The corruption charges levelled against the former prime minister risk destroying his legacy, writes Sholto Byrnes
Najib Razak has already been found guilty in Malaysia's court of public opinion
The appearance of Malaysia's former prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, in court last week to face criminal charges was shocking to many. But it was not surprising.
Even before the May 9 election that saw the Barisan Nasional government lose power for the first time ever, the current (and former) prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, had tried to have Mr Najib prosecuted for alleged abuse of power. The day after the election, Dr Mahathir's son Mukhriz said that the new administration would take action against him, while the prime minister-in-waiting, Anwar Ibrahim, said "it will be very difficult for him to escape prison".
Political imperatives made it plain that the question was when, not if, Mr Najib was charged with wrongdoing in connection with 1MDB, the state investment fund from which the US Department of Justice alleges $4.5 billion was looted, and its subsidiary SRC International, from which the government claims RM42 million was wrongly transferred into Mr Najib’s bank account.
Mr Najib fiercely proclaims his innocence, but many Malaysians were impatient for his arrest. "People want to see heads roll," as one former ambassador said to me days after the historic polls.
Mr Najib, the son of the country's second prime minister and nephew of the third, once rode high in the opinion polls. But on the night of the election, when the scale of the catastrophe his coalition faced became clear – the BN vote dropped from 48 to 34 per cent – Mr Najib is said to have asked his advisers: "Do people really hate me that much?"
It was a poignant question. When Mr Najib first came to power in 2009, said the then CEO of a major bank, "he invited me to his office and explained at length his plans for the economy. I was hugely impressed."
By 2013 the picture was different. Mr Najib's political and economic reforms were going too far for the Malay ultras in his own party, but didn't go far enough for the opposition, which ridiculed – unfairly, I believe - his flagship national unity policy 1Malaysia as a PR operation.
He won that year's general election, although the BN lost the popular vote to the opposition coalition. That alliance later fell apart, and if Mr Najib had called snap polls after overwhelming victories in the Sarawak state election and two by-elections in 2016, he might have won.
By the time Malaysians came to vote this year, however, it was something that had begun to unravel in 2015 that snowballed into the issue that did for his premiership and may now cost him his liberty: 1MDB.
Stories alleging wild spending sprees using money from the fund began appearing that year, with The Wall Street Journal being particularly tenacious in following the trail.
Two allegations proved very damaging: the millions from SRC International that supposedly found their way into his personal account and the RM681 million he received that he has always maintained was a donation from Saudi Arabia's royal family. It didn't matter that the Saudi Foreign Minister confirmed that the gift was genuine. People simply didn't believe it.
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"That was it. After that I couldn't support him anymore," said the former bank CEO. It didn't help that Mr Najib threatened to sue the Journal but then never did. But by this point the nuances of anything related to 1MDB had ceased to be debated.
The partisan lines were strictly drawn up. The then opposition had determined that the clouds of suspicion around it could be used to bring Mr Najib’s government down, and any of its activities that were positive – assisting pilgrims to perform the hajj, for instance, or its role in developing two parcels of prime land in Kuala Lumpur – were simply dismissed, as were Mr Najib's considerable achievements both at home and in the international arena.
What really weaponised 1MDB was Dr Mahathir's return to active politics as head of the new opposition coalition; his actively linking 1MDB to the unpopular goods and services tax introduced in 2015 (he said the latter was to pay for the former’s debts) and his constant accusations that Mr Najib was a thief – and worse.
Eventually, the attacks hit home. Posts on social media and on popular web portals make it clear that Mr Najib has already been found guilty in the court of public opinion – to the extent that anyone attempting a defence of the former PM’s record is liable to be shouted down. Regardless of the merits of the case, a lynch mob mentality has taken hold of a large number of Malaysians who are prepared to believe anything bad about Mr Najib, whether it has any grounding or not.
Even Lim Kit Siang, an elder statesman of the new government, has warned against perceptions that a “whole-scale witch-hunt” may be taking place against the former administration. This is dangerous. The integrity of Malaysia’s judiciary has been queried in the past. It is crucial that its objectivity is unquestioned in any trial involving Mr Najib. A climate in which the public will not accept that he could be found innocent is not helpful.
“Nobody wants to hear about all the good things he did,” lamented one of Mr Najib’s former aides a couple of weeks ago. Equally few are interested in remembering the less positive aspects of Dr Mahathir’s previous time in office.
Mr Najib – who insists the charges are politically motivated – is far from cowed, and describes the trial it as “the best opportunity for me to clear my name.” But it is in the interests of all Malaysians that it should be so, including members of the new government.
For it must be the truth and provable accusations, not politics and the emotional mood of the masses, that determines justice in Malaysia. If that constitutes a change from the past, it will be a welcome one.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia