Time for Malaysia to move on from 1MDB
The filing of extra charges against former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak over a state fund corruption scandal leaves the courts to decide the issue. Though this is not final closure, it enables the government to put the affair to one side and focus on other important agendas
The latest charges against former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak fulfil his successor Mahathir Mohamad’s pledge to bring him to account for the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund corruption scandal. Some of the 25 allegations directly linking Najib to the multibillion-dollar case, which include the transfer of some US$700 million into Najib’s bank accounts, carry a maximum 20-year jail sentence. They could mean the 64-year-old faces the rest of his life in prison. This is in addition to charges over the transfer of US$10 million from a former unit of 1MDB set up for investment in energy projects, which also carry 20-year sentences.
As prime minister, Najib was accused of derailing efforts to investigate the alleged disappearance of US $4.5 billion from 1MDB. The filing of the most recent charges leaves the courts to decide the whole issue according to the law. Though this is not final closure, it enables the government to put the 1MDB affair to one side and focus on other important agendas.
All sides must now leave the judicial process to run its course and be seen to respect the outcome. It is an early test of respect for the rule of law and its institutions that most voters expected when they returned Mahathir to the position he occupied from 1981 to 2003.
A month after its milestone first 100 days, the government is facing a critical time, ahead of its first budget next month and hard decisions that will test its unity in a racially and ethnically charged political environment. According to opinion polling to mark the milestone, the government retained approval ratings of 60-70 per cent, despite having delivered on only two promises by then – abolishing a controversial consumption tax and stabilising the price of petrol.
Some analysts attribute this in part to the focus on economic reform and to having the unpopular Najib brought to account. But the run-up to Christmas and the Lunar New Year will be the real test of consumer sentiment and the health of the economy.
Meanwhile, Najib’s trial should serve to remind all sides that if confidence and trust is to be maintained in a culturally divided society, transparent checks and balances on power and judicial independence are paramount.