The ongoing prosecution and high profile trial of Dato’ Sri Najib Abdul Razak, the former prime minister of Malaysia, and the criminal charges laid against his deputy and other senior officials of his administration is turning out to be a cathartic and convulsive exercise for the country. Criminal and corruption charges have also implicated a few senior civil servants. One sitting Court of Appeal judge has exacerbated the situation somewhat by alleging misconduct on the part of some retired senior judges.
A huge cloud of suspicion has been created over the past conduct of not only the members of the Legislature but the Executive and the Judiciary. Where there should have been a clear separation of powers there appears to have been some suspicion of collusion and understanding that placed in peril fundamental principles of justice, fair play and accountability
It would seem that the extraordinary parliamentary strength of the Najib Administration, and his largely inherited most powerful prime minister-centric paramountcy in a constitutional monarchy and the capacity to pass and enforce oppressive laws had the potency to persuade, prevail and pressure the most upright members of the Executive and the Judiciary to fall in line or compromise on basic values. It is becoming known that some of these high officials had been compliant not so much to promote the National Interest and propel the country forward but to respect and reinforce Najib’s political power base, position and private wealth. There were instances, it would appear, where the highest levels of the Judiciary became involved in directing their subordinates to decide against the opposition politicians or delay judgments until the matter fizzled out.
They were involved in systematic coverups and high level institution – driven fraud which appears to have guaranteed them some kind of immunity. It would seem that they failed to realise Najib’s actions were an abuse of office.
The highest levels of the civil service were often complicit in most of the abuses of office that occurred under Najib. Senior civil servants in general have enjoyed a charmed life in the system. They could receive the Tan Sri title while in service, a privilege conferred on political leaders only on retirement. One retired but living senior civil servant had a whole facility named after him. Such privileges apply to political leaders posthumously.
Dr Mahathir, for instance does not have any facility, road or monument named after him although he was made a Tun when he retired as prime minister in October 2003.
This systematic institution- driven fraud which engulfed 1MDB, Felda and other GLCs could not have occurred without the acquiescence of senior civil servants. There was just too much of that.
For the average law abiding taxpaying Malaysian citizen the revelations of so many of these sensational happenings occurring within a span of a year is just too much.
It is incredible that Southeast Asia’s brightest star in terms of a decent, respectable and durable parliamentary democracy had been rendered into an autocratic kleptocracy , or at a stretch, a plutocracy( where business also became involved), and a year after that delinquent government was thrown out there are no clear directions as to where the country is heading.
It would appear that the government led by the region’s most seasoned political leader is dithering and no longer sustaining the drive, determination and dedication to destroy all those deficiencies and excesses created and nurtured by Najib.
That morning of May 10 2018 when most weary Malaysians retired to sleep there was so much optimism that Dr Mahathir would, as he said, “restore the rule of law,” and not take revenge. These assurances created enormous expectations.
Dr Mahathir had also assured of a new power sharing arrangement with the other allied parliamentary caucuses consisting of Amanah, PKR, and the DAP. Later the Sabah- based Warisan was tacitly included in this power configuration which effectively replaced the six-decade old asymmetrical alliance which had a dominant UMNO clearly calling the shots. There seemed to be more balance and reasonableness in this new power sharing formula.
UMNO had represented the peninsular Malays primarily and in every hierarchical calculation the peninsular Malay preceded the Bumiputeras of Sabah and Sarawak and the non-Malays. At some stage it even came to pass that in the pecking order Muslim Bumiputeras had precedence over non- Muslim Bumiputeras.
This pecking order can be discerned in the organisational pyramids of almost all elite services including the Administrative and Diplomatic Service, the Education Service and the Armed Forces. The larger GLCs also display the preeminence of the Peninsular Malays.
Surely fifty four years after the formation of Malaysia these Sabahans and Sarawakians would have probably acquired some wherewithal to head federal services like the Public Services Department, the Public Works Department and the Forestry Department. They should have unquestioned parity and equality with their Peninsular brothers and sisters.
This is certainly an area that the Pakatan Government can look at as Dr Mahathir has repeatedly spoken of the equality of all Malaysians. Yet Dr Mahathir himself is not beyond reproach because he has allowed one prominent businessperson from his home state to secure a monopoly of practically every major franchise and facility.
Those assurances by Dr Mahathir on May 10 generated the highest expectations that the “mess” created by the Najib Administration would be unraveled and the Rule of Law would prevail.
In proceeding against Najib’ s misdeeds however the government of Dr Mahathir seems to have realised that the repercussions of misconduct attributed to Najib have a wide and worrisome reach. There was, for instance, a reference to a Royal Commission on Judicial Misconduct that was bandied about. Then all has gone cold on the subject. At a procedural stage it would appear that Najib’s successful conviction would not stop there as Najib, like the fabled Ali Baba did not operate alone but astutely drew in at least forty thieves. These thieves belonged to his immediate family, political parties, the government, financial institutions, international banking giants, fashion houses, charity foundations, carpet dealers and infrastructure project awardees.
It is neither practical nor realistic, in my opinion to pursue all leads and prosecute partly to punish and attempt to recover all the embezzled funds and assets. For, to go down that track it would entail vast government resources which may destabilise the entire governance system and veer away from fundamental governance and developmental imperatives.
While not losing track of the objective to restore the rule of law, reengineering the system to achieve vital developmental goals and reducing the income gap the government has to apportion high priority to uniting the people. There is disunity and polarisation today.
Najib, very adroitly assisted by the the narrow ultranationalist Islamic party, PAS, has succeeded in creating the impression that the emergence of the Pakatan Harapan Government presages the total loss of political power by peninsular Malays, loss of Islam’s preeminent status as the country’s official religion and the marginalisation of the bumiputra community. UMNO and PAS have cleverly cast the DAP, the country’s most multiracial but Chinese- dominated party, as the dominant force in the Pakatan Harapan Government. Such propaganda is threatening and making it tenuous for the Dr Mahathiir’s government to function as an authoritative and acceptable government.
Najib has gone to the extreme extent of sabotaging Malaysia’s ratification of the International Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discrimination(ICERD) suggesting that the discriminatory practices that exist within the country be preserved and perpetuated. The goal for an equal opportunity society promised in Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto ( promise 33 of the Election Manifesto) remains unfulfilled. These practices of perpetuating traditional cleavages favouring and prioritising Peninsular Malays should be removed as a matter of urgency. Pakatan Harapan should capitalise on this issue to demonstrate the dangers inherent in the discriminatory policies of the UMNO- PAS nexus. After May 13, 1969 when Najib’s father, Tun Abdul Razak introduced and institutionalised affirmative and discriminatory policies there were some valid logical and emotional imperatives but half a century later those impulses are a trifle trite.
Two of the four essentially Malay/ Muslim led parties- Warisan and Amanah are mainly regional or state-based parties while the third and strongest PKR is embroiled in internal factional disputes.
Dr Mahathir’ s Bersatu, largely due to the Tun’s strong leadership is a solid organisation with a wider reach nationally but it carries some baggage from its past UMNO antecedents. There is widespread concern that Bersatu should not become UMNO 2.0.
Any analyst of Malaysia’s political and economic situation will state frankly that most of Malaysia’s current problems stem from UMNO’s unquestioned and unassailable supremacy in the past. Najib was a symptom of that decadent supremacy which allowed him to accumulate power to the extent that his leadership trumped over the law, logic and every local institution and inhibition.
Dato M Santhananaban
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador of the Malaysian Foreign Service with forty five years’ experience in the public sector.