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  • Mathieu Yap

Corruption, Accountability and Islamism: Malaysian Politics 8 years after 1MDB

On Friday 2nd of February 2024, news emerged that the sentence of Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak, convicted for his role in the 1MDB scandal, had been halved by the country’s Pardons Board. In a sign of how Malaysia’s political landscape has struggled to move on from the financial debacle, the announcement triggered outrage and relief alike in the country.

On the face of it, the decision to halve Razak’s 12-year sentence (and reduce his fine by 75% to just 50 million ringgit, or $11 million) severely undermines the rule of law in Malaysia, where top officials have often been accused of graft with few consequences. Though long accustomed to this, Malaysians were infuriated when news emerged in 2015 that Razak and a Malaysian businessman, Jho Low, had siphoned off over $4.5 billion from Malaysia’s 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) state-owned strategic development company, using the funds to sustain their lavish lifestyles. The ensuing international corruption scandal resulted in massive protests in Malaysia, with Razak and his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition being voted out of office in 2018 and found guilty on 7 counts of corruption. After finally exhausting his appeals, he was imprisoned in 2022.

Understandably, angry accusations of undue leniency towards former high-ranking officials in Malaysia haven’t limited their focus to the significant reduction in Razak’s sentence and fine; many news outlets have highlighted how the Pardons Board, chaired by Malaysia’s king Sultan Abdullah, granted Razak’s request for an early hearing, while innumerable less privileged convicts have waited for years without receiving a hearing.

This also poses a political headache for Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Ibrahim’s government, a coalition of centre-left political parties named Pakatan Harapan (PH), came to power after pledging to root out corruption as a core part of its election campaign. However, PH only won 82 seats in Malaysia’s 212-seat federal legislature, necessitating an alliance with the formerly dominant  BN (which won 30 seats) to form a parliamentary majority. Despite quickly initiating several anti-corruption investigations against former high-ranking government officials, the Parole Board’s decision to partially pardon Razak comes following a court’s sudden dismissal of 47 embezzlement charges filed against the current Deputy Prime Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi; making Ibrahim’s promises to eliminate graft and preferential treatment for high-ranking officials hollow.

Partially pardoning Razak, while unpalatable and symbolic, is thus not only likely necessary to preserve the cooperation of Barisan Nasional and the coalition government, but also to stave off the rise of Perikatan Nasional (PN); arguably the primary beneficiary of Barisan Nasional’s fall from grace since 2015. Led by its largest member party, PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party), which has long dominated Malaysia’s northern rural states, PN boosted its number of seats from 32 to 74, making it the country’s second-largest coalition. This increase has been attributed to the tainting of BN’s image by the 1MDB corruption scandal and the loss of its popular leader Razak, with many Malay voters switching allegiances to Bersatu (a splinter party originally from BN, now part of PN) as a result.

The PAS-led PN’s core ideologies of Islamism, religious nationalism and social conservatism stand in stark contrast to PH’s principles of civic nationalism, multiracialism and social liberalism, and are substantially more extreme than BN’s centre-right to right-wing brand of national conservatism.

For context, Malaysia experienced race riots in 1964 and 1969, while government socio-economic policies have been accused by some of being so pro-Malay and discriminatory. Nevertheless, multiracialism remains popular in Malaysia, a country with 3 main ethnic groups: Malays (62.5% of the population), Chinese (20.6%) and Indian (6.2%). Given its Islamist ideology and the regressive Shariah-based policies it has either implemented or advocated for in the states which it runs, a PAS-led government would be a catastrophic blow for multiracialism, national unity and human rights in Malaysia. PAS’ dissemination of anti-Chinese racial culture war rhetoric and misinformation during the 2022 General Election to stir up both its support base and racial tensions only reinforces this notion.

Pardoning Razak can thus be seen as an attempt to appease the majority of Ibrahim’s governing coalition as well as some voters: many of BN’s members viewed Razak’s imprisonment as being politically motivated, and the former prime minister remains popular with large tracts of Malay voters, some of which may have begun supporting Bersatu and might be inclined to switch back to BN (and thus the governing coalition). This impact may be particularly strong if it is deemed likely that Razak will be released before Malaysia’s next election, scheduled for 2028. On the other hand, voters prioritising anti-corruption efforts can take solace in the fact that the former prime minister, who remains influential within his party, still faces a raft of other 1MDB-related charges and could face additional sentencing at any time.

Given the uncomfortable reality, the Parole Board’s decision to partially pardon Razak is more of a strategic compromise for the greater good of Malaysia than a blatant example of political unaccountability for graft. The vast changes to Malaysia’s political landscape since the 1MDB scandal mean that the country’s multiculturalism and human rights are facing an unprecedented political threat: rooting out corruption and political favouritism is not only more complicated but also, regrettably, not always a priority. If a temporary slowdown in anti-corruption trials is the cost of protecting multi-racial harmony and human rights in Malaysia, then it may well be a price worth paying.

Image: Flickr - UN Women/Ryan Brown



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