Malaysia sent a strong message to its public stewards when it charged Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak, its first former prime minister (PM) to be indicted, with several counts of criminal breach of trust and corruption.
The real test now lies in the nation’s pursuit of lesser-known figures as PM Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad works to prove that his return to power, after toppling one-time protege Najib in May, is also the return to rule of law.
Najib has consistently denied any wrongdoing and on Wednesday entered a not guilty plea on all charges.
The 92-year-old has said that he isn’t seeking revenge, even as he appoints those who were dismissed under Najib’s administration over the handling of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal.
That includes former AG Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail, who now leads the task force heading an investigation into the troubled state fund.
“Pursuing criminal charges against Najib is a low hanging fruit,” said Hugo Brennan, an Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft in Singapore.
“It is less clear that (Dr) Mahathir has the political will to pursue root and branch reform.”
The revived investigation into the troubled 1MDB has also revealed other cases of potential corruption that Tun Daim Zainuddin, an advisor to Dr Mahathir, called “mini 1MDBs”.
“Najib’s case in itself is significant for its symbolism,” said Yang Razali Kassim, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “It is the beginning of what could be a drawn-out struggle between the new regime in power led by (Dr) Mahathir against the old regime it overthrew on May 9, of which Najib has come to represent.”
Najib, 64, has called the renewed probe into the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal a “politically motivated” move.
His supporters drew parallels between his plight and that of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, de facto leader of the ruling coalition, who fell out with Dr Mahathir in the 1990s and was subsequently fired as his deputy then jailed for sodomy and abuse of power.
In response, Anwar called on the public to follow the probe and decide whether the comparison is fair.
Najib’s lawyers are considering whether to seek to disqualify AG Tommy Thomas, who was appointed by Dr Mahathir in June, saying that Thomas had made a prejudgement before being named to the post.
The charges levelled against Najib involve RM42 million that he allegedly siphoned from SRC International Sdn Bhd, a former unit of 1MDB, and a fraction of the US$4.5 billion (RM18.2 billion) of funds that Mahathir seeks to recoup.
Najib, who said as recently as April that he was confident there was no movement for a change in government, now faces three counts of criminal breach of trust and one corruption charge, which carry punishments of up to 20 years in prison each and a fine.
The court will convene on Aug 8 to decide on a trial date, which is expected in February next year at the earliest.
“This is a major reset of expectations for Malaysia at all levels and the wider region,” said Khor Yu Leng, an independent economist with Segi Enam Advisors Pte Ltd. “Society has been empowered and this could have ripple-effects outside the country to inspire others feeling oppressed by plutocratic status quo. Also notable, it takes an older elite to charge the newer one that stepped out of line.”
One key step Dr Mahathir’s administration has taken is to place institutions — including the Malaysian Ant i-Cor rupt ion Commission directly under the Parliament — instead of the PM’s Department as it was previously. The move allows them to be truly independent by reporting directly to lawmakers, said The Coalition for Clean and Fair Election, who’ve proposed that laws be amended to reflect the changes.
Najib calmly addressed reporters after being charged and dubbed the legal proceeding his “best chance” at clearing his name.
Hours after he was arrested on Tuesday, he apologised to the nation in a video posted to his Twitter account, and said that not all of the accusations against him are true.