead, a government led by UMNO and the ultraconservative Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS) took power, with Bersatu leader (and formed UMNO stalwart) Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister. The new government soon intensified a crackdown on media and NGOs, relying on many of the same repressive laws used under Najib’s rule.
This is all the more worrying since Malaysian civil society has played a crucial role in uncovering corruption and holding power to account. Among those targeted in recent weeks is Cynthia Gabriel, a prominent rights activist and the founding director of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, whose very work in the early 2010s helped expose the 1MDB scandal. Gabriel was called in for police questioning in early June after calling for an investigation into the government’s alleged trading of favors for political support. The new government has also turned its ire on journalists, including by launching criminal investigations against Al Jazeera after it reported on THE mistreatment of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are concerns that the shifting political climate could have an impact on the ultimate outcome of the cases against Najib. Since UMNO’s return to power, the Attorney General’s Office has already dropped high-profile corruption cases against two UMNO-linked people in the last few months. In April, for example, prosecutors withdrew charges against Musa Aman, a former chief minister of Borneo accused of graft in the timber industry, under murky circumstances.
Despite everything, Najib also remains personally popular. Many ethnic Malays view him and UMNO as a necessary bulwark against “minority rule” by other communities (mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians), a notion fueled by carefully orchestrated social media campaigns. The former prime minister has also launched a PR campaign to present himself as a man of the people, which even included a music video.
So while there are plenty of reasons to welcome the court ruling against Najib this week, there are just as many reasons to be cautious. Malaysia’s new government, however, now has a chance to prove it is genuinely committed to breaking with the past. Authorities must ensure that the court cases against Najib and his allies are allowed to take their course without political interference.
The government must also continue to build on efforts to address more systemic problems around corruption, with the groundwork for that progress largely laid by civil society organizations. This includes putting resources behind a thorough anti-corruption plan proposed in 2019, as well as repealing repressive laws used to disable and target critics.
This week, one judge in Kuala Lumpur delivered a historic verdict against graft and cronyism in Malaysia. It could be a foundation stone for a brighter Malaysia, but its long-term effects remain to be seen.
Binaifer Nowrojee is regional director for the Asia Pacific at Open Society Foundations.