In 2018, Najib Razzak, who had become Prime Minister with the campaign promise of liberal politics, lost a general election to his former mentor, Mahathir Mohamad. The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which had governed the country since its independence in 1957, was voted out of power. Following the downfall, Najib's properties were raided. Both he and his wife were charged with a string of offences and since then been found guilty on seven charges of corruption linked to the multibillion-dollar state investment fund 1MDB.
Najib’s history with corruption allegations is a long one. He has consistently denied the allegations and had been cleared by the country's authorities while still in office. During his tenure, he reformed strict laws on public gatherings and reinstated the controversial Internal Security Act in 2011 allowing detention without trial. The following year, he also went back on a pledge to repeal a controversial sedition law and instead strengthened it. Critics say the laws were a way for Najib to silence his political opponents and pander to the ethnic Malay-Muslim majority who formed his political party's most significant support base. In 2015, opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was convicted of sodomy for the second time. In 2016, a security act aimed at combating terrorism was used to detain electoral reform activists. Ahead of the 2018 election, Najib's government set up a law against spreading "fake news”, inadvertently used to silence campaigns by his opponents.
Despite a string of numerous allegations, the real blight of Najib's political career has been his mismanagement of the state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad. The 1MDB fund was set up in 2009 to turn Kuala Lumpur into a financial hub and boost the economy through strategic investments. It began to draw negative attention in early 2015 after it missed payments due for some of the $11 billion it owed to banks and bondholders. The fund was then indicted for money laundering and sending hundreds of millions of dollars into private pockets to acquire assets globally, including yachts, paintings, jewellery and real estate.
The US Department of Justice began investigating 1MDB, finding a diversion of $4.5 billion. Najib Razak was accused of pocketing nearly $700 million from the fund he set up. Ahead of the 2018 election, mass protests in Kuala Lumpur called on him to resign. The claims of corruption at 1MDB were a significant cause of Najib's election loss to Mahathir Mohamad, the world's oldest elected leader. Shortly after his victory, Malaysia's new Prime Minister reopened the 1MDB investigations and swore that Najib "would face the consequences" if he was guilty. Najib was forbidden from leaving the country, and properties linked to him were raided. Policemen state they recovered $273 million in luxury goods and cash, calling the seizure of valuables the biggest in Malaysian history.
US prosecutors had hinted that an anonymous individual dubbed "Malaysian Official 1" had received more than $1 billion from 1MDB, and that person is broadly believed to be Najib. Another target of the investigation is Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho, who helped set up the fund, and is accused of diverting money to himself and his associates. He, too, has consistently rebuffed any wrongdoing.
Eventually, Najib was arrested by anti-corruption authorities. He faces 21 counts of money laundering and 4 for abuse of power and negates all wrongdoing. The 12-year jail term for Malaysia's ex-Prime Minister serves as a warning that no matter how powerful one becomes, the sceptre of democracy hangs low over the heads of all public officials.
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