KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Najib Razak, 69, is Malaysia’s first ex-prime minister to go to jail – a big fall for a veteran British-educated politician whose father and uncle were the first and third ministers of the country, respectively.
The huge 1MDB financial scandal directly linked to him was not only a personal blow, but also shook, at least temporarily, the control his party, the United Malays National Organization, had over Malaysian politics . UMNO had traditionally enjoyed the support of the country’s ethnic Malay majority and had headed the National Front coalition government since the country gained independence from Britain in 1957.
Najib created the state investment fund 1MDB shortly after taking power in 2009. The US Department of Justice and other investigators alleged that Najib’s associates stole at least $4.5 billion from 1MDB between in 2009 and 2014, and laundered them through layers of bank accounts in the US and other countries to finance Hollywood films and extravagant purchases that included hotels, a luxury yacht, artwork and jewelry. Then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the scandal as “kleptocracy at its worst.”
The Justice Department’s civil filings also alleged that $700 million was transferred from bank accounts used in money laundering to the “Malaysia 1” bank account. He did not name the official, but corroborating details made it clear that it was Najib.
Najib in July 2020 was sentenced to 12 years in prison by the Malaysian High Court after being found guilty of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering for illegally receiving 42 million ringgit (9 .4 million) from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB. .
Najib has maintained his innocence and had been on bail pending his appeals.
The Court of Appeal upheld his conviction and sentence in December, describing the case as a “national disgrace”. On Tuesday, the Federal Court upheld the lower court’s decision, sending Najib straight to prison to begin his sentence.
Najib had once presented himself as a liberal and reformist leader of the predominantly Muslim country of more than 33 million people. He speaks impeccable English with a stylish accent, has his own blog and has a strong following on social media.
At the same time, he often seemed far removed from the concerns of ordinary Malaysians and the poor rural Malays who are the base of his UMNO party. The opposition mocked him for once saying he prefers to eat quinoa, an expensive grain imported from South America, over rice, a staple of the Malaysian diet.
Revelations after his downfall revealed a serious taste for luxury, especially on the part of his wife, Rosmah Mansor, who has also faced criminal charges. The total value of cash, jewellery, watches and handbags seized in 2018 from properties linked to Najib amounted to at least $273 million, police said. The haul included 12,000 pieces of jewellery: 2,200 rings, 1,400 necklaces, 2,100 bracelets, 2,800 pairs of earrings, 1,600 brooches and 14 tiaras, along with 567 handbags, 423 watches and 234 sunglasses.
Malaysia has long been beset by corruption, but has generally been associated with monetary policy designed to help keep UMNO in power.
Najib entered politics in 1976 after the death of his father, becoming at 22 Malaysia’s youngest lawmaker and two years later the youngest deputy prime minister in history. He became prime minister in 2009, replacing Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was blamed for the National Front’s reduced majority in the previous year’s elections.
As finance minister and prime minister, Najib guided his country through the 2009 global financial crisis, abolished draconian colonial-era security laws and reached out to ethnic minorities with a campaign ” 1Malaysia”. Former US President Barack Obama praised him as a “reformer with a long way to go”.
However, his National Front coalition suffered a further loss of support in 2013, losing the popular vote to the opposition for the first time although it still won 133 of the 222 parliamentary seats.
In response, Najib imposed repressive new security measures and increasingly pandered to Islamists and ethnic masculinity to shore up his Malay support base. Opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was convicted of sodomy for a second time in 2015 and jailed in a case he said was concocted by the government to crush the opposition.
As he came under increasing pressure over the 1MDB scandal, Najib fired critics of his government, including an attorney general and a deputy prime minister, and clamped down on the media.
The new attorney general cleared Najib in 2016, saying the money was a political donation from the Saudi royal family and most of it was returned.
A 2018 election tested the damage done to Najib by the 1MDB scandal. The leadership of Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister who left UNMO and campaigned vigorously despite being in his nineties, was crucial to an alliance formed to topple Najib. Popular with his fellow Malays, Mahathir led the country from 1981 to 2003, during which he was credited with the country’s economic growth.
Najib’s coalition won just 79 out of 222 seats in Parliament, its worst ever result, while Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan, the Alliance of Hope, won 121 seats.
Despite the electoral debacle and his graft conviction, Najib remained politically influential. His UMNO party leads the current government after defections by lawmakers led to the collapse of Mahathir’s reformist government.
“I think the guilty verdict is a very, very good result for Malaysia. The Malaysian public has been waiting for the former prime minister to go to jail for a long time,” said James Chin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia, to The Associated Press. “So with today’s verdict, it’s pretty clear, at least in the case of Malaysia, that even if you’re in the No. 1 political position and you’ve done something wrong, you’re going to have to pay the price.”