Najib Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s former Premier who was sentenced on July 28 to 12 years in jail and a $49-million fine for money laundering, criminal breach of trust and abuse of power, has pleaded his innocence and vowed to appeal the ruling. The conviction of the 67-year-old in Kuala Lumpur’s most high-profile criminal investigation pertains to the misappropriation of billions of dollars at 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). Mr. Najib founded the state investment fund when he was Prime Minister in 2009, serving on its board as chairman, with the aim of raising the country’s economic profile to a high-income bracket.
The former head of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party, who became the country’s sixth Prime Minister in 2009, Mr. Najib has been one of the most influential voices in Malaysian politics for decades.
He is the son of the country’s second Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein and the nephew of the third Premier Hussein Onn. Born on July 23, 1953, Mr. Najib became active in politics in his early 20s. In 1976, he was elected to Parliament, replacing his deceased father in the Pekan seat. In 1982, he became the Menteri Besar (First Minister) of Pahang state. Since then, Mr. Najib had held several key ministerial roles until he became the PM in 2009.
The 1MDB scandal
A U.K. educated economist, the politician’s graph took a nosedive in the midst of his second term in office in 2015. Mr. Najib was confronted with revelations that some $681 millions had been paid into his personal bank accounts just before the 2013 general election via 1MDB subsidiaries. About the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that $4.5 billion had gone missing from 1MDB.
Mr. Najib’s troubles only intensified with the decisive blow dealt by his one-time mentor Mahathir Mohamad in the April 2018 general election. The UMNO-led coalition lost power for the first time in Malaysia’s history. Mr. Mahathir, who returned to active politics from retirement to occupy the high office (though replaced in March this year), swiftly unleashed a probe into Mr. Najib’s role in the multi-billion dollar scandal. In May 2018, the embattled leader and his wife were stopped from leaving the country in a private jet. In the following month, the police confiscated jewellery and luxury goods worth about $275 million and a sum of about $30 million in various currencies from his premises.
The recent conviction — an unprecedented low for an ex-Premier of Malaysia — relates to the illicit payments into Mr. Najib’s personal accounts via SRC International, formerly a 1MDB subsidiary. While admitting the transaction, he has insisted that it was not linked to 1MDB and that the bulk of the amount has been returned to the source. Mr. Najib is also on record that it was a donation from a friendly Muslim government anxious to bolster a moderate Islamic nation and that the funds were meant for electoral purposes. During the trial hearing last December, Mr. Najib reportedly told the court he was misled by a Malaysian financier to believe that the sums were gifts from the Saudi royal family.
Changing political winds
While the appeal process could drag on, current political winds could turn less hostile for Mr. Najib in the months ahead. His UMNO party is the dominant force in the current coalition led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yaseen, following the collapse of Mr. Mahathir’s Alliance of Hope. In May, Mr. Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz reached a settlement with the new government to hand over part of the $248 million 1MDB funds he was accused of having laundered to his film production firm. The decision was sharply attacked and raised fears for the prosecution’s independence in the challenge to last week’s ruling and the other three trials involving Mr. Najib’s family and others. There is also speculation of a snap general election in early 2021 and the likelihood of Mr. Muhyiddin’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party merging with the UMNO.
Malaysians have made a historic beginning with the sustained crackdown of recent years against corruption that culminated in Mr. Najib’s cinviction. They might also recognise that enforcing democratic accountability is a continuous process.