Najib Razak’s kleptocracy and Malaysia’s credible judiciary

The latest verdict of Malaysia’s highest court against former PM Najib tun Razak proved the independence of the country’s judiciary system.

Kornelius Purba

Kornelius Purba

The Jakarta Post


August 29, 2022

JAKARTA – When I read the report stating that former prime minister of Malaysia Najib Razak would be imprisoned for 12 years, I immediately remembered a senior Malaysian politician who accused this newspaper and me of slandering Najib, whom he described as a clean-as-crystal leader four years ago.

In the editorial, the newspaper pointed out that Najib systematically played on the fear of the Malays of losing their constitutional privileges as first-class citizens before other ethnicities, mainly the Chinese and Indians, to maintain his mega-corruption practices.

The Constitution grants the Malays, who should be Muslims, the first-class status of citizens, whose number accounts for about 60 percent of the total population.

Similar rules also apply in Brunei.

Indonesia’s Constitution guarantees equality, although in daily practices the minority religious and ethnic groups endure a certain degree of discrimination in their relations with the majority.

The latest verdict of Malaysia’s highest court against Najib proved the independence of the country’s judiciary system, at least in the case of the former leader.

The United Kingdom at least left a credible legal system and English language as legacies to its former colonies, including Malaysia and Singapore.

Do not forget that the civilian supremacy system is deeply rooted in the two neighboring countries, where civilian supremacy took hold.

Indonesia upheld civilian supremacy, and restricted the military from politics, only after Soeharto’s 32-year dictatorship ended in 1998.

I attended a court hearing in Singapore several times and then I came to the conclusion that Indonesia lagged behind its neighbour in upholding justice.

For many Indonesians who are suspicious of the integrity of the judiciary system in the country, especially when the court dropped the mega-corruption case involving former president Soeharto in 2000, the system in Malaysia is a model to look up to.

Malaysia’s Federal Court’s decision to uphold the 12-year imprisonment of Najib on Aug. 24 is one good example.

Some of my Malaysian friends, however, are worried Najib, who ruled the country for nine years until May 2018, will only be locked in the Kajang Prison in Selangor briefly if the 69-year-old politician receives a royal pardon from King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah of Pahang.

Najib originated from Pahang and he reportedly knows the king well. But I do not think the king will defend Najib as it will amount to “political suicide”.

Najib’s corruption is blatant and proven; the money from the state-fund 1MDB was transferred to the accounts of his own family and other cronies.

Najib, son of Malaysia’s second prime minister Abdul Razak and a cousin of third PM Hussein Onn, may remain powerful for a while, but the power will slowly vanish if he spends the rest of his life in prison.

Just one month before May 9, 2018, Malaysia’s election, which shockingly ousted mighty Najib, The Jakarta Post ran an editorial entitled “Truly ASEAN?”, which compared Najib to former dictator Soeharto, including in his tactics to oppress the opposition, control the media, manipulate the fear of the majority against the economically powerful minorities and cover up corrupt practices.

“Like Soeharto, PM Razak has effectively killed even the smallest chance for the opposition to participate in the upcoming parliamentary election,” the editorial said.

“The ‘1Malaysia Development Berhad’ corruption case that allegedly involved him and people around him, which he has repeatedly denied, has been effectively swept under the carpet.”

A Malaysian politician, who was specially assigned by the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to deal with Indonesia, protested the editorial and accused the paper of seeking commercial gain from the editorial.

He also demanded the editorial writer check Google and find that his boss was innocent.

When Najib conceded his defeat and it was clear that his former boss Mahathir Mohamad would succeed him, I sent a message to the UMNO politician.

“Pak, could you check Google now?” He read the message but did not reply, and soon after that he quietly left Indonesia.

Prosecutors have said some US$4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB – cofounded by Najib as premier in 2009 – and over $1 billion went to Najib in what the United States Department of Justice described as its biggest kleptocracy investigation.

UMNO and its coalition partners in the Barisan Nasional for the first time in 60 years lost the election – thanks in part to the mega-scandal.

Malaysians shouted hidup reformasi (long live reform) during the 2018 campaign, akin to the voices of the Indonesian people before the fall of Soeharto in May 1998.

Indonesia declared itself a democracy and now is internationally recognised as the world’s third-largest democracy after India and the US, despite all its shortcomings.

But reform spirit just lasted two years in Malaysia, because Mahathir and his Pakatan Harapan coalition members fought each other.

The UMNO only needed two years to regain power, although it is no longer as solid and united as before.

The fear of the Malays that the Chinese and Indians would soon take over power was effective in weakening Mahathir’s government. The Federal Court’s ruling against Najib at least shows that Malaysian people can still hope for justice, although it would be too naïve to think politics was not at play behind the court decision.

Many Indonesians may look down on Malaysia and their less democratic or undemocratic neighbours.

But democracy is fragile without a strong and credible judiciary as we have experienced in the last few years.

Najib, then a powerful ruler, will serve a long prison sentence for graft, while Indonesia tends to forgive its errant leaders.

I believe Indonesia still needs to learn from the judiciary system in place in Malaysia, as well as in Singapore, despite all their shortcomings.

The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.

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