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As a nation we have been struggling for a long time, caught in the grip of a political culture that normalises corruption, racism and religious extremism. So many things have gone so wrong that many have wondered whether we are too far gone to find our way back to the kind of nation envisaged by our founding fathers – a free and democratic nation premised upon respect for diversity and the rule of law. 

The seismic event that unfolded in the Palace of Justice this week, however, has restored hope that perhaps all is not lost after all.

For four long years, Najib Tun Razak’s corruption trial has meandered its way through the courts. He tried every trick in the book to delay, to deny, to deflect the charges. He tried to undermine the justice system, discredit the high court judge and disqualify the Chief Justice. He invoked religion. He schemed to bring down the government. But our system of governance, frail though it may be, held, and today one of the most powerful men in the country is behind bars. Few believed this day would ever come.

To be sure, it would not have happened if not for a convergence of other historic events. For decades, UMNO leaders were untouchable no matter how many scandals were uncovered. That culture of impunity ended when Pakatan Harapan (PH) won the 2018 elections. Though the PH administration did not complete its term, it set in motion a series of legal initiatives that finally culminated in the jailing of a former prime minister. Zahid Hamidi, the current UMNO president, and some of his colleagues could be next. 

Najib’s trial was also allowed to continue unhindered, despite intense political pressure to derail it, because of deep divisions within the Malay political elite. Former prime ministers Mahathir Mohamad and Muhyiddin Yassin and current prime minister Ismail Sabri all had their own reasons not to intervene.   

But most of all, we have come to this moment because of the courage, integrity and professionalism of the judges who presided over Najib’s case. The pressures they faced were enormous but they didn’t flinch. The way the Chief Justice, in particular, stared down attempts to bully and intimidate the highest court in the land rightly won her the applause and gratitude of all right-thinking Malaysians. 

Indeed, the Chief Justice has shown the world what ‘Maruah Melayu’ really looks like. Let’s see if all the politicians who mindlessly invoke the Maruah Melayu slogan can live up to the standards she has now set.

The day also belongs to Dr Mahathir for his inspired appointment of Tommy Thomas, a much-respected lawyer, as attorney-general. Thomas in turn brought on board some of the best legal minds as special prosecutors. Together with others in the attorney-general’s chambers, they built a compelling case against Najib. 

Not everyone was pleased though that justice had triumphed. UMNO leaders, shocked that judges had the audacity to jail their standard-bearer, turned on the courts with undisguised contempt. It seems to matter little to them that nine different judges at three different levels were unanimous in their judgement about Najib’s guilt or that other national jurisdictions had reached the same conclusion.  

Insisting that Najib had been denied a fair trial, they’ve now launched a campaign to press for his release. In not so many words, they are asserting that in the light of all his contributions to the nation he deserves special consideration. According to some media reports they have also demanded the sacking of both the attorney-general and the chief justice and are threatening to sack the prime minister from the party.

Of course, they don’t really believe that Najib is innocent; only the most obtuse would believe that. All their bluster is really about saving themselves from a similar fate. After decades in office, UMNO has plenty to hide. They are vulnerable and they know it. The 1MDB scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. New scandals are being uncovered; crooks who thought they were safe are now being exposed. Zahid himself – facing 47 criminal charges – is particularly vulnerable. If the law is allowed to take its course, UMNO may well be finished.

UMNO leaders make trite statements about respecting the rule of law but clearly, it’s not justice they want but preferential treatment.  They think that the law shouldn’t apply to them, that they have a divine right to plunder and ride roughshod over the nation. The sight of Najib heading off to prison has sent shivers down their collective spine; they are so desperate that they are now thrashing about like a drowning man issuing bizarre ultimatums and demanding early election just to save themselves. 

Whichever way you look at, UMNO now stands condemned as a thoroughly corrupt and immoral political party. It doesn’t respect the law. It condones corruption and the theft of public funds. It tolerates the abuse of power. Most of their leaders are incredibly dishonest and conniving. All their talk about ‘bangsa, agama dan negara’ is just hypocrisy and empty posturing; their struggle is only about self-preservation, power and privilege. If they succeed in bullying the nation to get their way, the very foundations of our nation would be imperilled.

The public, however, have a different take. Najib’s jailing immediately touched off a wave of euphoria; a mixture of satisfaction and pride – satisfaction that Najib will finally be punished for his crimes, pride in the integrity of our judicial system. With so many of our national institutions deeply compromised, it was heartening that at least one – and the most important one at that – remains intact. It gives us something to rally around, something to build upon. Justice can be a contagious thing; if one of the most powerful men in the land can be jailed for corruption and abuse of power, others will surely think twice. 

The courts have done what our corrupt and dishonest politicians would not, could not do – respect the constitution and uphold the law. The judges have done their part; now it’s up to the rest of the nation to do its duty by defending the judiciary, resisting attempts to engineer the downfall of the government and demanding that Najib must serve his time. To release a man who betrayed the trust of the nation in such a stunning manner and who so grossly abused his power would be the greatest injustice of all.  

We are at an inflection point now. If our system of governance can hold out against the preposterous demands of a few UMNO leaders out to save themselves, we’ll have every reason for hope going forward. Happy Merdeka Day, Malaysia!

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 28th August 2022]