The 1MDB scandal first broke nearly a decade ago, but it is only now unravelling the political career of its most prominent antagonist, Kerstin Steiner writes.
In August 2022, Malaysia’s Federal Court upheld the conviction of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and its 12-year sentence.
For years, it appeared that the 1MDB scandal – which saw billions of dollars stolen from Malaysia’s ‘1MDB’ sovereign wealth fund – would gain little traction in Malaysia.
But in 2018, elections in Malaysia saw outraged voters end Najib’s party’s political reign in the country, ousting the ruling coalition for the first time in six decades. Under the newly elected government, investigations were reopened and charges were laid against Najib, his wife Rosmah Mansoor, and others.
Many courts, from Malaysia’s Federal Court to the United States Department of Justice, have been slowly getting to the bottom of one of the world’s greatest financial scandals.
At the time, onlookers knew that if the trials fairly convicted Najib, they could usher in a new era in Malaysia for political trials. But they also knew that if he walked free with his name cleared, his political career would be spared.
After two years, on 28 July 2020, Najib was found guilty of all seven charges and was sentenced to 12 years in jail and slapped with massive fines. Then, on 8 December 2021, Malaysia’s Court of Appeal upheld the verdict and on 23 August 2022 the Federal Court upheld them again. With that, the judicial process came to an official end.
However, that does not necessarily mean that the political and personal story for Najib has also ended.
In early July 2022, weeks before the verdict by the Federal Court was handed down, a political deputy within Najib’s old coalition, Mohamad Hasan, continued to show his desire to free Najib.
He stated in an interview: “[e]verybody has to pay their dues. But if we want to pardon, [Najib] has to go through the process. He’ll have to go inside first.”
Hasan refers to the process laid down in Article 41(1) of the Federal Constitution, which provides the Agong (King) the power to grant royal pardons or reprieves for any punishment.
Receiving a royal pardon is not unheard of for politicians in Malaysia. In 2018, Anwar Ibrahim received a royal pardon after more than two decades of prolonged court cases. This allowed him a return to politics in 2018, though the pardon is currently being challenged.
In the case of Najib, it is worth noting that fellow former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad issued a statement in which he foreshadowed the possibility of a royal pardon, saying that “[f]or Najib, it is highly likely that he will be pardoned after being imprisoned”.
Whether this pardon comes is instrumental for the shape of Malaysia’s political future. If he does not receive a royal pardon, on top of his sentence, he will be disqualified from standing for elections for the duration of the sentence, including the one scheduled for November this year, and for a further five years upon his release from prison.
But how likely is a royal pardon will materialise, and how soon might it come?
He has already applied for a pardon, but as it stands, the chances of him receiving it seems low. The King, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, has been quoted as emphasising the risks for Malaysia’s law-making if the royal pardon is abused – though he did not mention Najib by name.
He was joined in his comments by the Sultan of Selangor, the head of one of Malaysia’s 13 states, Sharafuddin Idris Shah Alhaj, who recently revoked royal titles held by Najib and his wife in the wake of their convictions. The Sultan emphasised, also without naming names, that royal pardons cannot be abused purely for the ‘benefit of certain parties’.
However, this view is not necessarily held across Malaysia. While they no longer hold titles in Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan, Najib and his wife still hold their titles in Pahang, Perak, Melaka, Kedah, Perlis, Sabah, and Sarawak.
While hardly unanimous, these comments show that Najib’s fall from royal grace is underway, making a royal pardon highly unlikely, at least any time soon.
One thing, however, is for sure. While Najib was on bail during the appeal process, he is now actually in jail. The Malaysian people can also now see that he is being treated like any other prisoner, with rumours of special treatment, including that he had been given a house, debunked.
As to the future, Malaysia is notorious for its politicians making unpredictable comebacks. Najib also continues to enjoy the backing of his party and has significant power as a ‘kingmaker’ behind the scenes.
Malaysia is also not alone in this in the region. Earlier this year, the Marcos family was rehabilitated in the Philippines after 30 years, with Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr being elected president in June.
As such, Najib may feel that he still has a few years left in which he can plan his comeback and wait for a royal pardon to materialise.
With a national election imminent, it is a critical time in Malaysian politics. A win by Barisan Nasional, the coalition Najib used to lead, in the upcoming general election can arguably be seen as a positive step towards receiving such a pardon, especially since it had supported Najib’s bid for a royal pardon.
Long-term, if the country can demonstrate that even those in high public office will be held accountable for their actions, it should restore some of the faith of the Malaysian public, which was shattered in the wake of the 1MDB revelations. However, it remains to be seen which concerns are more pressing for the electorate, especially considering the current economic woes and the ongoing recovery from both the COVID-19 pandemic and the current floods.