Weird, unusual, unheard of things are happening in Malaysia. A junior immigration officer on a modest salary is thought to own a Rolls Royce. A backdoor government assumes the high moral ground and acts imperiously to boost its bloated legitimacy. A deputy minister proposes printing currency notes to address poverty. A high-tier judge who avers atrocious conduct by his peers is being subject to an emollient ‘ ethics’ enquiry. To top it all, a convicted former prime minister out on bail acts out convincingly the part of an avid crusader of good governance.
Dato Sri Najib’s Conviction
Justice Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali was the High Court judge who convicted Dato Sri Najib Tun Abdul Razak and sentenced him to a prison term of 12 years and fined him RM210 million. These were probably mild sentences for a leader with the highest authority who had squandered money, scandalised and smeared the good name of Malaysia.
Undeniably it was probably the heaviest and most unpleasant assignment any judge in the history of Malaysia could have had. To his credit Nazlan executed his duty with patience, professionalism and polish. He learned in the course of the trial of how the most powerful man in the country had appointed directors, subordinates and staff to do his bidding. Dato Sri Najib had had a battery of outstanding lawyers defending but he was still convicted.
The judge noted during sentencing that Najib must have a sense of right and wrong and it was astounding to the judge that the accused showed no sign of remorse for the crimes he was guilty of. Then, when it was indicated that the accused was going to appeal the conviction Nazlan granted him bail.
By early August Najib had been able to post bail and began to make appearances in public and soon after even in political campaigns and parliament as an upstanding, unequalled an unassailable leader of Malaysia.
His twitter following was impressive and he had transformed himself from his Bosku position of an underdog awaiting trial to aspire to the pinnacle of popularity in the country as some paragon of reasonableness, responsibility and respectability. He is now perceived to be the nation’s most powerful powerbroker who will possibly determine the tenure of the present and next prime minister.
This is the prevailing helpless reality of Malaysia today. No one seems to be able to do anything about this situation because, as a people we have painted ourselves into a corner. A whole nation has been vanquished, vandalised and victimised by elected lawmakers.
It is a time when, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least 80 percent of the population including children and adolescents are largely confined to their homes, when travel beyond one’s own district is strictly regulated, when absolutely free, unconvicted people are confined to the vicinity of their homes and some of them have barely enough or not enough money to buy essentials. And there are regularly reports by a senior federal minister that there have been hundreds of arrests for flouting the Conditional Movement Control Orders (CMCO)and the Recovery Movement Control Orders(RMCO).
These errant ones are being made usually to pay a compound of RM1,000 which is a lot of money for the average Malaysian who has often lost a portion of earnings, possibly his employment and his entire savings.
This spectacular phenomenon of a duly convicted former prime minister who seems to be seen everywhere, pontificating, criticising and carrying on as if he is the ultimate authority on good governance while he is out on bail is baffling, to say the least.
He still has many more charges to answer but all his cases have been postponed on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. This again is an irony because while he has the reprieve he needs this convicted man can still enjoy a wide latitude of freedoms as an elected MP.
Any person lower down the economic or social strata after being convicted at the High Court would theoretically have these same freedoms. In real terms however in the exercise of those freedoms that convict would normally be subject to certain constraints and strictures, a harsher judgment by family, friends and society which would be more interested in seeing his or her acquittal and discharge if they believed in the person’s innocence.
Unlike this former prime minister that person would not be subject to this extreme kind of scrutiny but the convicted person would be expected to show some emotion of being contrite, some discretion when in public and possibly remorse that he had subjected his family and friends to this kind of unfavourable exposure. At the very least that person would hold his or her head down, not strut about like a proud peacock in a parade.
In the case of Najib, from day one he has acted as if this whole action of the state’s legal authorities was misguided and misdirected. The remarkable thing is that Justice Nazlan painstakingly heard this case and made a decision that was probably the most difficult one he would make in his entire life. It was a fair and full trial. The facts of the case are that there was flagrant abuse of power and a crystal clear breach of trust.
The trial exposed a series of events that there was entrenched elite corruption and abuse of power at the pinnacle of the nation’s administration. Some of these actions impinged on the deliberate circumvention of well established safeguards relating to trusteeship, the application of common sense and the proper custody and management of public funds.
Instead of acting as a trustee of public monies in a pension fund he liberally sought personal access through various subterfuges to a portion of the fund. Then Najib helped himself, as if he was the owner of the funds to a substantial sum for private and personal enjoyment.
These funds could not or were not appropriately handled or managed by those entrusted by proper authority because Najib could overrule them and if they were not obedient or compliant to his wishes they could be subject to pressure, punishment or possible loss of employment.
In Malaysia very few serving officials would challenge or cross their prime minister. Their faithful but grudging execution of some of the most preposterous directives was in accord with the top-down culture, power distance dynamics and the all powerful status of the prime minister.
Even before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic Najib had given extraordinary and exceptional meaning to the phrase “innocent until proven guilty.” He was given leave by the court to attend parliament and carry out his political activities. He went about his political activities as if there was no stigma attached to the charges levelled against him.
While elite corruption and the concomitant state capture by the elite is a feature of some developing countries it has been recognised as a particularly pertinent problem by the late Prof Syed Hussein Alatas long before he passed away in 2007.
For those of the post-World War 2 generation there would be awareness of pockets of elite corruption. What was remarkable about Najib’s cases were the astronomical sums involved and his hefty credit card bills which were a huge multiple of his known legitimate earnings.
The perturbation and shock over the allegations against Najib were understandable. No one attempted to hold him to a standard that was much higher than their own. Najib’s nonchalance and indifference to the sense of unexpressed outrage felt by his cohorts of his own generation was incomprehensible.
He continues to maintain his innocence and has invariably acted to shore up his populist political standing. Living in a functioning democratic environment with a good legal system Najib could have played a more responsible and proactive role by opting for a withdrawn and subdued life.
He could instead have appealed for calm and assisted the court to carry out its functions more efficiently without being subject to aggressive posturing by his supporters.
Instead he seems to have egged on his supporters to display the support he has. Given his cash-is-king mantra naturally the question arises as to whether this was a display of sincere support or were the crowds being rented with payments and other incentives.
Najib’s cases, the conviction he received on July 28 and his obstreperous conduct have introduced a new facet to the already existing divisions in Malaysian society. The
polarised country is in somewhat of a moral nightmare.
Najib certainly did many good things and he has segments of the population that would be grateful but those positive attributes cannot possibly diminish the gravity of his wrongdoings. Najib has to bear the blemish of burdening the nation with debt, difficulties and disgrace. The people are sharply divided, and instead of helping to heal this division he is fuelling it hopefully, it would seem, to escape punishment.
In the famous P Ramlee film Anak-Ku Sazali of 1956 Sazali had been brought up by his loving widowed father with utmost affection and care. Sazali turns to a life of crime in his adult life and is being sought by the police.
When Sazali turns up at his father’s house the father allows him in. But the father also calls the police to alert them of Sazali’s presence in his house. The police acting on that tip-off would then apprehend Sazali. Among other things this was a clear indication of the moral compass of Malaysian society where people have a sense of right and wrong, an attribute that Justice Nazlan had spoken of in his judgment.
It is noteworthy that in the 1970s civil servants were often told that when there was suspicion of corruption it was bad enough. Proof was only needed to prosecute the person. In Najib’s case there was an abundance of evidence provided by witnesses, documents and circumstances.
With the current Covid-19 pandemic entering its 11th month Malaysia is being ravaged by a series of extremely difficult problems and challenges. One of them is the shaky nature of the government of the current prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin who came to power with the help of a large group of MPs associated with Najib.
After tasting the extent of his power which unseated the government of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Najib continues to unsettle and ruffle the current government. This is entirely the prerogative of Najib.
The truth is that the country needs to have a strong government to cope with the multiple challenges posed by Covid-19 and its disastrous impact on the country. Najib, if he has any sense of patriotism and right and wrong ought to help the country to heal its divisions and move on.
Najib’s current role is far from constructive. It has put magnificent Malaysia on rather murky ground.
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador