Ibrahim Haron is among ordinary Malaysians who had doubted the day would come when Najib Razak, an ex-prime minister and titan who seemed untouchable to many during his nine years in power, would stand trial over allegations of massive corruption.
The prospect is just days away with Najib expected to sit in the dock, starting Tuesday at the Kuala Lumpur High Court, over a raft of money-laundering, abuse of power and breach of public trust charges.
These stem from a financial scandal in which billions of dollars were allegedly looted from 1MDB, a sovereign wealth fund established by Najib a decade ago through his dual role as PM and finance minister. He faces up to 42 charges in all.
“For years, we have been hearing that Najib did this and that. But now, finally, we will get to hear in the court of law what actually transpired,” Ibrahim, a bus driver, told BenarNews.
The trial is expected to unfold over 31 days, from Feb. 12 to March 29, officials said, but Najib’s legal defense team filed a last-minute application on Friday with the Court of Appeal seeking to postpone the trial, local media reports quoted his lawyer as saying.
Whether the courtroom proceedings begin on Tuesday or later, it will mark the first time in the nation’s 61-year history that a former prime minister will go on trial over criminal charges. Ever since Najib’s name was first tied to the 1MDB affair in 2015, and after he was first charged in connection with the scandal in July 2018, he has maintained his innocence, assuring Malaysian citizens that he never stole any of the people’s money.
In Ibrahim’s eyes, the trial of the former prime minister, 65, will be the biggest story in Malaysia in 2019. Ibrahim said it would be seared into the public conscience for the foreseeable future.
“It will be like what happened to Anwar Ibrahim back in 1998 – the talk of the town,” he said. He was referring to the Malaysian political icon and prime minister in waiting, who was twice tried and convicted on sodomy charges before being released from jail within days after last year’s general election.
Najib is expected to stand trial nearly nine months after the leader and his UMNO party – which had controlled Malaysian government since the nation was born in 1957 – was swept out of power in the May 9 polls.
Najib’s ruling coalition lost to the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) opposition bloc, led by Mahathir Mohamad, a longtime former UMNO fixture who had previously served as PM for 22 years and who vowed to remove Najib from office and clean up corruption in government.
The U.S. Justice Department, which has filed court cases over the 1MDB affair, described it as the “worst kleptocracy scandal in recent times.” The department alleged that high-level officials of the fund and associates had embezzled and laundered almost $4.5 billion (18.7 billion ringgit) in 1MDB money through real estate and other assets, between 2009 and 2014.
Since UMNO crashed out at the polls and Najib fell from his perch as party chief, other senior former government officials and his wife have also been charged over the 1MDB scandal.
Within weeks of the election, Malaysians were shocked to see videotaped images of police seizing suitcases containing millions of dollars in cash, and boxes of jewelry and high-priced handbags from Kuala Lumpur area residences linked to Najib’s family.
On July 3, the day he was first charged, Najib accused the new ruling coalition of being out to get him, telling reporters at the courthouse that it was “what the new government wants.”
“If this is the price I have to pay after 42 years of service to the Malaysian people, I accept it. What I hope is that the judicial process is a process that is truly fair, following the rule of law. I’m confident in my innocence; this is the best chance I have to clear my name,” he said then.
However, as the days have counted down to his trial becoming a reality, the former minister has attempted to re-brand his image in the public eye as a more easy going, fun-loving and cool guy, according to reports.
For instance, he has been engaging with the public through social media and has used the Malay hashtag #MaluApaBossku in his rebranding effort. In English, it translates to “What is there to be ashamed of, man?”
As a result, young Malaysians like Fadhli Tahar say they have warmed up to the ex-PM.
Despite the dozens of criminal charges against Najib, the new style that the former leader has projected, in which he embraces the street culture of the ethnic Malay majority, was hard to ignore – and was even addictive, Fadhli said.
“He used to be uptight, very formal. But now, the way he engages feels very close to the masses, which we don’t often see in politicians,” Fadhli, a 31-year-old entrepreneur, told BenarNews.
“If he had been like this when he was prime minister, perhaps he would still be prime minister.”
But Najib’s new hashtag does not sit well with some other Malaysians, who have criticized him for trying to play down the serious allegations leveled against him.
Fahimah Abu Bakar, 55, said it was appalling to see Najib brazenly taking on the role of an internet “troll” and attacking the government through social media, while facing those criminal charges.
“It is unbecoming of him to stoop down to this level to appeal to the crowd to garner support,” said the retired architect.
“Regardless of whether he is innocent or guilty, I feel that it is best for him to lay low for a while.”
Calls for fair trial
Meanwhile, a prominent legal activist said that, no matter how passionately Malaysians felt about Najib’s culpability and his upcoming trial, it was important to allow the law to take its course and ensure that he be treated fairly while in the dock.
“We may have our personal views about whether he is guilty or otherwise, but the law should treat him as an innocent person unless the charges are proven against him,” Syahredzan Johan said.
“The rule of law, espoused frequently by this government should mean that an accused person be allowed to defend himself against a criminal charge in a fair trial before an impartial judge,” he said.