Jailing Najib a win for Malaysia, while it lasts

LET’S hear it for Malaysia.

Something unimaginable just a few years ago has transpired. A former prime minister (PM), the scion of a prominent political dynasty who retained a strong grassroots following as a top lawmaker, has been sentenced to prison. His fall is a tonic, however brief, for a country whose politics in recent years have been marred by rancour, cynicism and a revolving door of weak governments.

Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak, who served as premier for almost a decade before being defeated in the 2018 general election, lost his final appeal against corruption convictions for his role in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal. He will serve a sentence of 12 years — unless the country’s king grants Najib a pardon — over his role involving the transfer of RM42 million belonging to SRC International Sdn Bhd, which was a subsidiary of 1MDB, to his personal bank account. 

That the nation appears to have moved on from the outrage over pillage of the state investment fund — the intervening years have seen Covid, a deep recession and now rising inflation — doesn’t dim the message of Najib’s downfall. It shows you can climb to the apex of political power in a strategically vital and once booming economy, but your misdeeds can still bring you down.

It isn’t the end of corruption. Nevertheless, Malaysians can no longer just roll their eyes, shrug and mumble that nothing will come of it. That’s a big change.

Najib was no run of the mill leader churned out by a machine that long dominated politics in the important South-East Asian country with a once-flourishing economy that was a role model for the developing world. His father was Malaysia’s second PM and the clan has strong ties to the aristocratic families that held on to influence after independence from the UK in 1957.

Even after leading his party, Umno, to defeat for the first time, Najib remained formidable. He campaigned heavily in recent state elections and was credited with helping the ruling bloc win key contests.

He cast himself as a downtrodden, regular Malay guy, being bullied by urban elites who had it in for him and, by extension, his voters. Sound familiar?

And 1MDB was no ordinary money-politics saga. The scandal enmeshed Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Hollywood. The political upheaval that followed united the Opposition, unexpectedly propelling them to office. The revolution was short-lived, though; the new Cabinet collapsed less than halfway through its five-year term, largely because its two leaders, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, couldn’t bury decades of rivalry.

Umno found itself back in power as part of a new coalition. But the Mahathir-Anwar team was in power long enough to preside over the arrest and charging of Najib with an array of offences.

Najib’s exit is a double-edged sword for the current PM Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is contemplating calling a national election this year. Incarceration removes a high-profile party legislator who could have challenged Ismail for the leadership.

While the Opposition may be happy to see the back of Najib, economic concerns dominate the contemporary landscape. Malaysia suffered a wrenching slump, thanks to Covid.

While growth surged last quarter, inflation is on the way up and interest rates are moving higher. When I visited an electoral battlefield outside Kuala Lumpur early this year, constituents were more worried about roads and bridges. 1MDB was seen as an obsession of urbanites.

It would be unwise to bet heavily against a pardon. Mahathir, once a mentor but lately a tormenter of Najib, put the chance of a pardon at 50-50 during an interview with Bloomberg News on Monday.

Clemency or not, a resounding point has been made. Najib will always be that guy who rose to the highest political office in the land, only to be dispatched to a cell.

Malaysia has risen to the occasion, no matter how fleeting it may become. — Bloomberg