Sweet Vindication or Hollow Justice? More Twists in the Tale To Come

The recent conviction of former premier Najib Razak in court has been celebrated by many Malaysians. But the course of the ensuing political drama could go along many different tracks.

A supporter of Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak reacts after he was found guilty in his corruption trial in Kuala Lumpur on July 28, 2020. Only time will tell what the implications of Najib Razak’s guilty verdict will be on Malaysian politics. (Photo: Mohd Rasfan, AFP)

Serina Rahman

30 July 2020

Many Malaysians are celebrating the unprecedented conviction of former Prime Minister Najib Razak on seven charges including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money-laundering. But the verdict might be just the beginning of yet another long-drawn saga.

As it is, the announcement that sentences will be run concurrently, reducing prison time to only 12 years seems to be a relative smack on the wrist. Najib is able to simply double bail to RM2 million (on top of his RM210 million fine), and report to a police station every two weeks until the appeal process is complete. This could take another one or two years. He seems to be getting away rather lightly given the weight of the charges against him. That said, there are many more outstanding allegations against him, including another four 1MDB-related cases and a bill for RM 1.69 billion in outstanding taxes.

The court’s verdict has multiple implications. On a positive note, the decision seems to demonstrate the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) government’s transparency and refusal to interfere with due process and the rule of law. This will appease an electorate that voted against Najib in the 14th General Elections (GE14) and who have been waiting impatiently for the outcome of the corruption charges. Given global furore over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) debacle, the judgement might also serve to appease party comrades opposed to Najib’s camp and restore international confidence in Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government.

The former premier may seem to have momentarily “lost face” as a result of the verdict, but history has shown that collective memories are short, or at the least, selective, as evidenced by Najib’s overwhelming social media popularity in response to his “Bossku” campaign.

The details of the gentleman’s agreement behind the unofficial coalition that is PN are unclear. But the political drama could go several ways.

This could all be an elaborate PN strategy to garner the trust of a public already leaning positively towards PM Muhyiddin as a result of the country’s success in handling the Covid-19 pandemic and his easy, down-to-earth style of oratory that appeals to the masses. Behind the scenes, orchestrations could result in an extended appeal process that could lead to an even lighter final sentence for Najib.

As this theatre unfolds and the steps in the plot are taken in the courts, PN would work to tighten their stranglehold on power either in parliamentary numbers, or in terms of public popularity. Thus Najib’s possible eventual release as a relatively free man cannot in any way be countered or overturned.

On the other hand, the verdict could have genuinely come as a surprise to the UMNO leadership, hence party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s pronouncement of “drastic action” to come. This may signal UMNO’s intention to retract support from Muhyiddin’s finely-balanced political base as the latter could use the verdict as a negotiation tool to guarantee his and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s longevity.

Notwithstanding accusations of a choreographed show of mass support at the courts, there are many who genuinely admire the former premier.

Zahid may have realised that Najib’s conviction means that there is no guarantee of his own safety when it comes to his turn in court, which then inevitably gives Muhyiddin an upper hand in PN internal negotiations. On the ground, Najib devotees and UMNO stalwarts are already baying for its withdrawal from PN.

Notwithstanding accusations of a choreographed show of mass support at the courts, there are many who genuinely admire the former premier. Potential chaos or total confusion could arise in urban centres where disillusionment came swiftly after wild celebrations of a Pakatan Harapan win, then morphed into outrage and anger at the PPBM split and PN takeover of government. This sentiment slipped into resignation and helplessness in the face of Covid-19. It is unclear how the chips will fall in the face of new drama.

It is also uncertain how those on the east coast feel about the judgement, as voters there have historically deemed UMNO to be untrustworthy. Recent news that UMNO will contest every seat in Terengganu hint at discord in the highly-lauded Muafakat Nasional union between UMNO and PAS.

In the southern state of Johor where Najib was virtually erased from Barisan Nasional’s campaign material in GE14, the news seemed to have barely caused a ripple. While many blamed Najib for BN’s fall in the elections, relief returned when PN took over and UMNO resumed state leadership. There seems to be a widespread belief that Najib will eventually walk free. This is a sentiment usually expressed as a shrug of the shoulders; after all, any outcome is deemed to be irrelevant to ordinary Johoreans’ daily lives. The state continues to trundle along undisturbed under the able administration of the Johor Civil Service, regardless of political machinations at the federal level.

Indeed the celebrations over the indictment may be premature and short-lived. Even as reactions across the Peninsular vary, clear cracks can now be seen within PN, Muafakat Nasional and UMNO itself. As politicians weigh their options and contemplate how to maintain their positions at the apex of political power, Malaysian citizens at the bottom of the pyramid continue to struggle to regain employment and survive the economic fallout of a global pandemic.

Worse still, given the number of supporters gathered at the courts, there is a distinct possibility that infections could spread over the upcoming Aidiladha journeys and family reunions. A return to strict Movement Control Orders is not inconceivable. This might actually be the easiest way for Muhyiddin to hold off the hawks within PN, reduce virus spread and consolidate control.

Dr Serina Rahman is a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/105

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.