By Asif Ullah Khan
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what has gone wrong.
Sitting in a lonely cell at the Kajang Prison in Selangor, these words from Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’ must be ringing in the ears of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak. On August 23, 2022, the Federal Court convicted Najib to a 12-year prison sentence on charges related to a multi-billion dollar graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). A scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family of Malaysia, whose father Abdul Razak and uncle Hussein Onn has been the prime ministers, Najib’s fall from grace has surprised even cynics, who thought that corrupt politicians never go to jail. The suave British-educated Najib must be wondering why Dr Mahathir Mohamad, his mentor, who owes his prominence in Malaysian politics to his family, triggered his downfall. Given the track record of Dr Mahathir, Najib should have known that Dr Mahathir takes no prisoners. Before him, Anwar Ibrahim, another protégée of Dr Mahathir, with whom he shared father-son relationship and had groomed Anwar to take over him met the same fate. Considered to be the prime minister-in-waiting, Anwar fell out with Dr Mahathir over his handling of the 1998 Asian financial crisis.
Dr Mahathir sacked him and after he launched Reformasi movement, Anwar was jailed on sodomy and corruption charges in 1999, which was widely criticised by human rights groups. In 2015, when Najib was prime minister Anwar was again jailed for a five-year term on a sodomy charge. That is why Anwar recently attributed Najib’s conviction to his karma.
In 2003, when Dr Mahathir at the peak of his unpopularity decided to step down, he wanted Najib to replace him. It may be mentioned here that it was Najib’s father late Abdul Razak who initiated Dr Mahathir’s political rehabilitation after he was expelled from United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) following his feud with the then prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Abdul Razak, after becoming prime minister in 1970 brought back Dr Mahathir into UMNO and made him education minister.
When Abdul Razak died in 1976, his brother-in-law Hussein Onn took over and appointed Dr Mahathir as his deputy despite open differences with him. In July 1981, when Hussein Onn resigned due to health issues, Dr Mahathir replaced him.
During Dr Mahathir’s 22-year rule, Najib’s political ascent began. First, as the education minister and then defence minister. And when in 2003, Dr Mahathir quit, he wanted Najib to become the new prime minister. However, the party overruled him and Abdullah Badawi, hailing from a prominent religious family, was made prime minister with Najib as his deputy. Dr Mahathir got more political ammunition for rooting for Najib when during Abdullah’s second term the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional returned to power with a reduced majority.
Dr Mahathir launched a campaign against Abdullah, calling for him to be replaced by Najib. In July 2008, Abdullah resigned and when Najib was named his successor he created a history of sorts with both father and son holding the post of prime minister.
However, Najib’s tenure was marred with allegations of corruption and mismanagement. His ambitious project 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) turned out to be the biggest corruption scandal in history. The 1MDB fund which was supposed to kickstart Malaysia’s economic development was allegedly misused by Najib and his cronies for personal use.
This again brought back Dr Mahathir to active politics. This time Dr Mahathir, not only called for Najib’s resignation but also cobbled a rainbow alliance by triggering defection in ruling UMNO, joining hands with former political foe Anwar and the Malaysian Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP). In the 2018 general election, Dr Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) created a Malaysian Spring of sorts when it ousted the UMNO-led Barison Nasional, which has ruled Malaysia since 1957.
In Mahathir’s second term as prime minister in 2018, launched dozens of criminal charges against Najib for corruption, money laundering and criminal breach of trust. When lady Chief Justice of Malaysia Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat rejected Najib’s appeal for a stay on sentence, Dr Mahathir’s second protégée was sent to jail.
Although Dr Mahathir has ruled out contesting the 2023 general election as he would be 98 then, however, writing a political obituary of Dr Mahathir can be a perilous endeavour. The nonagenarian leader has time and again defied the doomsayers, proving that the reports of his political demise have been greatly exaggerated. One Malaysian political analyst rightly says ‘this political cat has nine lives, maybe more’.
Asif Ullah Khan is a freelance journalist based in Jaipur and has worked in senior editorial positions at The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, Khaleej Times and The Brunei Times.