Corruption in Malaysia: The No Shame Game

Recent Features

Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Corruption in Malaysia: The No Shame Game

From prison, disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak is plotting an unlikely political comeback. Don’t rule it out.

Corruption in Malaysia: The No Shame Game

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, wearing a face mask, waves as he arrives at the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian, File

The heir of a glorified line of politicians, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak (2009-2018) embodied the promise of a new era of liberalism in both the economic and social realms. However, history has yet to determine which part of his story will leave the deepest mark on Malaysia: his reforms or his political downfall. Najib was imprisoned in August 2022 and is now serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state investment fund. On January 29, on the last day of his reign, King Abdullah Shah used his prerogative to gather the Royal Pardons Board, which includes members of the Cabinet, and reduce Najib’s sentence by half from 12 down to six years. The Board also reduced his 210 million ringgit fine to 50 million ringgit ($10.5 million).

The decision has polarized public opinion, in a context where the government’s war on corruption seems mostly to be targeting its political enemies while absolving its allies. Critics of this apparent selectivity are currently under investigation, including members of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. In a place where alliance-building prevails over consistent application of the law, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s anti-corruption campaign is less a fulfillment of democratic promises than a form of political revenge against his longtime opponents. As a result, the decision to pardon Najib could jeopardize Anwar’s entire mandate.

Corruption represents no less than 5 percent of global GDP and Transparency International ranks Malaysia in 57th place out of 180 countries for perceptions of its prevalence. Bribery is perceived as a standard operating procedure for doing business in the country, while 71 percent of Malaysians believe officials are highly corrupt. According to the Ministry of Finance, the government has now repaid an eye-watering RM43.8 billion ($9.1 billion) of the debts incurred by the scandal-plagued 1MDB fund, with an unpaid debt balance of RM9.7 billion ($2 billion).

Since the six-decade-long political monopoly of the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) came to an end in 2018, successive prime ministers have sworn to halt the furious machine of corruption that operated ceaselessly during the party’s years in power. However, in Malaysia, fights against corruption are old news and the weaponization of government agencies to settle scores is something of a political tradition.

Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and again from 2018 to 2020, who left UMNO in 2015, used such machinations to oust some of his most threatening rivals. For instance, in 1998, he sacked Anwar Ibrahim, then deputy prime minister, who was subsequently sentenced to six years in prison for corruption. Similarly, in 2021, Mahathir’s successor Muhyiddin Yassin did not bother investigating “the corrupts” he claimed to despise so deeply (he also resigned from UMNO in 2015). In fact, while the pandemic kept his government busy, and UMNO made a discreet comeback, Muhyiddin sheltered his position in a little power cocoon by suspending Parliament, preventing any challenge by the opposition. Once his power stabilized, it was not necessary to resort to “anti-corruption” investigations to silence his opponents.

In 2022, Anwar built his general election campaign on the promise he would slay the UMNO monster. But on the night of the election, the plan changed: given the inconclusive election result, Anwar’s alliance had no choice but to join with that very beast in order to form the government. Under the PH-UMNO pact, Anwar’s longtime friend Zahid Hamidi, the president of UMNO, then facing 40 charges of graft, was nominated as deputy prime Minister. As Anwar remarked, it was hard to find “clean” individuals to join the government – such was the extent of corruption in UMNO’s ranks. However, as Najib’s 1MDB trials continued, Zahid Hamidi was fortuitously acquitted on all charges. A promise is a promise, and after “spring cleaning” his own government, Anwar went on hunting other corrupted monsters: both ghosts of the past who interrupted his political ascent in 1998 and newer enemies whose existence threatened to thwart his ambitions.

The first target was Muhyiddin, now the leader of the opposition, and all the bank accounts of his political party Bersatu were frozen. More recently, former Minister of Finance Daim Zainuddin, architect of the extraordinary economic development of the 1980s-1990s, his wife Naimah, and their two sons, have come under scrutiny. Their Malaysian assets were seized as part of an investigation after the Pandora Papers document leak exposed the extent of their fortune. The 86-year-old has been wheel-chaired in and out of the court to give mostly inaudible statements, while awaiting a kidney transplant. The Malaysian anti-corruption agency MACC is struggling to legally justify its investigation, as it has yet to be proven that Daim acquired his fortune through criminal activities. To date, it has only managed to charge the family with failing to comply with the MACC’s request to declare its assets. Mahathir and his sons Mirzan and Mokhzani have also come under the MACC’s spotlight. Meanwhile, Mahathir, soon to turn 99, continues nagging at Anwar, as he has for the past 25 years.

The prime minister’s position is now considerably exposed. There is no chance of a “cocooning” for Anwar: disorder reigns within the fragile ruling coalition. Anwar’s party is stretched thin between its two main allies, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and UMNO. The two parties’ political alignments are similar: conservative, capitalist, and chauvinistic. Their difference, and it is a significant one, lies in the fact that one party is majority ethnic Chinese while the other is Malay, representing the majority of the country’s inhabitants. The political clashes between the two are mostly framed around racial issues, which contrast dramatically with the agenda of Anwar’s own party Keadilan, which celebrates a multi-racial Malaysia. DAP and UMNO have been at odds for decades and their supporters have yet to recover from the shock of suddenly finding themselves on the same side after the 2022 election.

Anwar’s position is untenable, his energy drained by the constant need to elaborate political survival strategies, leaving no place for the overdue implementation of effective policies. Anwar’s many attempts to stabilize his power are in fact weakening his heroic narrative, and his image as a democratic icon is fading away. Disenchanted Malaysians have been robbed of their dream of reform, pressure is mounting against dissident voices, and Anwar is stumbling over and over trying to justify the Pardons Board’s decision as an act of “mercy and compassion.” But in the context of Anwar’s anti-corruption campaign,  has “mercy on Najib robbed the nation of justice,” to borrow the wise words of Bar Council President Karen Cheah?

Najib has repeatedly claimed his innocence. However, his defense strategy was not simply to deny his responsibility for the scandal but rather to focus on shifting the blame onto the malicious intent or irresponsibility of third parties whose role has been proven (even if arrests have yet to occur), including fugitive Penang financier Jho Low, and former central bank CEO Zeti Akhtar Aziz and her husband. In this scheme of things, Najib’s mistake was to place his trust in the wrong advisors.

Najib also argues he was not given a fair trial and highlighted what his legal team believes to be serious conflicts of interest. A first request for a review of the trial proceedings was made before the United Nations Human Rights Council in vain. Meanwhile, the Royal Pardon application was filed as early as September 2, 2022, just a few days after his incarceration. However, Najib is highly dissatisfied with the outcomes of this application. His legal team has already announced its intention to file another pardon request to the new King, Sultan Ibrahim, to have his sentence expunged entirely. Like Karen Cheah of the Malaysian Bar, Najib also believes Malaysians, including himself, have been robbed of justice.

In a simple world, one could imagine the royal pardon as Anwar’s strategy to satisfy his ally (UMNO), maintain its support to stabilize his position, and secure the rest of his term in office. Did Anwar achieve this goal? In this scenario, there are four main protagonists: Najib, Anwar, Zahid, and the King. To put things simply, what do they each want? The King wants stability (it is good for business) and for inflation to be reversed (it is good for the people as a whole). Anwar wants to remain in power and finish his term, and this also implies keeping the King satisfied. Zahid wants to stay out of jail, to keep control over his political faction (together with Najib’s), as party control is the main condition for securing a position for himself in the government, and for UMNO (and himself) to ultimately take over at the next general election.

Najib wants to be out of prison and to restore his reputation; this means coming back to power eventually. In exchange for a smooth ride until the end of his term, and because his most controversial move (Najib’s pardon) is already behind him, Anwar is keenly paving the way for UMNO’s full return to power. If he wasn’t, UMNO could easily join the Malay majority opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional (PN) to form a “super Malay” front – but the choice over the prime minister candidate would cause rifts between the parties’ leadership, particularly with Muhyiddin’s party Bersatu. If Zahid’s health permits, helped by Anwar’s poor approval ratings and the systemic inhibition of the emergence of a younger generation of political leaders, Zahid could potentially be the next prime minister. In each of these scenarios, UMNO is back, and Anwar is out. In the real world, however, is this possible? More importantly, could Najib make a political comeback?

The next general election is due by November 2027, and Parliament will probably be dissolved towards the end of 2026 at the same time as the Johor and Malacca state assemblies. Following his recent pardon, Najib would be free by August 23, 2028, too late for the polls. Lawyer and former Keadilan Vice President Sivarasa Rasiah argued on X (formerly Twitter), “the question of parole cannot arise” now that “the Pardons Board has categorically spelt out Najib’s date of early release.”

However, Najib could be released earlier if he was to secure a full pardon. This seems difficult though not impossible, and with a full pardon Najib could run for office again as early as 2026. If not, and under the condition UMNO returns to power, Najib could certainly run for another term in 2031, at least to regain his parliamentary seat. By that time, he will be 78, when, by the prevailing standards of Malaysian politics, he would be just coming into his prime.

Najib is detained in Kajang prison in Selangor, though health problems have allowed him to stay most of the time in hospital (Najib has a history of serious stomach conditions). Najib’s life is now dictated by the rhythm of court hearings, where he routinely greets family and supporters. His image has been tarnished by the 1MDB scandal, at least for the moment, but Najib has maintained his supporter base with ease. Since his trial started, Najib has in fact cultivated his image as a “man of the people,” while his wife Rosmah Mansor has taken a back seat and adopted a more discreet profile.

The economic crisis and COVID-19 pandemic, and the political instability that followed the resignation of Mahathir in 2020, have presented an ideal stage for Najib to remind Malaysians of his government’s economic performance and whip up a “Najib nostalgia” amid the looming recession. The moniker Bossku or “my boss” and the slogan “Apa malu bossku?” (literally, what are you ashamed of?) have contributed to the rise of an alternative narrative that rejects shame and mixes fact with fantasy. For Najib, the fight is not over, and a comeback would be the only way for him to restore his reputation. Is it possible to recover from such a political fall, and what are the mechanisms that could lead to a political comeback?

The blame-and-shame game is a political strategy that has historically had a limited impact on political appointments. Nearly every politician in the small circle of leading Malaysian politicians has been accused of corruption and/or “moral deviance” by their opponents, but this has rarely compromised their political careers except temporarily. Contemporary history shows that political descents are reversible. From shame to fame, the political pendulum swings back and forth. The fervor of the political comeback is inversely proportional to the intensity of the descent: the stronger the shame, the stronger the fame.

At the general election of 2018, Mahathir made an extraordinary comeback: he reinvented his controversial legacy and softened the edges of his autocratic image by emphasizing the economic successes of the 1980s and 1990s and the newly acquired wisdom of his old age. Mahathir’s return was founded on a messianic narrative: a 92-year-old man with perilous health was ready to sacrifice everything, including his life, to combat the evil of corruption embodied by Najib and Rosmah.

Other nations are not immune to the phenomenon. In the United States, Donald Trump is attempting a phenomenal return, pushed by Christian evangelical groups who are no strangers to Manichean narratives. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. rewrote the history of his father’s years in power and won the 2022 presidential campaign in the Philippines. A savior complex characterizes many career politicians, but even more often for men whose power emanates from patriarchal systems. These men turn themselves into symbols of hyper-masculinity; they exaggerate stereotypical male behavior in reference to universal, and specific, cultural contexts in which pride overshadows shame.

Interestingly, we observe a slight divergence in Indonesia, where the ugly turns cute (kawaii), as in Japanese anime. This calculated strategy has helped to occlude the bloody past of the recently victorious presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo’s election campaign was dominated by a cute digital avatar who loved cuddling his cat. Rather than emphasizing the symbolic violence of masculine power, Mahathir adopted a kawaii strategy turning the image of an old dictator into a loving grandfather figure.

Whether controversial leaders emphasize their powerful image or smooth out their past, shame is not part of their emotional repertoire, unless carefully crafted; they are and always will be innocent and/or above all human judgments. Kawaii or not, these leaders belong to the loose and flattering category of strongmen.

In Malaysia, like in most of the world where patriarchal systems rule, the escalation of political shaming is counterproductive, as shame is a self-conscious emotion rather than an objective fact. All Malaysian leaders since Mahathir have at least once embraced the role of martyr, villain, hero, or messiah. The rule of this game is that there can be only one of each at the same time; two messiahs would kill the magic.

In a context where world politics are increasingly polarized, the emergence of alternative narratives at the lightspeed of social media has distorted time and history. Shame is one of the many emotions used for political gain, transcending factual reality and belonging to the subjectivity of moral repertoire. Political campaigns never stop, and the incessant flow of political images and messages feed simplistic ready-to-think, and ready-to-share stories of power, in which moral considerations can flip in an instant.

It has never been so easy to turn the tables of shame on your opponents, and never been so easy to engineer a viral political rebirth. As for Najib, anything is possible. Mahathir, Marcos, Prabowo, and maybe soon Trump, have succeeded. In the “no shame” game, the winner is simply the best storyteller.