The story of Najib: A victory, a tragedy
Many are hailing the jailing of former prime minister Najib Razak for corruption as a victory for Malaysians. Some describe it as a victory for the judicial system while others attribute it to his karma.
But it’s also a tragedy of immense proportions; a tragedy that holds many lessons for Malaysians, in particular those in power.
On a personal level, it is a tragedy for Najib and his immediate family. On a national level too, it’s a tragedy.
Najib, scion of a respected family, started his 12-year jail term for corruption Tuesday evening after his last hope for an acquittal was quashed by a five-member Federal Court.
Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, who headed the bench, described it as a simple and straightforward case of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering.
She said: “We are unable to conclude that any of the findings of the High Court, as affirmed by the Court of Appeal, were perverse or plainly wrong so as to warrant appellate intervention. We agree that the defence is so inherently inconsistent and incredible that it does not raise a reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s case.”
The High Court had, on July 28, 2020, convicted Najib on all seven charges of abuse of power, CBT and money laundering in relation to the misappropriation of RM42 million in funds belonging to SRC International, then a 1MDB subsidiary. It sentenced him to 12 years’ imprisonment and a fine of RM210 million.
On Dec 8, 2021, a three-member Court of Appeal panel upheld his conviction and sentence.
It’s a tragedy because Najib showed immense potential and promise when, at the age of 23, he leapt into the national consciousness after winning the Pekan parliamentary seat unopposed in 1976 upon the death of his father, Abdul Razak Hussein. Razak, of course, was the country’s second prime minister.
With such a pedigree, he could only go up and up, and he did for a long while. He proved a capable menteri besar of Pahang and held various portfolios in subsequent Cabinets before eventually becoming prime minister in 2009.
In the early months as prime minister, Najib came across as a reformer, someone wanting to improve the lot of the people and take the nation to greater heights.
He indicated a willingness to make the government more accountable, improve civil service efficiency, ensure transparency and make economic participation more equitable for all Malaysians.
I remember praising him and the direction he was taking in the Leader I wrote for the New Straits Times in July 2009 to mark the first 100 days of his prime ministership. I noted that Najib had pledged to introduce drastic measures to reduce crime and fight corruption.
I never figured, for one moment, that Najib himself would be jailed for corruption sometime in the future. I never figured that Najib himself would be found guilty of committing a crime and jailed. I’m sure he wouldn’t have either.
I ended the Leader by saying: “It is clear from the measures announced that Najib has his pulse on the nation’s needs and the people’s desires…. These measures, and those taken earlier, indicate that the good ship Malaysia is moving ahead at sound speed, helmed by a capable pilot.”
Najib has let me down, as he has countless other Malaysians who saw in him someone who would not only bring about much-needed reform but also greater glory to the nation.
Instead, his jailing for abuse of power, CBT and money laundering has undone whatever good he had done previously. We have to acknowledge that he contributed to the good of the country, at least in earlier years, when the Malaysian economy grew and Malaysia’s macroeconomic policies received positive assessments from such bodies as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
However, midway during his prime ministership, his enthusiasm for reform waned. He was accused of restricting whatever little freedoms that had been gained in the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi years.
Many Malaysians see the jailing of Najib as a victory for the people and a warning to others not to indulge in corrupt practices. Many are praising the judges for standing their ground amidst courtroom drama and delaying tactics, and indirect pressure from certain groups and parties.
I imagine seeing former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad smirking. For him, it is indeed a victory for he had been hounding Najib for years and his 2018 general election campaign was grounded on 1MDB and the corruption allegations against Najib.
He went all out to oust Najib as prime minister and, later, to put him in jail. His wish has come true.
However, it’s a tragedy for Najib’s family, and especially the legacy of the respected late Razak Hussein. And Najib still has other corruption charges to answer in the courts.
Despite the jailing of Najib, there are Malaysians who see him as a champion of certain sections of people. One young Malay told me Najib was a fighter for Malay rights and he’d always have his support. An Indian politician told me no prime minister had done as much for the Indian community as Najib had and that “even if others call him a thief, I will continue supporting him”.
But Najib’s jailing for corruption does not just damage his name, it also tarnishes the image of Malaysia as he was prime minister at the time the crime was committed.
Although, on one hand, the conviction and jailing of Najib will be seen internationally as a victory for justice and Malaysia’s judicial system, it will also cement the view that corruption is rampant in the highest offices in Malaysia.
And that is a tragedy.
But that is not all. The Najib issue has divided Malaysians. Today, there are those who think he deserved to be jailed and those who think he didn’t get justice. We don’t need yet another wedge between Malaysians as we already have too many.
Also, most of us, and especially our leaders and senior officials of government agencies, have spent an immense amount of time, energy and resources in handling or discussing this issue. From 2015 to 2022, the focus on 1MDB, SRC International and Najib has robbed us, as a nation, of time and energy that could have been spent on more fruitful matters.
If there had been no SRC International and 1MDB-related issues, government leaders and senior bureaucrats could have spent more time and energy on improving the economy and developing the country.
And we would not have to repay billions in debts. Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz said in July that the remaining debt commitment of 1MDB stood at RM32.08 billion as at June 30 this year. This money could have been put to better use.
Once the most powerful man in the nation, Najib is now inside a prison cell. If it can happen to a prime minister, it can happen to anyone.
Perhaps what happened to Najib can serve as an anti-graft message that teachers and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission can employ in efforts to educate young people on the evil of corruption.
But don’t for a moment assume that the jailing of Najib will end corruption. It won’t. After a few weeks, if not days, it’ll likely be business as usual.
However, we can hope that it will serve as a lesson to everyone, especially politicians and senior government servants, to wield the power granted to them responsibly.
It will indeed be an even greater tragedy if they, and we, don’t learn from this.