Backlash in Malaysia to Najib’s house arrest bid rains on PM Anwar’s PKR parade

Malaysia’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), the political vehicle of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, has been forced to defend its much-vaunted reform agenda as momentum gathers behind ex-national leader Najib Razak’s bid to serve the rest of his corruption sentence under house arrest.

Najib’s recent filing of a court application left many among the Malaysian public with their mouths agape. It seeks to compel Anwar’s government to confirm the existence of a document signed by the country’s former king that Najib’s legal team says would allow the jailed former prime minister to swap his stay in Kajang Prison for the comfort of his own home.

Malaysian ex-PM Najib files bid to serve rest of 1MDB jail term under house arrest

The move comes mere months after Malaysia’s pardons board had halved Najib’s 12-year jail term for stealing 42 million ringgit (US$8.8 million) from a former unit of scandal-ridden state fund 1MDB, and slashing his fine from 210 million ringgit to 50 million ringgit.

The Kuala Lumpur High Court is set to rule on Najib’s application in June.

As cries of impunity and special treatment rang out last week, Anwar was thrust onto the back foot by his own deputy – Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – who reportedly filed an affidavit in support of Najib’s application.

“There are those shouting … as though reforms have crumbled after the DPM’s [deputy prime minister’s] affidavit,” Anwar told 5,000 party members gathered on Sunday to celebrate PKR’s 25th anniversary.

“You can say whatever you like. We will have to do our job, continue with our reforms.”

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Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, current deputy prime minister of Malaysia and Umno chief, reportedly filed an affidavit in support of Najib’s application. Photo: AFP

Anwar also bristled at accusations that PKR had abandoned its reform promises, arguing that critics had been quick to cast judgment based on the actions of the party’s coalition partner, Umno, while ignoring his administration’s work to bolster the economy and Malaysian democracy.

Ahmad Zahid was Najib’s former deputy and is now Umno’s president – a sign, critics say, of the compromises that have been required of Anwar to attain the prime minister’s office.

While many PKR leaders and rank-and-file members have publicly closed ranks behind the Malaysian prime minister, in private others say they are worried about the reputational damage to his government if Najib is offered house arrest on Anwar’s watch.

“I don’t think this will blow over. When a coalition partner does something, we will have to face it later on,” one party member told This Week in Asia, asking not to be named as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

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Former PKR vice-president N. Surendran’s post on X about the party’s 25th anniversary celebrations amid Najib’s application to serve the rest of his jail sentence for corruption under house arrest. Photo: X/nsurendrann

Former party leader N. Surendran, who quit PKR in February following Najib’s sentence reduction, was more scathing of a political outfit that this week marked its anniversary from a position of power after decades frozen out in opposition.

“What’s to celebrate? For 25 yrs they promised reform. In power – no reforms, only excuses,” he said in a post on X on Sunday.

“Those of us who fought & risked jail to bring PKR to power, fought for nothing. It’s a morally dead party, propped up by the trappings of power, focused only on staying in power.”

The royal decree cutting Najib’s sentence in half – issued by Malaysia then-king Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah in one of his final acts before completing his five-year term on the throne – drew broad public anger at the perceived leniency being extended to a fallen prime minister who was convicted of corruption in 2020.

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Najib Razak (centre) smiles as he is escorted by prison officers during an appeal hearing at the Kuala Lumpur High Court on Wednesday last week. He was jailed in 2022 for offences linked to the misuse of public money in the multibillion-dollar 1MDB financial scandal. Photo: AFP

Some PKR party members have echoed Anwar’s position that the government should not interfere with the judiciary and allow Malaysia’s courts to dispose of any and all cases independently, regardless of who is involved.

“The prime minister has said that at the end of the day the decision lay with the pardons board and the king. It is up to the court to review,” said deputy youth chief Muhammad Kamil Abdul Munim, referring to Umno’s backing of Najib’s push for house arrest.

“Malaysia practises democracy, and we can’t stop anyone from pursuing things that they believe are within their rights.”

Lee Chean Chung, another PKR lawmaker, said the only thing the party and government could – and should – do is stick to their guns and allow the courts to operate independently, as PKR had long promised.

“This is more important than changing views on issues. If an institution is perceived to be compromised, it will have long term consequences,” Lee said.

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