On Tuesday, February 12, former Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak will go to court to face corruption charges related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Many of his countrymen see this as an important test of how serious the Mahathir administration is in defeating corruption.
The Department of Justice of the United States called the 1MDB scandal “kleptocracy at its worst,” since the state fund had allegedly lost S$ 4.5 billion, said to have been siphoned by Najib and other officials during his term. Ironically, the fund had been established to generate more economic opportunities for the country.
The former Prime Minister is facing 42 counts related to the scandal. Among them are charges that he obtained almost one billion SGD into his private accounts, as well as money laundering.
He has denied all the charges.
Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, have been in the public eye since he was arrested in July 2018, with S$ 363 billion worth of goods confiscated from them by the authorities. Rosmah herself is facing 20 corruption, tax evasion, and money laundering charges, but, like her husband, has denied all allegations against her.
Many Malaysians have watched, fascinated and appalled, as her designer purses, jewelry and watches have been paraded in the news.
Citizens are watching out for the trial with bated breath since this is the first time a national leader is defending himself against criminal charges. At the same time, all eyes are on the current Prime Minister, who has vowed to go after corruption and to punish the guilty in the 1MDB scandal.
While enjoying popular support, the country’s slowdown of economic growth has caused discontent in some sectors. This could be detrimental to the coalition Mahathir formed to remove Najib from power.
Mahathir launched a National Anti-Corruption Plan on January 29, urging both public servants and businessmen alike to remain untainted by corruption, in the light of the damage brought by the 1MDB scandal.
The Prime Minister and his Finance Minister, Lim Guan Eng, have boldly gone after multinational banking institution Goldman Sachs as well former employees of the bank, in connection with the 1MDB scandal. Lim said last month that the Malaysian government is asking the bank for 10 billion DGD as compensation.
Malaysians looking for a swift resolution in the 1MDB case may end up disappointed since cases such as these usually take a long time before they are settled. The Nikkei Asian Review quotes Akhbar Satar, the president of the Malaysian chapter of Transparency International, as saying, “Never underestimate white-collar criminals. Some of them are so powerful and rich that they will buy witnesses to win.”
In its most recent Corruption Perception Index, Malaysia has only gone one step higher, ranking 61 out of 180 countries last year.
But Satar sees a reason for optimism for the future and expressed hopes that other public officials will follow the Prime Minister’s example. “It looks like only Mahathir is the one chasing down those involved in corruption. We hope to see all ministries show to the public that they are also anti-corruption.”