On Tuesday (Malaysia time), a Malaysian court found former Prime Minister Najib tun Razak guilty on seven counts of corruption, and sentenced him to twelve years in jail and a nearly $50 million fine. Najib remains out on bail, pending an appeal of his conviction, but he also faces multiple other outstanding charges that could lead to an even longer jail sentence.
Although Najib’s case had been widely documented, both in court and in many in-depth investigative articles, the verdict still came as something of a surprise. The political winds in Malaysia had, in recent weeks, appeared to favor Najib. Najib had long dominated Malaysian politics, prior to the 2018 election that ousted his coalition, and in recent months the Mahathir Mohamad/Anwar Ibrahim-led coalition that defeated Najib in 2018 had lost power again.
Amidst in-fighting in the Mahathir/Anwar coalition and the onset of COVID-19, they gave way to a government under the control of an old Najib ally, and dominated by members of Najib’s party, UMNO, which has ruled Malaysia since independence, except for 2018 to 2020.
Najib had continued to play a significant political role behind the scenes, even as he awaited trial and UMNO was in opposition, and remained influential as his allies retook the reins of government. He also became more active on social media in the run-up to the trial, and used social media to position himself more in the populist and more accessible vein of other Southeast Asian populists, trying to shed his image as a stiff and corrupt politician.
Under the new UNNO-dominated government, which has a very shaky hold on parliament, Malaysian prosecutors had dropped corruption charges against an important Najib ally, Musa Aman, giving no real reason for suddenly dropping the charges. The sudden reversal in the Musa Aman case, and the decision by the new government to settle with Riza Aziz, Najib’s stepson, seemed to suggest that, with UMNO back in control of the government, Najib might be spared as well.
In recent weeks, the new Malaysian government also reached a deal with Goldman Sachs over the bank’s links to Malaysia’s 1MDB state fund, which was at the center of the charges against Najib. Goldman agreed to pay $2.5 billion to Malaysia, less than the Malaysian government originally had demanded, and Malaysia also dropped criminal charges against the bank.
Ultimately, however, Najib’s case may have been so large, and the allegations of graft so enormous and polarizing in Malaysia that a court had to convict him. It do so, too, in a clearly-stated and thorough judicial opinion. And the verdict may reduce Najib’s power significantly; he cannot run for parliament now if a snap election is called, and the ruling may deprive him of his ability to wield influence behind the scenes within the governing coalition.
But still, this initial step in Najib’s case may not signal that much has changed in Malaysia. If Najib’s allies remain in control of parliament—a big if, given their narrow majority in parliament—he might still be spared. James Chin, a leading Malaysia expert, told the New York Times that he expected Najib’s case would be overturned on appeal, as long as UNMO held the government. And even if Najib is not ultimately acquitted, the verdict against him may allow UMNO and its allies to remain in power, purging themselves of the taint of Najib and seeming somewhat impartial in the court decision—and thus keeping UMNO in control.