Malaysia set to decide on jailed former PM Najib’s high-stakes bid for royal pardon

A royal pardon for the former premier, who’s serving a 12-year prison sentence for graft convictions tied to the 1Malaysia Development Bhd debacle, could turn into a hot political potato for PM Anwar Ibrahim, say observers.

(CNA) – Malaysia’s Pardons Board, which is headed by its king, is set to determine soon whether to grant disgraced former premier Najib Razak a royal pardon to his 12-year jail sentence for convictions tied to the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) debacle, a decision that could have political ramifications for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government and the country’s monarchy.

Najib’s application for a royal pardon first came before the Pardons Board in a meeting in December, but the matter was deferred to this month’s session, which is now scheduled for the third week of January and likely to see a decision being made.

The six-member body had decided at the meeting – which was attended by outgoing King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah and also by Mr Anwar – that it needed more time to deliberate on the matter, according to senior government officials who spoke to CNA on condition of strict anonymity.

This month’s crucial meeting will be one of Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin’s last official tasks before he steps down from the throne on Jan 31 and hands over the monarch role to Johor ruler Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar under the country’s unique rotation system for its nine Royal state households.

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, giving the king the final word on the pardon for convicted criminals, a similar system that governs neighbouring Thailand.

When contacted by CNA, lawyer Shafee Abdullah, who leads Najib’s defence team, declined comment on grounds that he did not want to complicate the pardon process.

But another senior member of Najib’s inner circle told CNA that they feel “some degree of positive vibes” from the Pardons Board in deliberating over the petition should it be raised in the upcoming meeting.

A high-profile royal clemency was last handed down in mid-May 2018 when the then-king, Sultan Muhamad V of the Kelantan royal household, granted a full pardon for Mr Anwar who was at the time serving a five-year jail sentence from 2015 for alleged sexual misconduct, a charge many Malaysians believed was part of a high-level conspiracy to keep him out of national politics.

Mr Anwar had earlier filed two separate petitions for a royal pardon, in 2015 and 2017, and both were rejected by the Pardons Board.


But the circumstances surrounding Najib’s petition for a royal pardon are not so straightforward, lawyers and government officials noted.

Najib, who was Malaysia’s premier for nine years till May 2018 and its first PM to be imprisoned, began serving his jail term in August 2022 after failing in two appeals to overturn his conviction by a Malaysian High Court two years earlier.

Then came another twist. Just days after he began serving his sentence at the Federal Prison of Kajang on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur, Najib filed an application for a royal pardon.

At the time, public opinion over the former premier and the president of the long-established United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party was hugely adverse, amid a lingering animosity over widespread corruption and the fallout from the 1MDB debacle that sullied Malaysian international reputation.

The May 2018 general election witnessed the first change of political power in the country since independence in 1957.

Senior government officials familiar with the matter noted that at the time of the Conference of Rulers, which counts the nine heads of the country’s royal households, were reluctant to consider a royal pardon due to a number of issues.

While awarding a pardon is solely the prerogative of the king and his brother sultans, a convicted person is only eligible to go before the Pardons Board after serving out what is considered to be a reasonable period of time commensurate to his sentence.

Separately, Najib’s conviction also carries a fine of RM210 million (US$41.2 million) that remains unsettled.

1MDB, which was a Najib brainchild shortly after he became premier, turned into one of the biggest scandals to rock Malaysia and the international financial community. US and Malaysian investigators estimate that more than US$4.5 billion was stolen from the fund and another US$1 billion flowed into accounts held by Najib.

There was also the view then among analysts and politicians from both sides of the divide that any hurried granting of a royal pardon for Najib, who is still facing other corruption charges in separate cases involving 1MDB, could potentially trigger concerns over the country’s judicial system and adversely impact on investor confidence in the country.

In early December, Najib’s lead defence counsel, Mr Shafee filed a fresh application for the Pardons Board to revisit his client’s clemency application, which led to the change of heart among certain members of the Pardons Board, government officials close to the situation noted without elaborating.

“The government is aware of the public sentiment about the issue of a pardon for Najib, but this is a matter that is entirely up to the king,” said a senior official in Anwar’s administration who asked not to be named.


Public knowledge of the Pardons Board is very limited and its inner workings are shrouded in secrecy. It is therefore unknown whether the Pardons Board had ever discussed Najib’s petition for a royal pardon at its meetings prior to the December session.

PM Anwar had reportedly said earlier that the board’s meeting on Apr 28 last year did not discuss whether Najib should be freed or not.

Each of Malaysia’s 13 states has its own Pardons Board that is headed by either the Sultan or governor, for states such as Penang, Melaka, Sabah and Sarawak.

The exception applies to the three Federal Territories, namely Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital of Putrajaya and Labuan island on Borneo.

In the Federal Territories, the Pardons Board is headed by the king and consists of five other members. Apart from three members appointed by the king and whose identities are kept confidential, the other two are the Attorney General and the Federal Territories Minister.

The Pardons Board does not function on a scheduled basis and only meets if and when there are cases for consideration.

According to senior government sources, Mr Anwar had attended the Pardons Board meeting in December that decided to defer considering the Najib petition because the Federal Territories portfolio, which was vacant at the time, was operating directly under the Prime Minister’s Office.

At this month’s meeting, the Anwar administration will be represented by Dr Zaliha Mustapha, the country’s former health minister, who was appointed to the Federal Territories portfolio in last month’s Cabinet reshuffle.


The 70-year-old Najib desperately needs a positive outcome from the upcoming Pardons Board meeting because an outright rejection of his petition would mean that he would have to wait for another two years before a fresh application can be filed, said lawyers familiar with the pardon process.

But there is talk among senior political operatives in the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition government that this month’s meeting of the Pardons Board may deliver a decision that would take some sort of middle ground, akin to the clemency received by fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

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