In a significant defence of Malaysia’s judicial independence, its highest court has upheld the conviction of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, ending his attempt to overturn a 12-year prison sentence. In its judgement, the Federal Court found Razak’s allegations of biased trial proceedings “inherently inconsistent,” and declared that Razak had failed to raise any substantive evidence to justify appellate intervention. Instead, in a detailed judgement, Chief Justice Maimun Tuan Mat wrote, “this is a simple and straightforward case of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering.” The court ordered Najib to commence his internment and pay a 210 million ringgit fine.
In 2020, Najib was found guilty of four charges relating to his involvement in the 1MBD scandal, which involved a sovereign fund established in 2008 with the intent to bolster economic development. In the decade following its founding, billions of dollars raised for developmental projects were secretly transferred into offshore bank accounts connected to many high-profile figures in Malaysia.
It is suggested that Najib personally received over 700 million dollars, which he used on lavish personal expenses. Denying any wrongdoing, Najib claimed he was misled regarding the origins of the funds, telling the court he had believed they were donations made to him by Saudi Arabia. These claims were rejected by the Court, which described the former prime minister’s defence as “devoid of any merits.”
Articulating the importance of the decision to the rule of law in Malaysia, the nation’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told CNBC, “I think this is a good beginning. And it does reform and mature Malaysia as a vibrant democracy with strong institutions.” The verdict has been widely praised throughout the nation, with hope that the ruling will send a “strong warning to other politicians who even think of siphoning public funds.”
Adib Zalkapli, of the political consultancy BowerGroupAsia, described the verdict as “unprecedented.” adding, “Najib will be remembered for his many firsts, the first Prime Minister to lose a general election, [and] the first to be convicted.” Malaysian lawyer Lim Wei Jet said the reality that Malaysia’s “most powerful man can be held accountable in courts sends a positive message on our nation’s judicial independence.”
Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister told Bloomberg that Najib would seek a pardon from the current government and that there was a “50-50 chance” he would receive one. This would have converging significance given it would allow Najib to continue to both serve in parliament and pursue broader political ambitions.
The ruling is a landmark in the development of Malaysian jurisprudence, enshrining the independence of its judiciary and the principle of equality before the law. The 1MBD scandal significantly damaged the nation’s international perception, and the ruling is hoped to reinvigorate its position as a leading democratic power in Asia.
The scandal’s ramifications were widespread; in 2020, US investment bank Goldman Sachs paid over 5 billion to settle a case investigating their facilitation of laundering.
The preservation of judicial independence is paramount to providing checks and balances on government power in Malaysia. The significance of the Federal Court’s decision to uphold Najib’s conviction is bifurcated; not only have they resoundingly declared their independence, they have offered all Malaysians reason to have confidence in the integrity of its public institutions. Such confidence lies at the heart of maintaining civil stability, and preventing the usurpation of political power. Amid 15 consecutive years of an ever-accelerating decline in democratic institutions across the globe, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic, Malaysia’s effort to punish corruption is a testament to its resilience and is uniquely important to its future.
The decision by Malaysia’s highest court to uphold the corruption conviction levelled against its former prime minister marks a significant step in the nation’s development of a strong judicial system. The bench’s judgement is a defence of civil rights and reflects the importance of applying justice universally.