Malaysia's former prime minister Najib Razak arrives at the High Court in Kuala Lumpur last year for the opening of his most significant 1MDB trial. He was later convicted and sentence to jail. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

The conviction and sentencing to jail of former prime minister Najib Razak is an act of tremendous significance to Malay and Malaysian political culture.

Since independence in 1957, the prime minister of Malaysia has been perceived as the principal protector of a large segment of the citizenry. As protector he is not just the most important office-holder in the Malaysian political system. He is the inheritor of political authority in a governance structure rooted in a traditional polity, namely the centuries-old Malay Sultanate.

To protect the interests of his people, specifically the Malays, he is “entitled” to unquestioning loyalty from his “subjects.”

Unquestioning loyalty, regardless of whether the ruler is right or wrong, was a much-eulogized trait in the relationship between leader and led right through Malay history.

Though it has been eroded by education, social mobility, democratic practices, electoral competition and the like, it continues to be perpetuated in contemporary times through the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), as I argue in my 1979 book Protector? A Study of Leader-Led Relationships in Malay Society from the Malaccan Period to the Present.

UMNO wore the cherished mantle of protector of the Malays for decades against real and imagined threats to the community up to May 9, 2018, when it was defeated in the nation’s 14th general election.

Despite its defeat, UMNO is still a formidable political force. It remains to this day the most powerful political party among the Malays. Its influence within the grassroots of that community is pervasive.

In the last two years, it has attempted to present itself as the only genuine protector of the Malays through the articulation of issues, some real, others false, which, on the whole, have resonated with the community.

The inability of its main adversary, the Pakatan Harapan (PH), in power from May 2018 to February 2020, to demonstrate that it is more capable than UMNO of protecting the genuine interests of the Malays unwittingly strengthened the hand of the latter.

Besides, the two main actors in PH, Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, were engaged in an all-consuming wayang kulit (shadow play) battle revolving around the question of when one should succeed the other. As a result, the PH and its allies could not concentrate their energies on curbing and curtailing UMNO’s perceived role as the protector of the Malays. 

Now the present ruling coalition, the Perikatan Nasional (PN), or at least some components of it, perhaps along with the PH, has yet another opportunity to try to diminish the impact of the protector/unquestioning loyalty syndrome.

The court decision on Najib focuses on alleged wrongdoings – abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money-laundering –  of someone who was once a principal protector. Should one continue to be unquestioningly loyal to such a leader? Surely loyalty is only to virtue. How can there be loyalty to vice? Isn’t such a perverted notion of loyalty a betrayal of the very fundamentals of Islamic ethics? 

Shouldn’t the majority of UMNO leaders and its 3 million or so grassroots members see the Najib verdict and the trials involving other UMNO bigwigs as a wake-up call to the party to get rid of corruption and wrongdoings? In other words, shouldn’t this unprecedented event, the conviction of a former UMNO president and prime minister on charges related to corruption and venality, prompt the party to undertake the sort of introspection that will lead to a thorough cleansing of its body and soul ? 

It is not just UMNO that needs this sort of cleansing. Given the lack of transparency in electoral funding and the opacity of political financing in Malaysia, all political parties should be willing to cleanse themselves. This is why the proposed law on political financing and electoral funding, which has yet to see the light of day, should be of the highest priority for both legislators and citizens.  

We Malaysians should be encouraged to push for this and other similar reforms at this juncture, for two reasons.

One, Najib’s conviction reminds us that the Malaysian judiciary – whatever its warts and pimples – has over the decades found well-known public figures guilty of wrongdoings and punished them accordingly. There are not many judicial systems in the world that have done this without fear or favor.

Two, it is equally remarkable that the executive, specifically Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, upheld his pledge not to interfere in the judicial process though the man in the dock is still a political leader of considerable weight in UMNO, the main component party of the ruling PN.

Indeed, Muhyiddin’s position as prime minister in a sense depends on the continued support of Najib’s party. It was in that sense a bold and brave move to allow the rule of law to prevail and justice to triumph, as Muhyiddin said he would.                

As a result, the cynicism and skepticism displayed by a large segment of the so-called educated stratum of Malaysian society on the eve of the High Court verdict in Najib’s case turned out to be totally misplaced.

It shows that there is a need for us Malaysians to show some faith in the willingness of certain individuals at the apex of society to exercise restraint in their use of power and to observe the basic norms of governance. Likewise, there are individuals of integrity in our judiciary who cherish their roles as custodians of justice. 

It is such individuals, wherever they are, who will help to transform our political culture into one that values the dignity of the human being. 

Chandra Muzaffar

Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.