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These are heady days we are living in, days few imagined would come to pass – a former prime minister in the dock, charged with three counts of criminal breach of trust and one count of using his position for gratification as part of the 1MDB investigation.

The embodiment of all that is wrong

The former prime minister cut a sad and pathetic figure in court. Though he valiantly tried to put a brave face to his sudden fall from grace it was all too obvious that he was struggling to adjust to his new circumstances. At times, he lurched into delusion, thinking himself some sort of martyr being served up on the altar of political expediency by his foes. Such was his tenuous grasp of reality that he even believed that most Malaysians continue to support him and value his service to the nation.

The people, however, would have none of it. They made clear that they have neither sympathy nor solace to offer  him, not after all the  years of abuse of power and extravagant living at the expense of the taxpayer. All the public wants now is for justice to be done, and done as quickly as possible.

Rightly or wrongly, Najib has become the very embodiment of all that has gone wrong with Malaysia – the corruption and greed, the racism and religious intolerance, the misgovernance and failed polices. Whatever good he might have done during his time in office is  now almost entirely obscured by the 1MDB scandal.

The Bard might well have been referring to Najib when he declared that, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” though many might  take umbrage even at that.

Feudalistic obeisance

But beyond the headlines, something more profound could be in the offing  – the beginning of the end of a feudal culture that allowed the high and mighty to act with impunity. The arrest, and quite possibly incarceration of  a former prime minister, scion of a powerful family, has sent shockwaves throughout the country, especially in the rural heartland.

It has been almost a tenant of faith that someone so important can’t or shouldn’t be touched no matter what they have done. For too long, powerful people have been able to violate the law almost at will and get away with it, committing rape, wholesale theft and even murder with impunity. Guilt was merely an inconvenient fact when it came to the powerful and privileged.

Equally distressing was the vulgar display of feudalistic obeisance that attended this impunity with many all too ready to reverentially kiss the hands that stole from them and bow their heads to those who blatantly abused their positions.

Witness, for example, the sight of so many senior police and military officers, custodians of the law and defenders of the nation,  kissing Najib’s hand wherever he went or the legions of politicians and business leaders bowing and scrapping before him and showering him with praise knowing full well the extent of his misdeeds.

All it did, of course, was provide people like Najib and his cronies the respectability they did not deserve and the cover they needed to continue the charade that they  were but patriots unselfishly serving the nation.

Najib’s arrest puts an end to the great feudally-inspired scam that leaders can do no wrong, that our traditional culture requires us to give them a free pass for whatever wrong they have done. A higher bar of accountability has now been set for all those in high office.

The acid test

As wonderful as these developments are, it is still too early to pronounce requiem on the culture of impunity. It is, after all, easy to go after a fallen and much discredited leader but quite another matter to go after still powerful and politically-well connected ones.

The governor of Sarawak, for example, continues to lead a charmed life despite decades of allegations and reports made against him, which if true, might well be the biggest scandal of them all.

Thus far, all we have heard from the MACC on the issue are excuses, and lame ones at that. Until the MACC displays the same tenacity and transparency in investigating the allegations against the Taib dynasty, all that would have been proven by Najib’s arrest is that the much-touted “rule of law” is just for the losers.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 10th July 2018]