Najib Razak, the former prime minister of Malaysia, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Tuesday for his connection to the 1MDB scandal, in which corrupt officials and their international partners looted billions of dollars from a state development fund.
Now 67 years old, Najib was prime minister of Malaysia from 2009 to 2018, when the 1MDB scandal brought his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) Party crashing down after 61 years of uninterrupted rule. Najib’s father was the second prime minister of independent Malaysia, and his uncle was the third.
Najib was knocked out of office in 2018 by his onetime mentor, 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad. Growing complaints about corruption during his reign exploded when the public learned that staggering amounts of money had been systematically pillaged from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, widely known by its acronym 1MDB.
“Berhad” signifies a limited public corporation in Malaysia, and 1MDB was among the largest ever conceived, established by Najib in 2009 to create a bustling new financial district and attract major foreign investment.
The 1MDB project raised over $8 billion to achieve its lofty goals and roughly half of it was stolen using every trick in the very thick book of corruption, from kickback schemes and phony business fronts to millions of dollars simply wandering into the personal accounts of top political leaders, including Najib himself. When the police raided one of his houses after he lost the election, they were seen carting away huge piles of expensive designer goods, jewelry, and literal suitcases full of cash.
Some of the money allegedly even found its way into a big Hollywood movie: The Wolf of Wall Street, a 2013 film about the giddy excesses of corrupt financial tycoons. One of the producers of the movie was the son of Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor from a previous marriage. The former first lady is also on trial for multimillion-dollar corruption charges and is arguably even more despised by the public than Najib, thanks to her high-profile extravagant spending. Her lawyers once complained in public about the police manhandling her $270 million collection of handbags and jewelry in the process of confiscating them.
Mahathir Mohamad’s administration has been working with banks and law enforcement around the world, including in the United States, to claw back as much of the looted 1MDB money as possible. Goldman Sachs reached a $3.9 billion settlement with Malaysia last week for its role in the 1MDB meltdown, but Prime Minister Mahathir believes the company owes more than twice that figure.
The 1MDB scandal has ended careers and destroyed financial institutions around the world over the past few years, and it has geopolitical ramifications as well. A January 2019 report by the Wall Street Journal revealed that Najib was working with senior Chinese officials on a bailout scheme that would have involved China using its diplomatic and economic clout to shut down international investigations into 1MDB in exchange for highly lucrative deals to for Malaysian infrastructure projects as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Both Najib and Chinese Communist Party officials denied the allegations in the report.
China has also been accused of harboring the most wanted fugitive from the 1MDB crime spree, financier Jho Low. Among other excesses, Low is the one who allegedly pumped stolen Malaysian public money into The Wolf of Wall Street and other Hollywood productions. In 2019, Low reached a $700 million settlement with the U.S. government. He is hiding out in an undisclosed location but occasionally makes himself available for interviews in which he claims to be a scapegoat for the massive global banks and investment houses that really looted 1MDB.
Najib was found guilty on Tuesday of seven charges, including abuse of power and money laundering, in the first of five court cases brought against him. Each charge could have carried up to 20 years in prison, but he was sentenced to 12 years plus a fine of roughly $50 million in U.S. dollars and a whipping. Malaysian legal analysts expect him to be spared the whipping due to his advanced age.
High Court Judge Mohd Nazlan Mohd Ghazali’s ruling described Najib as the “shadow director” of SRC International, a subsidiary of 1MDB, and found him guilty of dishonestly appropriating some $10 million of its funds for his personal use. Mohd Nazlan rejected as “far-fetched” and “self-serving” claims by Najib’s attorneys that he was merely a befuddled victim of master scam artist Jho Low.
“I am surely not satisfied with the result. This is definitely not the end of the world, because there’s a process of appeal, and we hope that we would be successful then,” Najib told reporters after the sentence was handed down.
While most Malaysians appear relieved by the verdict and view it as a chance to give their scandal-plagued country a fresh start, hundreds of Najib’s supporters thronged outside the courtroom to demand his release and accuse the judge of colluding with Najib’s enemies in an act of “political vengeance.”
Writing at Nikkei Asian Review in early July after some charges against Najib and his family were dropped, Asian studies professor James Chin of the University of Tasmania speculated that a comeback for Najib could be in the cards despite public anger and his seemingly dire legal straits.
Among other things, prosecutions are infamously subject to blatant political control in Malaysia, and Najib’s UMNO party is starting to regain some of its power and prestige. Chin noted Najib is still a heavyweight in UMNO, and other party leaders have a vested interest in settling the complaints against him and clearing his name while the public is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Chin warned readers not to write Najib off, even if some court decisions appeared to go badly for him, as was the case on Tuesday. “In this region, grand corruption is not a mortal sin in politics,” he noted.
“If Najib comes back into power, the culture of kleptocracy which enabled 1MDB — whoever was responsible — will make a swift comeback,” Chin warned.