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Explainer: Najib is in jail — what does this mean for Umno, opposition coalition?

SINGAPORE — Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak has started serving his 12-year prison sentence, after a Federal Court on Tuesday (Aug 23) upheld his guilty verdict.

Malaysia former prime minister Najib Razak pauses after a press conference at the federal court in Putrajaya on Aug 16, 2022.

Malaysia former prime minister Najib Razak pauses after a press conference at the federal court in Putrajaya on Aug 16, 2022.

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  • Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak has started serving his 12-year prison sentence after his guilty verdict was upheld by a Federal Court
  • The verdict was for charges related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, but he still has four more pending court cases
  • Experts told TODAY that the only way Najib can escape the verdict is if he receives a royal pardon
  • They also said political party Umno could be negatively impacted by the verdict

SINGAPORE — Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak has started serving his 12-year prison sentence, after a Federal Court on Tuesday (Aug 23) upheld his guilty verdict.

He was convicted in July 2020 for his role in the multi-billion dollar graft scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which has been dubbed the world’s largest kleptocracy case.

1MDB was said to have suffered more than US$4.5 billion (S$6.2 billion) in losses, with US$700 million allegedly transferred to Najib, who served as Malaysia's sixth prime minister from April 2009 to May 2018.

The recent court verdict was over criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering charges for illegally receiving about RM42 million from SRC International, a former subsidiary of 1MDB. Najib still has four more pending court cases.

With the ruling, questions have arisen about how it will impact the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the political party he led as president from 2009 to 2018 and the linchpin of the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia for nearly all the years since its independence in 1957. 

How will this affect Umno and the opposition in the upcoming Malaysian elections? Does Najib still have a role in politics? TODAY speaks to experts to find out.

THE END OF NAJIB’S POLITICAL CAREER?

Since the Federal Court upheld Najib’s guilty verdict, hundreds of Najib’s supporters rallied on Wednesday outside the Malaysian national palace to seek a royal pardon.

Opponents, on the other hand, have launched an online petition urging the monarch not to, saying that he should “serve as an example to any leaders who think they can corruptly abuse their position of authority”. They have garnered more than 68,000 signatures as of midnight.

Ms Aira Nur Ariana Azhari from Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) said Najib could apply for a review of the court's decision, "but there is a very high threshold to cross".

"He can also opt to file a petition for pardon, as stipulated in Article 42 of the Federal Constitution," the senior manager of research at the Malaysian-based think tank said. 

Aside from a royal pardon, Najib’s options to escape his verdict are “very limited, if not non-existent”, said law professor Eugene Tan from Singapore Management University.

“Najib can try to reopen the case on the grounds of new evidence but the threshold to be met is very high,” he added.

Explaining the process of attaining a royal pardon, Associate Professor Tan said that the King of Malaysia — also known as Yang di-Pertuan Agong — will be advised by the pardons board, which must consider the Attorney-General’s opinion.

“The Agong’s power of mercy will depend on the merits of each case. Moreover, the Agong may grant instead a commutation of the sentence or a remission of penalties imposed,” he said.

Because of the magnitude of the 1MDB case, experts told TODAY it is unlikely Najib will receive a pardon in the near term because of existing public sentiments, though they do not rule out the chance of Najib being pardoned.

Dr Oh Ei Sun, a political analyst with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Najib's former political secretary, said: “Considering the fact that Najib has generally always maintained cordial relationships with royalties and that the King, in particular, had only recently entertained Najib to a private lunch, it would appear that the likelihood of such a pardon is quite high.”

Senior fellow at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies Ariel Tan added that aside from public sentiments, Najib’s four pending court cases may complicate the process for consideration of a pardon.

But while Najib will be unable to contest in the country’s upcoming general elections without a pardon, experts are certain that he will still play an influential role in politics.

Ms Tan said that it will be difficult for him to stage a comeback as Umno’s president or the country’s prime minister as other Umno leaders jostle for these positions.

“If and when he regains his liberty and retains sufficient resources, he may prove to be an influential player behind the scenes,” she said.

“At least one of his children is being groomed for national politics, and a son may reportedly be fielded for Najib’s parliamentary seat of Pekan in Pahang.”

On this note, Dr Norshahril Saat, a senior fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, added: “Legally, of course, he can’t contest during the next election. But, if you look at previous cases, like Mr Anwar Ibrahim, it doesn't mean that this is the end of a political career.”

Dr Norshahril noted that Mr Anwar — who is currently Malaysia’s opposition leader — was able to launch the Reformasi movement, mobilising Malaysians to march the streets to support him, after his sacking as deputy prime minister in 1998. 

He was imprisoned for corruption and sodomy in 1999 until his conviction was overruled in 2004, and again for sodomy in 2015 until he received a royal pardon in 2018.

While Mr Anwar was in prison, his allies and family members helped him influence Malaysia’s politics. “We shouldn't just look at a person's political career, but people surrounding him… Najib’s children have spoken up,” said Dr Norshahril.

HOW WILL UMNO BE AFFECTED?

Umno’s president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a statement on Wednesday that the party will continue to support Najib to ensure he “gets justice and is not a victim of political persecution”.

Weighing in on the impact the Najib verdict would have on Umno, Dr Oh said: “If Umno continues to embrace Najib, it would likely preserve for itself the support of Najib’s sizable cohort of ardent supporters, but lose its appeal to the fence-sitting voters.”

Conversely, distancing themselves from Najib could reposition Umno with a “reformist image to attract the fence-sitters, but risk alienating Najib’s bloc of loyal supporters”.

Dr Oh added that public perception of Umno’s top leaders, such as Ahmad Zahid, will continue to be split.

“Some think these leaders are innocent and politically persecuted… Others think they and the party itself are rotten and corrupt to the core and deserve to be jailed promptly,” he said.

Ms Tan added that alongside other corruption cases — such as a scandal involving the Malaysian defence ministry’s procurement of littoral combat ships — Umno has yet to appear with a clear commitment against corruption, which could negatively affect its image.

Umno had lost power in the May 2018 general election to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad largely due to public anger over the IMDB scandal.

WILL PAKATAN HARAPAN BE ABLE TO CAPITALISE ON NAJIB VERDICT?

Experts foresee the Najib verdict increasing the relevance of PH, which promised to reduce corruption in Malaysia but fell just after 22 months in power with the resignation of Dr Mahathir in February 2020 that led to a various political changes and Umno subsequently back in power.

PH had claimed credit when Najib was first convicted in 2020, saying that the trial would not have been possible without its electoral victory in the 2018 elections.

“Continued corruption cases involving Umno leaders would bolster the opposition’s claim to relevance,” said Ms Tan.

“But given some of the negative perceptions of PH’s performance in government among Malay voters in particular, this alone may not be sufficient for them to win the next general elections. PH does also have corruption allegations to contend with.”

Mr Adib Zalkapli, director of Bowergroupasia, a strategic advisory firm that specialises in the Asia-Pacific, believes that PH could use this opportunity to encourage their supporters to return to the voting booths.

“As we have seen from the last state election in Johor, lower turnout has only benefited Umno. The verdict may be what PH needs to get their voters out at the next general election,” he said.

Ms Aira from Ideas said the opposition can use the issue to canvass the public's support for "the institutional reforms needed to fight corruption".

However, Dr Oh said that PH’s supporters may have given up on “Malaysian politics in particular, and Malaysia in general, and would not come out to vote anymore”.

Other Malaysian politicians embroiled in court cases

    Besides former prime minister Najib Razak, Umno President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is among key party members facing court charges.

    Malay Mail reported that Ahmad Zahid is standing trial on 47 charges, namely 12 of them for criminal breach of trust in relation to more than RM31 million of charitable foundation Yayasan Akalbudi’s funds, 27 counts of money laundering and eight counts of bribery charges involving RM21.25 million.

    Experts told TODAY it may be worthy to note that key opposition party members are also embroiled in their own court cases.

    Democratic Action Party chairman Lim Guan Eng is currently facing graft charges. Among others, he is charged with receiving and soliciting bribes while he was Penang’s chief minister, in relation to the state’s ongoing undersea tunnel construction.

    Malaysian United Democratic Alliance’s founding president Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman faces four charges of criminal breach of trust, misappropriation of funds and money laundering. He allegedly committed the offences while heading the Bersatu youth wing.

    As for Najib, his troubles are far from over as he still faces more charges:

    • Three counts of money laundering totalling RM27 million, involving SRC International
    • Four charges of abusing his position to obtain bribes totalling RM2.3 billion in 1MDB funds, and 21 charges of money laundering for the fund
    • Abuse of position to tamper with and order amendments to the 1MDB final audit report before it was presented to the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee
    • Together with former Treasury secretary-general Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, Najib is jointly charged with six counts of breach of trust, involving RM6.64 billion of government money when Najib was the finance minister
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    WILL NAJIB VERDICT DELAY THE POLLS?

    While the date for Malaysia’s general elections has not been set, the country must head to the polls by September 2023.

    Factions in Umno aligned to Najib and Ahmad Zahid have called for early elections, though Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said this week that he is still in two minds about the timing.

    Experts have mixed views on how Najib’s verdict will impact the election date.

    Mr Adib believes that the country might bring the elections forward "if Umno could use the outcome to move away from Najib and the baggage from the 2018 elections, and convince undecided voters or fence-sitters to back the party".

    Ms Tan said the election date is unlikely to have been decided, but noted that the powers-that-be may prefer to hold it nearer to July 2023 when parliament’s term expires.

    “My sense so far is that those in power and have a direct say on the matter are not keen to change the status quo and risk holding a general election with uncertain outcomes before they absolutely have to,” she said.

    “The public certainly does not appear keen to go to the ballot box, given their other priorities and fatigue with politicking, as may be seen in the low turnout in the recent Johor state election.”

    Dr Norshahril added that other bread-and-butter issues will play a larger role in determining the country’s election date, though he acknowledged that the cases of corruption and abuse of power add to the electorate’s disenchantment towards politicians as Malaysians struggle with the cost of living. 

    “I think, most importantly, politicians should build trust and connection with the people again,” he said.

    CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article quoted Ms Ariel Tan as saying she believes the Malaysian elections will be held when parliament’s term expires in July 2023. This is incorrect. She had said that the date is unlikely to have been decided, but the powers-that-be would prefer it to be nearer the expiry of parliament's term. We are sorry for the error.

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    Malaysia Najib Razak UMNO

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