Najib’s verdict spells judicial change in Malaysia

Executive efforts to influence the judiciary have also become more difficult. Neither political camp has a firm grip on parliament — after all, three prime ministers have been elected in three years.

Björn Dressel, ANU, East Asia Forum

On 23 August 2022, Malaysia’s top court unanimously made Najib Razak the first former Malaysian prime minister to be jailed. It upheld his graft conviction and the 12-year jail sentence for looting investments from Malaysia’s 1MDB state fund.

The verdict concludes four years of legal manoeuvrings, delaying tactics and backroom interventions by Malaysia’s King and Prime Minister. There were even last-minute efforts to challenge the impartiality of Malaysia’s top judge, Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, in order to remove her from the final appeal.

Although the Najib case was widely documented, both in court and in the press, the outcome was still unexpected to most observers. In 2020, in the run-up to his trial and after the reformist Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition under former prime minister Mahathir, which defeated Najib in 2018, lost power, the influence of Najib and the United Malays National Organisation-led (UMNO) coalition resurged. When prosecutors in the scandal abruptly settled with key actors and dropped corruption charges against a close ally of Najib, he looked likely to escape conviction.

Then came the shock — the five-member panel of the Federal Court argued that Najib’s case was ‘a simple and straightforward case of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money laundering’. The Court declared the appeal ‘devoid of any merits’, stating that ‘the evidence … points overwhelmingly to guilt … so much so that it would have been a travesty of justice of the highest order … to find that the appellant is not guilty’. It found Najib guilty on all seven charges — validating the decisions of the trial judge and the Court of Appeal.

The verdict, remarkable in its clarity and assertiveness, focuses the spotlight on the Malaysian judiciary — an institution long thought to have succumbed to the executive. More than five decades of UMNO party dominance and the constitutional crisis in 1988 raised doubts about the independence and professionalism of the judiciary — particularly in high-profile political cases.

The surprisingly assertive judgment provided by the Federal Court has raised questions about the future of the Malaysian judiciary. Three interrelated factors may have influenced the Federal Court decision.

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