Malaysia Is Getting Back to Politics as Usual With Najib’s Pardon
The clemency seems shocking—but it’s a result of Malaysia’s tangled and back-scratching politics.
Joseph Rachman, Foreign Policy
Malaysia’s pardons board has halved the prison sentence of disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was convicted in 2020 for his involvement the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal that he oversaw when in office. Thanks to the pardon board, Najib will serve six years instead of 12, with his release scheduled for August 2028—and potentially as early as 2026 with parole. The fines imposed on him have also been cut sharply, reduced to 50 million ringgit ($10.6 million) from 210 million ringgit ($44.5 million). Najib is still facing trial on other charges related to 1MDB, but experts suggest that these may be harder to prove.
The clemency seems shocking—but it’s a result of Malaysia’s tangled and back-scratching politics. The 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal, which involved the misappropriation of government development funds, is one of the largest money-laundering scandals ever, and Najib was up to his neck in it. The government now in power is also mainly made up of parties that came to power in 2018 by campaigning vociferously against Najib’s corruption and vowing to bring him and others to justice.
In theory, the clemency offered to Najib is a prerogative of the Yang-di Pertuan Agong, Malaysia’s monarchical head of state role, which is held on a rotational basis by the country’s various sultans. In public, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, wary of backlash, has emphasized the royal role in the granting of clemency.
But there’s a strong belief among the general population that Anwar and his cabinet will doubtless have been involved in the shaping of the decision too. “I don’t think it’s fair to just push this to the sovereign,” said Khairy Jamaluddin, a former cabinet minister and a former senior leader in the United Malays National Organization who is now expelled from the party in a bitter internal power struggle.
According to the constitution, the Agong, while holding ultimate discretion regarding pardon decisions, is advised by the Pardons Board, whose membership currently includes the attorney general and a cabinet minister. Royals have usually exercised power to lighten the sentences of criminals they deem repentant. But the power has also been deployed for reasons of political expediency in the past—including pardoning Anwar to allow him to reenter politics after the fall of Najib. The unusually swift processing of Najib’s case has also raised questions as to whether the government expedited the process.
The political logic is also clear. The government currently controls a comfortable 147 of 222 seats in the lower house of parliament. But this majority relies on the support of a rump of nearly 30 legislators from the UMNO, the party that Najib once led. The party still contains a number of Najib loyalists, including the party’s former information chief, Isham Jalil. The sentiment is stronger still at a grassroots level, where the new UMNO leadership has not purged all its critics.
Anwar needs to keep UMNO sweet for two reasons. If the party defects from the coalition, Anwar’s government would likely collapse. The government majority would drop to just six votes, leaving it fatally vulnerable to possibility of the handful of legislators who had defected from the opposition coalition on confidence and supply measures defecting back—and small and regional parties jumping ship as well.
Political paranoia is already running high. An adequate performance by the government in key state elections last year helped shore up the uneasy alliance. But in January, rumors emerged of a plot by the opposition to entice government lawmakers into defecting. While nothing came of it, the rumors stirred memories of how a government largely made up of the parties currently in power was brought down in 2020 by just such a scheme.
The second key reason that Anwar needs to keep the UMNO sweet is that he is relying on the party to keep enough Malays supporting the government to win the next election. The key parties that make up the ruling coalition rely on the support of ethnic minority voters, mainly Chinese and Indians, who respectively make up 22.9 percent and 6.6 percent of Malaysia’s population.
Malay fears that they will lose the leadership of national politics paired with stereotypes about Chinese economic dominance give Malay chauvinism a big role in in the country’s politics. Special privileges for Malays in government jobs, scholarships, and business are enshrined in law. Even though the government has no intention of touching these politically explosive privileges and is led by a Malay prime minister, Malay hackles have still been raised by a government that relies on minority support. The opposition, made up of a Malay nationalist party and an Islamist party, has made this issue a key feature of their campaigning, proclaiming that the Ketuanan Melayu, the lordship of Malays, is in danger.