1MDB prison threat hangs over Najib's resurgence in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR • In 2018, former Malaysian leader Najib Razak looked like a dead man walking: He lost his job after a shock election defeat and was arrested in connection with a scandal that allegedly saw billions in stolen cash laundered through superyachts, Hollywood films and even a Pablo Picasso painting.

Now, suddenly, Najib's fortunes are looking up.

Last month, he helped lead Umno to a big win in Melaka state, prompting the party - which now leads a shaky coalition after a series of upheavals in Parliament - to consider calling an early national election.

The goal would be to restore the dominance it enjoyed during more than five decades of uninterrupted rule prior to the party's surprise loss in 2018.

For Najib, the stakes could not be higher. In July last year, the High Court sentenced him to 12 years in jail and gave him a RM210 million (S$68 million) fine after finding him guilty of all seven charges in a case involving roughly US$10 million (S$13.7 million) of funds deposited in his personal accounts from a former unit of troubled state fund 1MDB.

Najib has denied wrongdoing, and a court is set to decide on his appeal this week.

If that ruling goes against Najib, he can still stay out of jail while he appeals again. But if the guilty verdict is held up eventually, Najib would be disqualified from serving as a lawmaker or standing for elections. And beyond that, he still faces more trials on dozens of other 1MDB-related charges.

"That is why he is fighting so hard for his political career," said political analyst James Chin from the University of Tasmania. "He knows only politics can save him."

Najib has maintained his innocence throughout, saying he did not benefit from 1MDB or steal money from the fund. For now, he is taking advantage of the spotlight, blasting the opposition and portraying himself - a prime minister's son educated in Britain who loves golf - as a champion of the little guy.

On the campaign trail in Melaka, he attracted crowds of adoring fans seeking photos. After Umno's victory, his supporters swarmed his Facebook page with calls for him to become prime minister again. Najib's office declined to comment for this story.

"Every day they talk about Najib, Najib, Najib - from social media to the election campaign to Parliament, it is the same," Najib said on Facebook on Nov 24. "Isn't there anything else to discuss in Parliament like the people's welfare or the development of the country?"

For better or worse, Najib's fate is directly tied to Malaysia's standing in the world. The 1MDB probe spanned the globe, with investigators from the United States, Switzerland and Singapore working to recoup billions of dollars belonging to Malaysian taxpayers. Any appearance of political interference in Najib's cases risks damaging perceptions of the South-east Asian nation.

"All investors looking at Malaysia will be asking 'Does this country respect the rule of law?'" said Ms Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate with the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia.

Facebook has been Najib's main vehicle for rehabilitating his image over the past few years. He now has 4.6 million followers, more than Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim combined, and surpassing the 3.9 million of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad - Najib's main rival who unseated him in the 2018 election.

If all else fails, Najib could seek a royal pardon if Umno wins the next election. The 2018 election win cleared the way for Dr Mahathir to seek a pardon of Datuk Seri Anwar, which was swiftly granted by the King.

Either way, Najib's popularity among his fan base gives him influence over Umno, said Ms Serina Rahman, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. "Whether or not he becomes PM, he will continue to have power," she said. "He can still control what happens from the behind the scenes."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2021, with the headline 1MDB prison threat hangs over Najib's resurgence in Malaysia. Subscribe