‘Free Najib’: Can Malaysia’s disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak weather one last storm?

Malaysia’s former prime minster Najib Razak stares at the prospect of spending his sunset years in jail if convicted.
Reuters

He’s calm, he’s cool and he’s going to weather this storm.

These are the fighting words from loyalists to the fallen Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak as the 64-year-old stares at the prospect of spending his sunset years in jail.

Najib’s arrest and arraignment this week for criminal breach of trust and abuse of power linked to the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal lays bare the extent of his stunning fall from grace following the election victory of Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old veteran politician who once hand-picked him for power. It was the first time in Malaysian history that a prime minister had been hauled to court to face criminal charges.

Each of the four charges over alleged wrongdoing connected to SRC International, a former subsidiary of 1MDB, carry a maximum 20-year jail sentence. Yet that may not be the full extent of his legal woes.

With prosecutors in the US – one of six countries probing the 1MDB affair – claiming some US$700 million of US$4.5 billion plundered from 1MDB made its way to Najib’s personal accounts, the current charges – involving just 42 million ringgit (US$10 million) of allegedly misappropriated funds – could be just the beginning.

Before the shock May 9 election result, the British-educated economist, ever the cutting image of a debonair gentleman because of his penchant for expensive suits, silk pocket squares and an immaculately trimmed moustache, oozed confidence – never letting on any inkling of concern that investigations into the scandal he once tried to suppress would come back to haunt him.

When revelations about 1MDB’s losses first surfaced in July 2015, one of Najib’s first instincts was to fire dissenters within his Cabinet as well as the then sitting attorney general, who was drawing up charge sheets against him.

Now, nearly two full months since Mahathir’s early morning victory speech on May 10, Najib’s long-time supporters have found themselves far from the corridors of power. Instead, they are crowdfunding to help their leader with legal fees.

Najib loyalists like Razlan Rafii say the effort is a small price to pay for a leader who has “given his life for this country”.

“Mahathir will do everything in his power to [paint] Dato Seri Najib as a bad person … but that won’t stop us from doing everything we can to help Dato Seri,” Razlan, a youth leader from Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno), told This Week in Asia, using the former leader’s honorific title. He started a “Free Najib” fund this week to help the leader with the bail amount and potentially hefty legal fees. The fund had collected 204,393 ringgit by Friday (July 6) afternoon.

At Najib’s hearing on Wednesday, his lawyer Shafee Abdullah successfully argued for the bail amount of one million ringgit to be paid in two tranches, citing his client’s lack of funds.

Authorities have frozen accounts linked to Najib and his family members as part of an extensive probe into his alleged involvement in the 1MDB scandal.

Leaders of Umno, which ruled Malaysia for six uninterrupted decades until the May 9 vote, say Najib remains “Mr Cool” despite his troubles.

Tun Faisal, a member of the party’s supreme council, said Najib appeared “strong and calm” during a recent meeting in his home.

Najib stepped down as party leader soon after the election. His former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi triumphed in elections held last month.

Zahid and others in Umno have frequented Najib’s house for meetings since their election defeat, a practice observers say signals the disgraced premier remains within the party’s inner circle despite his legal troubles.

“He [Najib] believes that he did no wrong and didn’t breach the public’s trust,” Tun Faisal said.

And Razlan, who unveiled his crowdfunding plan in the former premier’s home on Thursday, painted a similar picture.

“He’s not down at all. I would say he’s calm, and he’s happy to know that people out there are supporting him,” said Razlan, the youth leader for Umno in Kuala Lumpur.

Others close to him – some who declined to be named – corroborate the narrative that it is Najib’s nature to keep calm in calamity.

Before the election, one aide told This Week in Asia: “He’s never impolite, always patient, never raises his voice.”

That patrician air, however may have been a mask for darker attributes.

“That’s one of the reasons we fell, right? The man didn’t see it coming. He’s calm because he’s in a state of denial,” said one senior politician from the ruling coalition who was among dozens of heavyweights who lost their seats to novices from Mahathir’s bloc.

“He couldn’t read the facts on the ground … we failed the country and the party because we completely stopped challenging him towards the end,” said the politician.

Prominent political blogger Firdaus Abdullah said now-contrite Umno politicians knew Najib might have been involved in wrongdoing, but “focused on handouts … [and] making money rather than rectifying the situation”.

No matter their views of the man, the people who spoke to This Week in Asia all said the road ahead would be the toughest yet for Najib, who is seen by many as privileged because of his political lineage.

The son of Malaysia’s second prime minister Abdul Razak and the nephew of its third, Hussein Onn, Najib’s ascension as the country’s sixth premier in 2009 thrust the country into the league of Asian countries like Pakistan, India and Singapore which have had ruling political dynasties.

At the point of his swearing in, Najib enjoyed considerable goodwill because of his late father’s place in the pantheon of Malaysian politics.

Abdul Razak, prime minister from 1970 to 1976, is widely viewed as the man who rescued the country from all out race war as he took the helm soon after ethnic riots in 1969, instituting order using emergency powers.

He was also the architect of the country’s bumiputra policy that grants the majority Malays special rights in education and business – now a key plank of the national social contract.

Najib entered politics at age 22 upon Abdul Razak’s death, taking over his father’s rural parliamentary seat of Pekan in the state of Pahang.

He was handed his first junior minister role in 1978, at age 25, and later went on to hold the culture, youth and sports, education and defence portfolios before being handed the mantle of the premiership.

“It’s easy to forget he was once someone many of us respected,” said one former television journalist who had covered the embattled leader since the early days of his political career.

He said: “He was the son of a former prime minister, not just any old politician and his uncle was a former prime minister. This is true pedigree. For us young Malay men back then, this is the pinnacle of achievement.”

Likely to stand trial within months – attorney general Tommy Thomas has said his chambers will apply for the trial to begin in November – Najib will not be able to lean on his father’s legacy to absolve himself.

“The Razak legacy is tainted … but Malaysians still see the difference between [father and son]. People will continue to distinguish between the frugality and principled leadership of Tun Razak, and the lifestyles that Najib and [his wife] Rosmah Mansor lead,” said Awang Azman Awang Pawi, a professor of politics at the University of Malaya.

Tun Ismail, the Umno leader, says there will be no let up in the party’s efforts to convince the public that Najib did no wrong.

He said in the coming months, Najib’s supporters would take a five-pronged approach to helping their leader’s cause: organising rallies, questioning the “legality” of a special 1MDB task force set up by Mahathir, questioning the police and anti-corruption investigators “for allowing themselves to be the tool of the government”, explaining “unfair allegations” against Najib to the public, and reporting comments made by government leaders that are in contempt of court.

Oh Ei Sun, a former aide to Najib, said if he were his old boss, he would “consider plea bargaining and not high-profile protagonism”.

“If I were him, I would keep my head low and not make a sound from now on, lest even more serious charges are thrown his way,” said Oh.