Malaysians needn't be outraged by the royal clemency for Najib Razak

When tempers cool, many parties may find the partial pardon for the former prime minister more satisfactory than they do now

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, at the federal court in Putrajaya in 2022, has received a reduced sentence. AFP
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Early last week, the rumour mill went into overdrive in Malaysia. Social media and messaging services were buzzing with word that the Federal Territories Pardons Board had met on Monday. This was Sultan Abdullah of Pahang’s penultimate day of his five-year term as King, as Malaysia’s nine hereditary rulers take it in turns under the country’s unique rotational monarchy.

Had the board, chaired by the King, issued a full pardon for former prime minister Najib Razak, who has been serving a 12-year sentence since August 2022 after being convicted of misappropriation? Utusan Malaysia, a newspaper linked to Umno, Najib’s party, which led every government from independence in 1957 until Najib and the Umno-dominated Barisan Nasional coalition fell from power in 2018, reported that it had – and then shortly afterwards had to issue a retraction.

Next, Singapore-based Channel News Asia claimed that his sentence had been cut by 50 per cent and his fine of 210 million ringgit ($44 million) had also been reduced. Finally, on Friday, the Pardons Board issued an official statement: Najib’s sentence had indeed been reduced to six years, and his fine to 50 million ringgit. He would be released in August 2028, they said.

The decision is final – unless Najib Razak files a new plea at some point

At one level, the decision has left a lot of people dissatisfied, to put it mildly. Even though it was scarcely spoken about publicly, let alone written down, Najib’s supporters in Umno felt that a full pardon for their former leader was the quid pro quo for the party joining Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government in November 2022. They had allied with their longstanding foes in Mr Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan alliance. And “Bossku” – “our boss”, as they fondly refer to Najib – would still languish in jail for over another four years? The man himself said he was “very, very disappointed”, according to his daughter Nooryana Najwa.

Both old and newer supporters of Mr Anwar’s “reformasi” movement, on the other hand, professed outrage. “The efforts of the government in combating corruption have been seriously undermined by the developments in Najib’s case,” said Ramkarpal Singh, an MP for the Democratic Action Party, which is part of Mr Anwar’s government – although it should be pointed out that Najib has always maintained his innocence and his lawyers insisted that he did not get a fair trial.

The Pardons Board has not released its deliberations, but Mr Anwar (who was not on the board, but was represented by a minister) gave some clues on Monday. It was “a matter of compassion”, he said. “The appeal process to the Pardons Board considers a holistic view of the individual’s life and contributions.” Given that Najib had served as prime minister for nine years and deputy prime minister for five, had been a minister for 18 years before that and an MP for a total of 42 years, some would argue that his contributions to the country have been considerable.

But in any case, everyone agrees that clemency is the indisputable prerogative of the King. Sultan Abdullah has known Najib all his life. Najib was chief minister of his state, Pahang, in the 1980s; he is also one of the four hereditary noblemen of the Royal Court of Pahang, and the two men were photographed dining together just months before Najib went to jail. It would not be a surprise if he had looked with mercy on the former premier’s application for a pardon. Further, Sultan Abdullah is no longer the King. The monarch is now Sultan Ibrahim of Johor. The decision is final – unless Najib files a new plea at some point.

When tempers cool, many parties may find this outcome more satisfactory than they perhaps do now. Najib’s enemies can be pleased that he is still in prison. For his supporters, a reduction in his sentence is better than none. Lawyers differ on this, but most agree that with time off for good behaviour, Najib could be a free man by mid-2026, and possibly out on parole by next year. He would then be able to resume his role as Umno’s star campaigner, a man who had been mobbed by adoring fans during state elections in 2021 and 2022 and in walkabouts in 2019, only a few months after he lost power.

Mr Anwar’s administration is in dire need of greater support from the majority Malays. Umno is supposed to provide that, but it has struggled. With the next general election due in 2027, or possibly early 2028, Najib will be crucial to the unity government’s efforts to win over the Malay vote and gain a second term in office (assuming the current coalition fights as one, as deputy prime minister and Umno president Zahid Hamidi and other leaders have said).

But without a pardon, Najib will pose no threat to Mr Anwar – as he will not be eligible to stand for parliament for five years after his release from prison. There is also little chance of Najib challenging Mr Zahid for the Umno presidency if he cannot be an MP, although in any case the two men are close; Mr Zahid was Najib’s deputy prime minister, and he had also been his political secretary back in the 1980s and 90s.

So despite the drama, there are plenty who gain something from this act of royal clemency. As for Najib, 70, there is still the opportunity to clear his name, as he wishes to do. And if he aspires to the ultimate vindication of returning to the premiership, he may not be able to stand for parliament again until his late 70s; but after Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister again at the age of 92 in 2018, one thing is clear: there is no longer any age limit in Malaysian politics.

Published: February 07, 2024, 4:30 PM