Justice Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali obviously arrived at an extremely difficult decision in the High Court in Kuala Lumpur on July 28 2020 that he was compelled to convict former prime minister Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak on all seven charges related to the SRC case. This was on the basis of the proceedings in court. This ruling is being appealed. The case had gone on for almost 17 months. While the case was going on at the tail end of the eleventh month there had been a change of government in the country.
Different Prime Ministers
The conviction of Najib has taken place under the administration of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin, the country’s 8th prime minister while the criminal charges were laid under the country’s 7th prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad. This attests to the continued seriousness and vigour with which the Malaysian legal service has consistently handled this matter.
Najib himself had somewhat inappropriately made some positive reference to that change of government in a different court.
Harun Idris, a former Menteri Besar of Selangor was charged under the Tun Razak Hussein Administration and convicted and sentenced under the Dato’ Hussein Onn Administration.
Both Dato Harun and Dato Sri Naijib had served as Menteri Besar of their respective states. Both had been in the course of their political careers head of the Youth Wing of their political party. Both were popular politicians often going to extraordinary lengths to attend to minority issues.
Both had faced some unsettled controversy over sensational issues- Harun on the 1969 May 13th Incidents and Najib on the murder of Altantuya Shaaribu on October 19, 2006. Both these episodes occurred in Selangor.
Harun was keen on sports, especially football and his leadership saw the Malaysian football team make it to the top ranks in Asia. The hosting of the Ali-Bugner fight put Malaysia on the world map of boxing. Najib’s actions, innocent or otherwise, put Malaysia on the world map for kleptocracy.
Highest Profile Cases
Najib’s corruption and abuse of office case and the conviction recorded is the country’s highest profile corruption case in 45 years. It was reported that defence counsel Tan Sri Shafee Abdullah in arguing a plea to delay mitigation said this was the “ biggest case in the world. “Shafee reportedly claimed that he could not do a mitigation without clear instructions from his client. Was he assisting the Court? If that was indeed the case the penalties would correspondingly be the most severe that could be meted out.
However the trial judge did not take that cue from Shafee and did not impose the maximum sentences allowed under the law. The sentence was tempered out of consideration for Najib’s own mitigation plea, perhaps his pedigree and his contributions to the nation. Some people will recall the 10 year prison term handed down on appeal to a Malaysian in the BMF case in Hongkong in the 1980s.
In the early 1980s a former cabinet minister was sentenced to a long prison term for murder.
In the mid-1970s Dato Harun bin Idris was convicted in two separate cases- the Bank Rakyat case from which he drew no monetary benefit whatsoever and the HSBC case. On appeal the sentences in these cases were enhanced. Raja Tan Sri (as he was then) Azlan Shah in convicting Harun at the High Court had referred in May 1976 to ‘ a frightening decay in the integrity of some of our leaders. ‘
Rare Breed of Impeccable Judicial Temperament
In delivering his well reasoned judgment Justice Nazlan joins the rare breed of distinguished members of the Malaysian judiciary who have shown impeccable integrity, impartiality and a robust but reasonable judicial temperament in conducting a fair trial and convicting a powerful and popular high profile political leader. Some of those judges who acted without fear or favour with dedication to the duty of upholding the law were Tun Suffian Hashim, Raja Tan Sri (as he was then) Azlan Shah, Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman Pawan Teh and Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader.
At High Court level the three judges (if Nazlan is included) who heard the cases against both Harun and Najib recognised the considerable importance and contribution of the personage on trial. Eusoffe said in sentencing Harun that he found ‘it a sad and tragic moment to have a person of your standing before me for sentence.‘ Raja Azlan had said ‘It is painful for me to sentence a man I know. I wish it were the duty of some other judge to perform that task.’
Unlike these two luminaries who sentenced a contemporary of theirs, Nazlan was in for a far more difficult task. He was sentencing an older, more seasoned man, a former prime minister who was a good 13 years older than him. Najib was also the son of a distinguished second prime minister of the country and the nephew of an illustrious third prime minister.
The lead prosecutor, Dato’ V Sithambaram also showed exceptional acumen in prosecuting this case in a meticulous matter of fact manner shorn of dramatics. This was also the style of Tan Sri (as he was then) Salleh Abas, the then solicitor-general who prosecuted Dato Harun’s case.
Another interesting aside of these cases, although taking place almost half a century apart, was the proximity of the postal addresses of the two convicted persons. In the 1970s case the accused, with 10 letters that made his name had lived at No. 10 Jalan Langgak Duta while in the instant case the one with 11 letters to make his popular name is listed as living at No. 11 on the same street in the prestigious Taman Duta area.
Unlike Najib’s late legendary father however Harun’s father was not a previous prime minister but he himself would be regarded in many circles as a legendary and outstanding figure.
Needless to say the sums bandied about in Najib Razak’s cases are astronomical while those in the Harun Idris case were relatively small. Harun was ordered by the Federal Court to pay back RM250,000 to the Federal Government (and not to UMNO) while Najib’s obligation is a substantial RM210 million. It has to be remembered the billion dollar term only entered popular usage in Malaysia with the BMF case in the 1980s but Najib has taken it upward into tens of billions.
A constant feature in both cases is the role of the current opposition leader, Saudara (as he was then popularly addressed) Anwar Ibrahim. Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim has consistently and courageously fought and highlighted corruption and it was he, some will remember, who first brought attention to the enormous cost of Dato’ Harun’s bungalow’s front gate in the early 1970s at the University of Malaya campus. Had he not been incarcerated with the harried mitigation momentum of Friday, March 7 2014 the excesses of Najib’s licentious and luxurious lifestyle in more recent years would have been better explained and exposed to the public.
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience