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.

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