Verdict on corruption in Malaysia

This morning’s news is that former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak has been sentenced to 12 years in prison following his conviction on charges of corruption. He remains free pending an appeal, although other charges relating to the same set of scandals are also under way.

You might remember that Najib lost office two years ago – the first time that his party, UMNO, had ever lost an election – following the exposure of the “1MDB” scandal, in which billions of dollars were apparently misappropriated from a state development fund. Investigators subsequently seized more than $300 million worth of valuables from Najib’s premises, including $39 million in cash.

But a lot has happened in Malaysia since then. Mahathir Mohamad, the veteran leader who replaced Najib as prime minister, resigned last February as part of a complicated plot to desert his centre-left allies and reunite with UMNO. But it backfired badly; Mahathir ended up in opposition, and the king appointed Muhyiddin Yassin, the president of Mahathir’s former party, Bersatu, in his place.

Yassin formed a government with the support of UMNO and then adjourned parliament to avoid its strength being tested. By the time it reassembled in May, Covid-19 provided the justification for a further postponement. For the time being, the Muhyiddin government has been able to shore up its support enough to survive, although its majority is tenuous: earlier this month it succeeded in replacing the Speaker, but by only two votes, 111 to 109.

And now comes the embarrassing conviction of Najib, with the likelihood of more to come. UMNO party president Ahmad Zahid, for example, is on trial for allegedly receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks relating to a visa processing system. MPs and the public are being reminded both of why these people were voted out in the first place, and of the risk that the wheels of justice will be interrupted if they remain in office.

The government and its allies are maintaining that nothing has changed. Prime minister Muhyiddin promised that his government “will always uphold the rule of law” and urged people to “give space for the legal process to take place to ensure that justice is served.” The leader of the Islamic party, PAS, which switched sides earlier this year, reaffirmed his commitment to co-operation with UMNO.

Muhyiddin’s position is a difficult one. He was one of the first to break with Najib over the 1MDB scandal, and there is clearly no love lost between them. In other circumstances, he might expect the verdict to work to his benefit. But politically he now depends on UMNO and Najib’s loyalists, and with a parliament elected for his opponents he has very little margin for error.

The health crisis still provides some impetus towards national unity, so the prime minister may hope to ride out the immediate impact and focus on using the patronage powers of incumbency to fortify his position for the election due in 2023. But there’s considerable speculation that he will take his chances on an early election this year.

If he does, it should be a real classic.

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