Commentary: The reinvention of Najib Razak, former prime minister of Malaysia

HOBART: On Monday (Nov 11), a Malaysian court ordered former prime minister Najib Razak to present his defence against seven counts of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power in a case linked to SRC International.

Many in Malaysia expressed happiness with this verdict and think that Najib will finally be found guilty in a court of law over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Unfortunately, the reality is slightly different.




First, the verdict delivered yesterday was not a ruling on Najibs culpability. It was simply a court procedure forcing Najibs legal team to present a legal defence to charges relating to about RM42 million (US$10 million) that ended up in his personal account.

The money came from a RM4 billion loan taken by SRC International from a government-backed civil servant pension fund, KWAP.

The 1MDB scandal which helped topple Malaysia's corruption-plagued former regime AFP/MANAN VATSYAYANA



At the time the loan was taken, SRC International was a separate legal entity from 1MDB though it had started off as a subsidiary of 1MDB.

READ: Commentary: Jho Lows fantastic Houdini disappearing act

Second, the ruling simply allowed the trial to go ahead to hear Najibs defence, which is likely the position that the RM42 million was a donation from a friendly Arab source, and nothing to do with SRC International.

Third, most legal observers already expected this ruling. When the prosecution proves a prima facie case, the accused will have to enter his or her defence before a verdict is granted.

In simple terms, what happened yesterday was that the judge decided there is enough evidence to proceed to the full trial – nothing more.

According to Najibs defence team, their defence will be completed just before Christmas so dont expect a verdict until at least after Christmas.


But the more serious 1MDB trial that we should be paying attention to is running concurrently with the SRC International case.

READ: Ex-Goldman banker in 1MDB case to face Malaysia trial next year

This one deals with the actual money from 1MDB and is still ongoing.

FILE PHOTO: Boxes of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) documents arrive at Kuala Lumpur High Court in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin/Files

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In this trial, Najib faces 25 charges in total – four for abuse of power that allegedly brought him financial benefit to the tune of RM2.3 billion, a quarter of the 1MDB fund, and 21 for money laundering involving the same amount of money.

This one is far more interesting than the SRC International case. Thus far, a key witness, Shahrol Azral Ibrahim Halmi, former 1MDB chief executive officer, has told the court, among other facts, the following.

First, he had no financial experience but he was appointed by Jho Low anyway.

Second, he had signed off minutes of a meeting that took place between him and the chairman of 1MDBs board of advisors, even though there was no such meeting.

Third, he described Jho Low as an "orchestra conductor” manipulating different parts and had deemed whatever Jho Low told him to do as coming from Najib himself.

Fourth, he was paid RM99,000 a month and received an 18-month bonus totalling RM1.44 million from Najib for his outstanding performance.

Fifth, the 1MDB board members did not give consent to decisions that involved splitting a US$1 billion funding. Decisions had to be approved by Najib.

Sixth, 1MDB had spent USD$17,000 on Starbucks. In a separate incident, some US$1.3 billion was wired to an account, Gold Star, and Shahrol did not check if the money was wired to its intended beneficiaries.

Seventh, Jho Lows code name for Najib Razak was Optimus Prime while Lows code name was fei lou, or “fat boy” in Cantonese.

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This trial will take some time, again dont expect any verdict until next year at the earliest. But we can expect more revelations.


Yet, despite the two concurrent trials, Najib appears to have lost none of his political stardom.

He has reinvented himself as a social media influencer with the tagline “Malu apa bossku” (what is there to be ashamed?). His social media postings are widely read. He has more than 4 million followers on Twitter alone. Najib even appeared in a music video rap version of Bossku.

He has been invited to many key political events organised by the opposition and is always seated at the front row of any UMNO event. This is despite the fact that it was under his leadership that UMNO lost power after holding power since independence.

In any normal political system, Najib would have been isolated and his party UMNO will try to hold him at a distance.

But this is Malaysia where facts often do not matter. In a social media age, star power and the ability to shape political messages are far more important.

Najibs political star is so bright that he is among those who have hogged the media spotlight when campaigning for the Barisan Nasional in the Tanjung Piai by-election. He has even asked the court to be excused this coRead More – Source