It was a brutal day in court for former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak yesterday. It began with his counsel calling for the Chief Justice, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, to recuse herself from leading the Federal Court in considering Najib’s final appeal against his conviction in a 1MDB-linked corruption case.
Overnight Najib had filed an affidavit stating, among other things, that because the Chief Justice’s husband had posted on Facebook that “he was happy that Najib had been dethroned” after the Barisan Nasional government that Najib led lost the 2018 general election, “it is likely that he would have influenced the thinking of the mind of the chairperson as to my alleged culpability".
The five judges considered the application, but rejected it. At about 3pm local time, the Chief Justice called for the final decision to be delivered. Speaking from the dock, Najib complained that he had not been accorded a fair trial. “The might of the judiciary is pinned against me in a most unfair manner,” he said. But as he was speaking a leaked copy of the judgement had already been circulating online (the court later said it was a draft that had been modified). And shortly before 4.30pm, the Chief Justice announced that Najib’s appeals were “unanimously dismissed and the conviction and sentence are affirmed". That means a fine of 210 million ringgit ($47m) for Najib, 12 years in jail, and the loss of his parliamentary seat at the next general election.
It had been looking bleak for Najib for some weeks. The courts had declined his request to bring in a British barrister to defend him, refused to postpone proceedings to allow his new team of lawyers to prepare, and would not allow him to cite new evidence. “I’m avoiding reading the news to avoid breaking my heart,” one of his former aides messaged me over the weekend. Expected as it might have been, the decision, when it came, was still a hammer blow for Najib’s supporters.
Since I have met only one of the five federal court judges, Nallini Pathmanathan, and found her a highly impressive person of palpable probity, I make no comment on the judicial process that led to this decision. I would point out, however, the significance of the fact that until recently, the solicitors representing Najib were led by Zaid Ibrahim. A former law minister who cut short a successful political career by resigning on a point of principle in 2008, and previously a vocal critic of Najib, Mr Zaid has long been one of the most fiercely independent voices in Malaysian public life. He is a man of the utmost integrity and would not have stood alongside Najib unless he believed strongly in his case.
Najib’s defenders also have a point when they say that this is a selective prosecution. This current trial began in July 2018, not long after the Pakatan Harapan government led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad came to power. Before that election, Dr Mahathir called Najib a “crook” and a “tyrant” and made it plain he wanted Najib in jail. But this, and the other cases pending, would not have been brought by the Attorney General – who is a political appointee – if Najib was still prime minister, and it seems highly unlikely that they would have been under the current Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri, who was a member of Najib’s cabinet and is vice president of the party Najib once led.
Nevertheless, Najib’s opponents will be jubilant at the news. For his admirers, it is devastating that a man they considered to be gracious, warm and witty, and who is genuinely loved by the people who mob him whenever he is out campaigning, is heading for prison.
The former prime minister is down. It may be the lowest moment in his life for a man who once golfed with presidents and wowed the world with his call for a Global Movement of Moderates at the UN General Assembly in 2010. But don’t count him out.
Firstly, freed from the trappings and formality of office, Najib became the most popular politician in Malaysia on social media, with more than 4 million followers on Facebook. With his post-election, down-to-earth “Bossku” (our boss) image, many saw the man previously only known to those who met him in person, and videos have circulated of strangers who couldn’t stop hugging Najib when he visited towns and villages. Jailing him may make Najib a martyr to his base.
Secondly, Mr Ismail may belong to the same party as Najib, but he relies on the support of MPs who were previously part of the Pakatan Harapan government. If an election is held this year – and Mr Ismail has just hinted that it may – the Barisan Nasional to which they both belong will stand on its own. After successes in state elections over the past few months, the Barisan Nasional has a good prospect of winning outright, or in combination with parties that were long-time allies in the past.
In that case, there will be strong, maybe irresistible, calls for Najib to be given a royal pardon. Constitutionally, that should be a formality following a request by the prime minister, and the current king in Malaysia’s rotational monarchy is the Sultan of Pahang. Najib is a hereditary nobleman at Sultan Abdullah’s court and the two are on very friendly terms and often pictured together.
And then, just as the one-time deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim returned to parliament via a by-election after he was pardoned in 2018, Najib would be able to do the same. In that scenario, it is by no means inconceivable that he could become prime minister again. It is hard to think of anyone who could be sure of defeating him if he stood for the presidency of his party, and his desire to be vindicated will only have grown after suffering incarceration.
I have seen Najib’s resilience in the face of adversity first-hand. He will need it now as never before. But he has a good chance of fighting another day, and as for leading his country once again? Many would be delighted if he did.