Najib verdict: Time for quick celebration, then look for ‘new normal’ 

Photograph: The Star

Umno’s failure to reform itself and practise ‘social distancing’ with the convicted former PM could pave the way for a new political landscape to emerge, Francis Loh writes. 

28 July 2020, Kuala Lumpur High Court. Finally, Malaysians received a measure of good news.

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak was found guilty of all seven charges – abuse of power, three counts of criminal breach of trust, and three counts of money laundering – for pocketing RM42m from the Ministry of Finance-owned firm SRC International Sdn Bhd between 2014 and 2015, a time when he was Finance Minister and PM. He has also been sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment and a fine of RM210m. Yes, celebrate! 

‘Frontliners’

We must be grateful to prosecutor V Sithambaram for his outstanding efforts. A highly respected criminal-cum-commercial lawyer based in Penang, he was appointed by former Attorney General Tommy Thomas to prosecute this important opening case in a litany of five 1MDB-related cases involving the former PM. Thomas made the right appointment – for the guilty verdict on all seven counts in this first case will probably have consequences on the follow-up cases.

Sithambaram’s preparations for the SRC International case were thorough, and he mounted tight arguments for each of the seven charges. His task was particularly challenging – for a former PM, no less, was in the dock. It could not have been easy to question the former PM, to challenge his answers, and to put it to him that he was lying, time and again. They must have gone eyeball-to-eyeball frequently in the course of the hearings, stretched out over a year and a half. There must have been eye contact when Sithambaram called on the judge to impose a deterrent sentence against Najib as the offences committed were “the worst imaginable”. Any leniency, he warned, would be “misplaced sympathy” and would have disastrous consequences for society, for what had happened had tarnished the country’s image and Malaysia was even referred to globally as a kleptocracy!

“Maximum sentences are reserved for the worst cases, and this is certainly one such case…. The highest trust  was placed on him and he owed a fiduciary and moral duty as a trustee of the people. This conviction shows he failed,” Sithambaram said.

Nor did Sithambaram allow defence lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, the renowned Umno lawyer who had prosecuted one of the cases against Anwar Ibrahim, to distract him from the task. Shafee seemed more concerned with raising technical points and prone to grandstanding, rather than responding to the tightly argued charges of the prosecution.

Judge Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali must also be congratulated and celebrated for keeping to the substance of the case, as presented by the prosecution. No doubt, he too was brave in finding the former PM guilty on all charges and imposing (almost) the maximum sentence. Think of the many occasions in the past when other learned judges had failed the cause of justice and contributed towards the slide in our judicial system. But, yes, there might be other occasions to celebrate as Justice Nazlan, the same no-nonsense judge, is scheduled to hear several other high-profile cases involving Umno leaders.

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One wishes, from this most important case, that faith in Malaysia’s judicial system has been restored.

But Najib brazenly declared that “definitely, this is not the end of the world!”  Hence, it is with considerable anxiety that we await his next move. – for he has been granted a stay, pending appeal to the Court of Appeal. This case could even go all the way up to the Federal Court. And we know how the cause of justice has fared at the upper echelons of the judicial system! So, this SRC International case will not conclude for, say, another two years?

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Remember, this case, several follow-up 1MDB-related cases, and other corruption cases against Umno politicians and top officers – a total of 25 high-profile cases – were all filed by former Attorney General Tommy Thomas, who was appointed by the Pakatan Harapan government after regime change at the 9 May 2018 general election.

Alas, with the backdoor Perikatan Nasional government coming to power after the Sheraton coup in March 2020, we now have another new attorney general, another new Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief, another new Parliament Speaker, among others. Of course, we now have the eighth PM, Muhyiddin Yassin, and his 70-person strong cabinet – the largest ever – comprising senior ministers, ministers, deputies and two extraordinary envoys of ministerial rank.

PN has also appointed new heads and directors of government-linked investment companies like sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional, fund management firm PNB, the Pilgrims Management and Fund Board (LUTH) and the Armed Forces Fund Board (LTAT); and of government-linked companies (GLCs) and statutory bodies like Maybank, Tenaga Nasional, Sime Darby, Petronas, Pharmaniaga, Felda and Mara. New heads have also been appointed for government-linked firms at the state level.

Many of these appointees are loyal party personnel, not known to have any expertise or experience in the ministries and government-linked companies they now helm.

Is this the new normal? Or the old normal? Put in this context, we should celebrate, but then perhaps limit any celebration.

No ‘social distancing’ between Umno and former PM

Noticeably, one has not seen or heard any comment by any Umno leader distancing the party from former party president Najib, a convicted felon (notwithstanding his appeals later). Instead, the party appears to be standing by him.

Najib was accompanied into the court by loud supporters, including current Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. A day after the sentencing, Zahid announced his party had decided it was not going to be part of Perikatan Nasional. Instead, Umno would be working with Pas to consolidate Muafakat Nasonal, yet another coalition, more focused on Malay-Muslim interests.

Worse, while some Malaysians were anxiously awaiting the SRC International judgment with bated breath, Sabah Umno was busy undermining the elected Parti Warisan Sabah-led state government. Apparently, on the same day of the judgment, Musa Aman, the Sabah Umno chief and former Sabah Chief Minister, called a press conference to claim that 13 state assembly members had crossed over to his side, which, according to him, gave him a simple majority in the state assembly. Sabah Chief Minister and Warisan chief Shafie Apdal should therefore step down, Musa decried.

On the grounds that his Warisan-plus government still commanded a majority in the 65-seat state assembly, Shafie wrote to the Sabah governor, Tun Juhar Mahiruddin, on 29 July, seeking a dissolution of the assembly; for him, a majority of a single seat was an invitation to Musa to destabilise his administration.

The whole country was abuzz with how millions of ringgit had exchanged hands and cabinet positions promised. Social media was full of postings of frogs jumping from one party to another, hopping and re-hopping to the highest bidder, and how they should be roasted instead.

Then, out of the blue, a Sabah lawyer and two businesswomen, possibly acting as proxies of Umno leaders or other vested interests, demanded that the dissolution be withdrawn and the election stopped. Why? Listen to this – because holding an election during this Covid-19 pandemic would endanger voters. What hypocrisy on the part of these politicians! As though they care about the health and wellbeing of the rakyat!

Only a month earlier, on 9 June 2020, Musa Aman had been fully acquitted and walked free of 46 corruption charges related to the award of logging contracts during his tenure as Chief Minister. It was revealed in court the new attorney general was withdrawing all charges against the Umno leader. No need for reasons!

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And about a month before this, Riza Shahriz Abdul Aziz, former Najib’s stepson, was conditionally discharged of laundering over $248m (RM1.1bn) in funds linked to 1MDB. Again, no reason given. (In November 2018, he had been charged with 35 counts of bribery involving $63.3m, and in March 2019, with 16 counts of money laundering. The bribes allegedly were inducement to give timber concession contracts to 16 companies.) In the event, Riza was given a discharge not amounting to an acquittal in May 2020.

So, it does not appear that there is any remorse or soul-searching on the part of Umno leaders. There is certainly no social distancing!

Demise of Umno-BN

The common wisdom on political parties is that they perform five discernible functions. These are:

  • Identify and articulate social and political problems faced by the people
  • Aggregate or pull together these problems and interests and set priorities in the form of policy preferences
  • Mobilise members and the people to support party platforms and policy preferences, especially in elections
  • Recruit and train future leaders and potential candidates for elections
  • Transform themselves from organisations representing particular interests to parties-in-government, addressing the concerns of all sections of the population once in power

In fact, our political leaders and would-be leaders seldom ever articulate the social and political problems of the people, nor are they involved in policy deliberations. They hardly ever organise activities geared towards the political education, conscientisation and mobilisation of members and supporters.

Instead, for several decades now, political parties in Malaysia have become engaged in business, media and educational enterprises, and cooperatives which pool their resources to invest in the stock market. Some of these enterprises have been run efficiently, but many have lost much money belonging to their shareholders, invariably their members and supporters.

Politicians have also been appointed to run government-linked companies. Earlier, we mentioned how, as soon as PN replaced the PH government, the new coalition quickly appointed its own party members and supporters, regardless of whether the new appointees had the expertise or experience to take over these government-linked companies at the federal and state levels. 

These forays by political parties and their leaders in business, finance and industry – whether through party-owned corporations or government-linked companies – differentiate Malaysian political parties from those elsewhere. Indeed, these endeavours facilitate the transformation of the political parties into massive patronage machines – which helps to explain the pull of the Umno-BN parties for 60 years.

There is no longer any ideological pull or idealism underlying such political involvement. The ones who rise to the top are not those who are ideologically committed. Instead, it is those who have access to and control the widest patronage network who end up as leaders. You must have heard the dictum: masuk politik, cepat kaya (enter politics, get rich quick)! This is all a short step away from kleptocracy. So this case is directly connected to the plight of the Umno-BN parties.

Looking for ‘new normal’

We are agreed that the non-Malay BN parties – the MCA, the MIC, Gerakan, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) and so on – were all but wiped out in the 2018 general election. Umno-BN no longer exists, and even if it refuses to wither away, the coalition cannot rule by itself again.

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The first new normal is to look out for new parties and new coalitions, although most of their leaders will be old and old-style politicians.

With Najib’s conviction and the near collapse of the PN government, Umno is looking like another spent force too. It might still try to call the shots, but it cannot command a majority of MPs like it could in the past. And even when it enters into a coalition with other parties like in PN, or as it proposes to do with Pas in Muafakat Nasional, it cannot muster the numbers to dominate that coalition like it dominated BN. It needs partners, and it needs to be nice to its partners.

In this regard, the Malays – like their Chinese, Indian, Dayak and Kadazandusun counterparts in Malaysia – have become ‘normal’. They are also fragmented politically, some say seven ways. Don’t forget that the Malays were also split three ways at independence: the secular nationalists led by Umno, the Muslim radicals led by Pas, and the leftist Malays who were involved in the Perlembagaan Rakyat (People’s Constitution) led by Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya.

It was the New Economic Policy (NEP) which drew Malays behind Umno for so long, at least until Najib came along and turned things sour for Umno.

So, the second new normal is the fragmentation of all the communities. 

It follows that Malaysia’s politics will be more unstable henceforth. And since the backdoor PN government has no legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of voters who did not vote for it, PN will resort to use of the coercive laws and repression to maintain itself: disallowing criticism of its leaders even when they act ludicrously, curbing critical reporting in media and social media and, apparently, charging the Opposition with corruption, with or without evidence.

Expect the government, in this case the backdoor PN government, to be weakened, acting desperately to save itself. This portends to be the third new normal.

What does this mean for the immediate term? I think Malaysian politics will become more tense and polarised in the near term.

Najib, with his current mantra “I have done no wrong”, is trying to project himself as the victim.

Unfortunately, Umno is not practising social distancing from the convicted PM. Maybe there will be another split within Umno?

More likely, Umno will work with Pas to consolidate Muafakat, which signals that Umno will be ready to play up to Pas’ conservative Islamic agenda. This will only lead to polarisation of the races. Expect a rolling back to hudud laws. The worsening economic situation globally will contribute to these tensions. Add to all these a new wave of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Let’s look forward to the medium term instead. Perhaps by the time the next general election (GE15) comes around, certainly by the general election after that, ie GE16, the multi-ethnic multi-religious groups will have consolidated themselves again, as they did to bring about regime change in the 2018 general election (GE14).

Rapid economic growth and industrialisation in Malaysia over the past 30 to 40 years has transformed Malaysian society like never before. We have a large educated middle class, and thanks to the NEP, it is a multi-ethnic middle class. Throw in globalisation, and we see Malaysians of all races building bridges, crossing boundaries.

But we need many more ‘frontliners’ like Sithambaram, Mohd Nazlan and young Malaysian journalists inspired by Clare Rewcastle Brown, the editor of Sarawak Report, who first broke the story about 1MDB. And our existing civil society activists need re-energising too.

Francis Loh
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
6 August 2020
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Santana
Santana
7 Aug 2020 11.58pm

Generally speaking it’s the malays who feel insecure due to the propaganda of UMNO & Pas about non malay domination of the government. The PH government did not do much to counter this propaganda. So it’s mainly the malay community which is polarised. The other ethnic groups are not. They are spread among the various multiracial political parties. Hopefully some section of the malays realise that the use of race and religion by the malay based parties is just a ruse to get political support. The PN government is undoing whatever good PH did. Hopefully the malay community see’s it.