Does Najib Razak’s trial offer Malaysia’s judiciary a chance to redeem itself?

Malaysia's ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak. Photo: Firdaus Latif / CC BY-SA

The guilty verdict in former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s corruption trial is a sign of hope but it hardly means that justice has been delivered in the case. Malaysia’s judiciary has a historic opportunity to restore some degree of independence and push back against decades of political interventions.

By Umair Jamal

On July 28, a Malaysian court found former Prime Minister Najib Razak guilty of seven charges related to corruption, abuse of power and money laundering. He was sentenced to up to 12 years in prison and faces fines of nearly US$50 million.

In 2015, Najib was accused of massive corruption linked to the development fund known as 1MDB. Najib became Malaysia’s prime minister in 2009 as part of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). UMNO held power from the country’s independence in 1957 until the party’s defeat in the 2018 general election.

The sentencing of Najib is good news for forces that want to run a clean government in Malaysia, however, it is still too soon to celebrate.

With Najib’s political party, UMNO, back in power, the government is likely to use all tools at its disposal to save him from going to prison. There are fears that the case could still drag on in courts for years and his sentence may be annulled, depending on how the country’s political environment changes.

Although the courts have ruled against Najib, the verdict in many ways highlights the existing structural handicaps that bar the judiciary from holding powerful people to account.

Despite everything, Najib remains a popular political leader and his fate will tell a lot about how serious the country is on fighting corruption.

Can Najib prevent his prison sentence?

Najib’s conviction is unprecedented in a country where powerful politicians are barely held accountable. However, the conviction doesn’t necessarily mean that he will spend time in prison.

So far, Najib has managed to avoid jail as the court granted a stay of sentence pending appeal. Najib is expected to appeal the verdict and the process is likely to take more than a year, giving him enough time to build a plan that will, in time, make his defense and political position stronger.

Even after a clear conviction, Najib still controls several levers of power that offer him enough maneuvering space to lead a strong institutional effort against the judgement.

One of his key advantages is that he still remains a member of the Parliament. Essentially, this means that he will continue to play an important role in UMNO, which is in alliance with the government.

UMNO returned to power in February after signing a political pact with current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. The party will likely use its dominating position in the current government to fight tooth and nail to protect him from prison.

For UMNO, Najib’s conviction is more than just an individual case: the 1MDB corruption scandal caused the party’s downfall in 2018’s general election. Mainly, it was a wave of public anger over corruption that wreaked the first-ever election defeat on UMNO.

Going forward, Najib’s actual sentencing could have disastrous impacts on the party’s political fortunes. If he goes to jail for a long time, the party risks losing its electoral base and may offer its political opponents a leg up for the next polls. For UMNO, averting Najib’s sentence is likely to become a major political goal in the months to come.

Further, it appears Muhyiddin’s anti-corruption commitments were nothing more than empty electoral promises. By incorporating corrupt UMNO leaders into his cabinet, Muhyiddin has decided to choose what is politically advantageous over good governance. It is possible that Muhyiddin will offer his complete support to UMNO when it comes to protecting Najib. Muhyiddin will adopt this approach in part because his best chance to lead the current administration rests with UMNO’s political support in Parliament. In this regard, bailing Najib can potentially win him such support.

Explaining the court’s verdict against Najib, Kathrun Salam, deputy editor at Foreign Policy noted that “it is politics as usual in Malaysia—and whether UMNO decides to protect Najib and his allies or allow the courts to continue their efforts to bring them to justice will say a lot about how long that status quo will persist.”

How will courts react to an appeal?

Malaysia’s Palace of Justice – where any appeal would be heard. Photo: Gryffindor / Public domain

The Malaysian courts have long been a ground for contesting sensitive political issues. For Malaysia’s judiciary, one the most pressing issues is the process of appointing judges to key posts. All such appointments are made by the prime minister, giving the prime minister’s office an outsized role in controlling the judiciary and limiting its independence.

For instance, in 2017, then-Prime Minister Najib extended the tenure of the outgoing chief justice and the president of the Court of Appeal beyond their constitutionally-mandated retirement ages. Both were appointed as additional judges of the Federal Court by Razak’s administration, reinforcing the already-widespread view that judicial appointments remain politicized in the country and courts can be influenced. 

The judiciary likely will not follow through on Najib’s verdict, as doing so could lead to another institutional clash in the country. James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania, said the guilty verdict in the case of Najib may eventually be overturned on appeal.

“People should not be celebrating, because in the Malaysian context, many of the judgments in these political cases get reversed in the appeals court,” he said. “I expect Najib to appeal, and he will probably win the appeal. In the long term, I expect Najib to get away with it as long as UMNO is in power.”

Should the county’s judiciary take advantage of a historic opportunity?

The judiciary, however, may be looking at the looming political crisis in the country as an opportunity.

Over the last few months, Malaysia’s politicians have brought their political feuds to the country’s courts. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently filed a lawsuit against Muhyiddin, challenging his legitimacy to form the current government.

The verdict in Najib’s case comes amid speculations that Muhyiddin may be considering a snap election. Muhyiddin needs UMNO’s support to run the current administration but the political alliance may undermine his chances of winning another election. Voters may view Muhyiddin’s association with UMNO as the continuation of the party’s rule despite its direct defeat in the 2018 election following Najib’s multi-million-dollar corruption scandal. This should worry Muhyiddin and his political advisers.

On the other hand, UMNO has found an opening to not only govern again but also save Najib from sentencing by leveraging its control over the government. All of this is happening in the midst of opposition parties’ efforts to bring down the government.

The political instability in Malaysia means that the judiciary has found some space to flex its muscles. With Najib’s verdict, the judiciary is trying to restore its institutional independence which remains threatened by political interventions.

This situation offers the judiciary an opportunity to not only make a historic decision by holding Najib accountable but also to push back against decades of interventions by the political elite that have undermined the institution.

In any case, Najib’s case is far from over as Malaysia’s judiciary takes its role in the country’s current political drama.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15