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Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s prime minister-in-waiting, expects former premier Najib Razak to be jailed over 1MDB graft

Anwar’s release from prison on Wednesday capped an astonishing week in Malaysian politics – and it has also imperilled Najib, who Anwar said now faces an ‘arduous’ legal battle without the protection of high office

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 May, 2018, 4:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 May, 2018, 7:10pm

Newly released Malaysian political heavyweight Anwar Ibrahim said on Thursday he expects former premier Najib Razak to be jailed over multibillion-dollar graft claims.

“Give me a few months, I should be back as an MP. It is the correct thing to do,” said Anwar, a day after he walked free from custody, where he had languished since 2015 on what supporters say were trumped-up charges levelled at Najib’s behest.

Anwar’s release on Wednesday capped an astonishing week in Malaysian politics that saw Najib’s long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition booted from power in a revolution at the ballot box. The election dramatically reversed Anwar’s fortunes, from prisoner to presumptive successor to 92-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It also imperilled Najib, who Anwar said now faces an “arduous” legal battle – without the protection of high office.

Accused of overseeing the plundering of state fund 1MDB, Najib’s position has looked increasingly precarious. Police carried out extensive searches of his home overnight. Anwar predicted that Najib would likely take up the spot he had just vacated in prison.

“He will certainly be charged,” he said.

Anwar declined to say how he thought Najib’s case would play out, as it depended on “how he can defend himself in court”. But Anwar added: “It will be very difficult for him to escape [going to] prison.”

Mahathir, who came out of retirement to lead the revolt against Najib, has vowed to hand power to Anwar within two years.

US investigators say Najib’s associates stole and laundered US$4.5 billion from the 1MDB fund. Najib denied any wrongdoing. The new government has barred Najib and his wife from leaving the country and police early on Thursday raided his house in search of evidence.

He will certainly be charged ... It will be very difficult for him to escape [going to] prison
Anwar Ibrahim

Anwar said Najib called him on the night of the May 9 polls after it was clear that Najib’s National Front coalition, which ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, was losing. He said Najib appeared to be still in denial and that he advised Najib to concede defeat.

“He was full of himself, thinking he could succeed and even toying with the idea that he will regain a two-third majority [in parliament] which is clearly outrageous to most people but he is convinced,” Anwar said in an earlier interview. “He is just oblivious to the stark realities, he is in a cocoon.”

Anwar also said a decades-old affirmative action policies for the country’s Malay majority must be discarded in favour of a new programme to help the poor regardless of race.

Malaysia’s prime minister-in-waiting also said he plans to run in a by-election this year to become a member of parliament but that he is in no rush to take over the top job.

Anwar, 70, was convicted of sodomy in 2015 in a case he said was politically motivated. His sentence expires on June 8 but he was given a royal pardon on Wednesday and freed from custody.

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Anwar said poor Malays will benefit more from merit-based policies that are transparent. He said the New Economic Policy, instituted in 1971 following bloody riots fuelled by Malay discontent with the relative affluence of ethnic minority Chinese, has been abused to enrich the elites.

The programme, which gives preference to Malays in government contracts, business, jobs, education and housing, is credited with lifting millions of Malays out of poverty and creating an urban Malay middle class. 

It is also blamed for a racial divide between Malays, who account for two-thirds of Malaysia’s 31 million people, and minority Chinese and Indians who have long complained about government discrimination.

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The policy is a sensitive issue, with many Malays fearing they will lose their privileges under a new government. Many ethnic minorities have left Malaysia in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

“I have said that the NEP should be dismantled but the affirmative action must be more effective. I believe that poor underprivileged Malays will benefit more through a transparent, effective affirmative action policy rather than the New Economic Policy which has been hijacked to enrich the few cronies,” said Anwar, a Malay.

Anwar, who changed Malaysia’s political landscape with his reform movement after he was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998, said he had expected his alliance to win with a small margin but did not expect the victory to be so complete.

[Najib] was full of himself, thinking he could succeed … He is just oblivious to the stark realities, he is in a cocoon
Anwar Ibrahim

Anwar was once a high-flyer in the National Front but was convicted of homosexual sodomy and corruption after a power struggle in 1998 with Mahathir, who was prime minister for 22 years until 2003. 

He was freed in 2004 but convicted again in 2015 of sodomy, which he said was concocted to destroy his political career.

Anwar worked from his prison cell to forge a new opposition alliance by ending his two-decade feud with Mahathir, a gamble that paid off when the alliance won the polls. Mahathir has taken office as the world’s oldest elected leader.

“It’s a long wait … the struggle is 20 years. There was continued humiliation, victimisation but it’s OK, we survived. There’s no need to complain too much,” Anwar said. 

“I think we should focus our attention now on how to alleviate the poor, how to reduce this inequality, how to stop these excesses and endemic corruption which is part of the culture now.”

Anwar said forgiving Mahathir and rebuilding their friendship in the country’s interest wasn’t as difficult as he thought and that they can “emerge as two great friends again”.

He played down concerns about possible tension with Mahathir, saying he would not hold any cabinet post for now to give Mahathir “a free hand” in running the country. 

But Anwar said he plans to return as a lawmaker by running in a by-election this year as well as spend time with his family and travel abroad for speaking engagements. He praised Mahathir as an “indefatigable fighter”.

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“He chose a good ending to this episode. I don’t want to deny that we had serious disagreement on policies and excesses but now he said: ‘Look, I owe it to this nation that I loved and I want to make amends and the corrective measures,’” Anwar said.

Anwar said the new government faces huge challenges in cleaning up the financial mess left by 1MDB and putting in effective policies, but he is confident Malaysia can emerge as a “beacon for democracy and justice in the region and more so in the Muslim world”.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse