When $681 million ended up in the personal bank account of then-Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak, he thought it was a political donation from the King of Saudi Arabia. Sure, it’s strange that the King transferred such a large sum directly into Najib’s personal account as opposed to that of a government institution, and yes, such a personal donation to a foreign leader was an unprecedented move by the Saudi royals. But the late King had assured Najib that some sort of donation was coming his way, so why not over half a billion dollars? Perhaps Najib would’ve examined the transfer a little more closely if he wasn’t so accustomed to lavish gifts. Indeed, when the financial anomaly came to light and the police raided his properties, that’s what filled the nearly 300 boxes the police discovered: gifts! The 567 luxury handbags (including a $219,000 Birkin bag) stuffed with $30 million in cash, the 423 designer watches, the 234 pairs of sunglasses, 14 tiaras, and 12,000 pieces of jewelry—all gifts from friends and admirers. So of course Najib was shocked—shocked!—to discover that the $681 million that appeared in his bank account actually came not from the Saudi royals, but from 1MDB, a government-run strategic development company where he served as chairman. Poor Najib was simply the unwitting victim of a network of 1MDB officers who embezzled $4.5 billion from the fund, kept comparatively meager amounts for themselves, and then deviously planted the lion’s share of the loot in Najib’s accounts to implicate him as the mastermind behind their corruption.
Unconvinced? You’re in good company. Neither was the trial court that convicted Najib last July on seven criminal charges including money laundering, criminal breach of trust, and abuse of power for his role in the 1MDB scandal, the world’s largest kleptocracy scheme. Najib faces 12 years in prison and a $49 million fine if this verdict is upheld. (And this is only the first case—he faces another 35 criminal charges in related cases.)
But alas, there is a very real possibility that Najib’s conviction will be set aside on appeal. Not because his account of how the $681 million ended up in his account has gotten any more plausible (despite Najib’s new legal strategy), but because Najib and his party—which is now back in power—are drawing out the process as best they can in order to give themselves sufficient time to subvert the judicial process and manipulate public opinion.
The bulk of Najib’s prosecution occurred during the brief period, from May 2018 through March 2020, when a coalition of opposition parties, led by former Prime Minister Mahathir, took control of the government. But Najib’s more politically savvy party quickly regained control, about five months before the trial court found Najib guilty. The judge who presided over that criminal case was subsequently transferred to civil court earlier this year. The Chief Registrar of the Federal Court claimed such transfers were normal and that the judge would complete his ongoing criminal docket, but one of Najib’s other corruption cases was instead reassigned. Furthermore, the replacement judge has already ruled against the prosecution in at least two 1MDB cases not involving Najib (see here and here) and has excluded key prosecutorial evidence in a 1MDB case in which Najib and his political party are third-party claimants. This is not in and of itself evidence of wrongdoing—impartial judges issue rulings in favor of defendants (even guilty defendants) all the time if the prosecution has failed to prove its case or made procedural errors. But Malaysia has a long history of political interference with the judiciary, at least in highly politicized cases. Consider what happened back in 1988 when then-Prime Minister Mahathir responded to growing judicial assertiveness by amending the country’s constitution to place the judiciary under the control of Parliament and subsequently removing a series of contrarian judges and justices. Or just look at poor Anwar Ibrahim, an opposition politician whose repeated convictions and acquittals align closely with the level of threat he posed to the ruling party. More generally, given the outsized influence the prime minister has over judicial appointments and promotions, lower court judges have strong incentives to issue rulings that favor the PM’s party.
Of course, trying to manipulate the judiciary into reversing Najib’s conviction may be a tall order, because doing so could provoke public outrage. But first getting a bunch of lower court acquittals on some of Najib’s other charges may raise sufficient doubt as to his guilt to provide political cover for an eventual ruling in Najib’s favor from the Federal Court (Malaysia’s highest court). Perhaps just as significant, Najib and his party are using the opportunities presented by the long, drawn-out Malaysian judicial process to try take control of the narrative and sow the seeds of doubt as to his guilt in the minds of the Malaysian public. (Najib and his lawyers have taken full advantage of the opportunities to delay the process, offering various excuses to postpone arguments in his case, including pink eye, somewhere more important to be, a different eye problem, possible COVID exposure, somewhere else more important to be, and—in a creative twist on the classic “the dog ate my homework” excuse— an injury one of his attorneys suffered while playing with his dog.) Every postponement gives Najib and his party more time to convince the public of his innocence and to quell dissenters. Najib has also used this time to rebuild his personal political brand, first presenting himself (and his party) as a necessary bulwark against “minority rule” by communities that threaten the dominance of the Muslim Malay majority, and then by recasting himself as “a man of the people” in a public relations blitz that even included a music video. Unfortunately, it seems to be working: Najib has only grown in popularity since his conviction. And the more popular he becomes, the lower the risk that an eventual acquittal by a politically pliable court might trigger a public backlash.
Najib’s efforts to shape the narrative and manipulate public opinion are greatly helped by the government’s suppression of free speech. Since regaining power, Najib’s party has wasted little time in cracking down on independent media organizations (including a police raid on Al-Jazeera’s offices) and other groups that played a key role in exposing Najib’s corruption, while also reviving abusive laws used to investigate and prosecute speech critical of the government. Thus, as the judiciary quietly bends to the will of the corrupt elite, savvy political parties inundate the public with tightly controlled messages and distractions. The crackdowns on the media also increase the odds that an acquittal won’t be too closely examined or too loudly protested.
In Malaysia, then, the struggle for justice has become a race against the clock. The next court, sensing a shift in the political winds, may give Najib’s absurd explanations more credence. The more time that passes—and the more the ruling party is able to manipulate the courts, intimidate the media, and shape public opinion—the less chance there is that Najib and his key co-conspirators will be held accountable for their crimes.