The Unglamorous End of a Scandal-Ridden Political Career? Malaysia’s former Prime Minister in Prison

A visibly shaken Najib Razak during his last court session

Partyforumseasia: The investigative website Sarawak Report, which helped to bring the 1MDB scandal to light and relentlessly published details of political corruption and money politics in Malaysia, summed up the final outcome of the former PM’s two year-long battle appealing his conviction to twelve years imprisonment from July 2020, in one short sentence:
“Najib had assumed that power would prevail over justice, which has so long been his experience and that of his ilk.” (Link
His ilk mainly means the party he had helmed and increasingly dominated for so many years, the United Malays National Organisation or UMNO and its coalition partners. First elected as member of parliament in 1976 at the age of 23, when he replaced his deceased father, Malaysia’s second PM after independence, he rose continuously through the ranks and assumed the premiership in 2009 after a string of different ministerial posts, including defence. The latter may now add another criminal charge to the already long string with another black hole discovered in a huge procurement scandal over war ships.

The refusal of the Federal Court to accept more manoeuvres of Najib’s lawyers to delay the final decision on the appeal and the immediate transfer of the former Prime Minister into a jail on 23 August, sent shock waves through the country. With his joviality and easy communication skills, Najib had kept many followers among the UMNO voters despite the 1MDB scandal which starts to be forgotten by many. On the other hand, the patronage, and the sort of Ponzi-scheme-like cash distribution system within the party, cemented strong loyalties. However, getting more used to this special variety of money politics demanded ever growing sums. The help of a shady businessman, with a penchant for a luxurious lifestyle, shared by Najib and his wife, led to the creation and exploitation of the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund which made it possible to siphon away billions of dollars. Najib and UMNO blamed the businessman, who managed to disappear and is still in hiding, for most of the wrongdoing, but the courts heaped Najib and several of his closest allies with hundreds of charges of criminal breach of trust, corruption, money laundering, and abuse of power.
The shockwaves culminated last week and did not end on Tuesday 23 August. For Najib und his cronies the whole lawsuit is “politically motivated”, the court “denied him a fair trial”, a man who sacrificed his family for “serving the people”, begs for pity, and so on. The former PM is in prison now, and according to the Prisons Department “without VIP-treatment”. But the public debate speculates already about the chances of a royal pardon or a premature release for good behaviour or medical reasons.
Apart from this spectacular fall of the “dramatic hero” and its highlighting by the media, Najib’s imprisonment is affecting his party. Even with the legal sword of Damocles visible for everybody, the former leader’s popularity helped UMNO to win a series of by-elections and fanned its hopes to regain a majority and return to power – and funding. Even the possibility of Najib coming back as Prime Minister seemed to be realistic, not least for the other UMNO grandees whose corruption cases are still pending. Their relationship with Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who ranks only third in the party hierarchy after president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and deputy president Mohamad Hasan, is difficult. Thus Najib’s elimination could give the PM more control over UMNO and stabilise the shaky political landscape.

No More Unaccounted Stacks of Cash – The Catharsis of Malaysian Money Politics at Last?

Partyforumseasia: We use the word catharsis, as it was coined by Aristotle in his Poetics about 2,300 years ago, as the purification and purgation of emotions through dramatic art. Since politics is sometimes even more dramatic than art, big scandals might trigger a catharsis in terms of policy and legal changes as well. After the purification of emotions, in this case the widespread indignation about the infamous 1MDB financial scandal in Malaysia, legal consequences might help to purify the cancer of money politics. With a quote worth remembering, “There will be no more unaccounted “stacks of cash” by politicians once laws on political funding are in place”, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, announced the planned rather radical policy changes of the government concerning the funding of political parties and election campaigns. A Political Funding Bill is set to be tabled this October. Eradicating money politics and political corruption is a tall order, as their ubiquity in practically all political systems shows. One can only wish Malaysia good luck and success in reducing this national scourge.

Dr Wan Junaidi

Though money politics is widespread in the region, Malaysia has ruined her reputation with the disappearance of 4.5 billion US$ from her 1MDB sovereign wealth fund, which were presumably syphoned away into political pockets and the numerous cronies who surrounded the ruling parties. The scandal started to erupt in 2015 and was declared “the largest kleptocracy case to date” by the US Department of Justice. Then Prime Minister Najib Razak, in whose personal accounts 700 million US$ were detected, lost the following election in 2018 together with his job and reputation. Accused of many related offenses, especially abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering, he was convicted to twelve years in jail and a fine of nearly 50 million US$ in July 2020. Nevertheless, he remained a member of parliament and continued to be popular among his former voters. He and his political friends managed to slow down the lawsuit with several legal manoeuvres until today.

Ironically, in parallel to the announcement of a stricter party funding law, Najib and his legal team are trying these same days, as a last straw, his final appeal at the Federal Court to avoid the incarceration. So far, his and his closest allies attempts to regain power and thus have a chance to squash the sentence have failed.

Najib Razak in court

More information on the 1MDB scandal and money politics in Southeast Asia can be found in:

Frogs Out – Malaysia Bans Party Hopping

Don’t you dare hopping over to another party!

Partyforumseasia: Party hopping banned at last in Malaysia! Reforms of parliamentary rules tend to be especially difficult because they can be game changers, and for laws and rules we know by experience that not all results and consequences can be foreseen. They may influence the power structure within the house and give advantages to one of the factions, even to the opposition, which the majority group would, of course, try to prevent. On 28 July, the Malaysian parliament passed a landmark law which will ban the all-too-common habit of MPs to switch party, challenge the power balance or even change the government. The law is called Anti-Party-Hopping Law (AHL) and will prevent party and aisle switching in future. It was passed unanimously by the 209 attending members and praised by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob as “a law to ensure continuous and lasting political stability”. Since 2018, the party hopping of 39 MPs, called “frogs” in the media and by the voters, had toppled the first coalition government under veteran Prime Minister Mahathir in 2020 and endangered the two subsequent governments with their fragile majority, political instability has always threatened the paper thin majority of the coalitions in power. (See our post from September 2020 on Malaysia’s “Katak”-Parliament (Katak meaning frog in Malay): Malaysia’s “Katak” Parliament | Political Party Forum Southeast Asia ( With the rare unanimity, the legislation was passed via a series of constitutional amendments, instead of a new Parliamentary Act. It is noteworthy, though, that the consensus was due to the confidence-and-supply agreement (CSA) between government and opposition for upholding the governability of the country and prevent the premature dissolution of parliament and snap elections. According to the AHL, the “frogs” lose their seat, except MPs who are fired by their party, but en bloc defections are still possible, a tribute to the required consensus in the highly fragmented party landscape in Malaysia. An additional factor was the looming early election, due only in September 2023, which might bring UMNO back to power.

Are there any lessons to be learned from this remarkable effort to prevent party hopping in Malaysia? The first, we suggest, is the danger of instability in more and more fragmented party systems. It is a widespread development worldwide, especially in many countries in Europe. Due to electoral fairness, even not so serious small parties like “Flying Yogis” or “Motorist Parties” are registered and even co-funded with taxpayers’ money if they reach a certain percentage of votes. Traditionally dominant mass parties have lost their positions and are far from a chance to win an absolute majority like in the old days. Malaysia is a special case because of the ethnic mix of the population and race-based electoral politics which created ethnically oriented parties for more than half a century. This leads to the second lesson, the blatant lack of ideological or programmatic distinction between the competing parties. Consequently, the electability depends at the end on the attractiveness of the candidates and, even more decisive, the magnitude of their campaign budgets, which in many countries in Southeast Asia predetermine election success. The third lesson, regional but very typical in Malaysia, is the prominent role of money politics. If a seat in parliament or a leadership role in the party is also a passport to lucrative deals in government-owned companies, the monetary aspect of a candidacy becomes the dominant motive and the common weal of the country and service to the citizens, against all campaign promises, may be secondary or even less. Especially if party hopping is being rewarded by the receiving party with financial compensation, the purpose of political activity is being perverted.
With the multitude of the ongoing challenges, from pandemics, economic and trade disruption to military threats, one can only wish Malaysia more political stability.

Malaysia’s party landscape: