Former Malaysian prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, was given a guilty verdict along with her husband, former PM Najib Razak. This decision has become a cautionary tale for the rest of Asia. PHOTO BY AP
Former Malaysian prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, was given a guilty verdict along with her husband, former PM Najib Razak. This decision has become a cautionary tale for the rest of Asia. PHOTO BY AP

MY friend, Pang Khee Teik, is an arts programmer and artist from Malaysia. On Aug. 23, 2022, he posted this comment on Twitter apropos the guilty verdict on former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak for corruption.

"We need to learn from the Philippine lesson. We need to ensure that Najib's children will not one day make a comeback, win elections, rewrite history and rehabilitate [their] father's image as a misunderstood hero. The dynasty ends now. All dynasties end, please."

For such candid comments, Pang did not foresee the groundswell of comments from Filipino trolls and bashers. But wasn't Pang just pointing out that our country has become a cautionary tale for thieves in government?

In a breathtaking decision, the Malaysian Federal Court sentenced the 69-year-old former premier to 12 years in jail on seven counts of abuse of power, money laundering and criminal breach of trust. He steered millions of dollars into his own pockets from the failed state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), which collapsed in 2016 from mismanagement and corruption.

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The verdict is only one of five trials Najib faces in the 1MDB case. Estimates show that as much as $4.5 billion disappeared in this case. The US justice department called the 1MDB matter "the biggest kleptocracy case it had ever prosecuted, with homes in New York and Beverly Hills, paintings by old masters, an airplane and vast amounts of jewelry recovered. Some of the looted money was used for financing the film, 'Wolf of Wall Street'."

At one point, the equivalent of $681 million was funneled through Najib's Kuala Lumpur account at AMBank before vanishing to an unknown destination. He is believed to have stolen $1 billion or more. While a significant amount of assets has been recovered, the cash is apparently still out there, perhaps in hermetic bank accounts offshore in the Caribbean or the Antilles.

Doesn't this sound all too familiar? Didn't the US immigration impound so much more from the luggage of the Marcos family when they landed at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii in February 1986 after being kicked out of the Philippines?

On September 1, Razak's wife, Rosmah Mansor, was also sentenced to a decade in prison and fined M$970 million (US$216.45 million) on three bribery charges. Like her husband, she remains free while she appeals her sentence.

Mansor lived the high life. She partied in New York with celebrities, wearing expensive jewelry, including a diamond necklace said to be worth $23 million. She was also seen with a pink diamond ring worth millions of dollars and fancied Hermes' fabled Birkin handbags. After their arrest, police filled five trucks with cash in 26 currencies totaling $28.6 million, plus 457 handbags, including Hermes bags worth $12 million, 423 watches valued at $19 million and 234 pairs of sunglasses worth $93,000. Included were 1,400 necklaces, 2,200 rings and 2,100 bangles.

I was living in Kuala Lumpur when this raid happened, and Malaysians told me that Mansor's role model appeared to be Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. Mrs. Marcos was also handed a guilty verdict by the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court, but is free while her case is on appeal. Mrs. Marcos left 3,000 pairs of shoes in the presidential palace. It made a magazine cartoonist draw a centipede with so many shoes strapped to its thin and grasping legs.

In a commentary in the Asia Sentinel, John Berthelsen, the award-winning editor, said: "That makes Malaysia unique in Southeast Asia. It didn't happen in Indonesia, where the Suharto family spent decades pillaging the public purse of as much as $15-35 billion and remain influential in Jakarta today, or in the Philippines, where Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was recently elected president and the rest of his rapacious family are entrenched in public office, with no apparent inclination to return any of the $10-billion odd that their patriarch, Ferdinand Marcos, allegedly stole during his 21 kleptocratic years in power. Thai dictator Prayuth Chan-ocha, who lost power in Bangkok last week, remains a member of the ruling junta."

The difference in Malaysia is a reformed justice system led by a brave woman, the 63-year-old Tengku Maimun. She is Malaysia's first woman chief justice; she was appointed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in May 2019 during the opposition Pakatan Harapan's short-lived rule. She has played a crucial role in reforming a justice system whose reputation had been tarnished over the years.

In another commentary in the Asia Sentinel, former Malaysian ambassador Dennis Ignatius said: "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 an early election just to save themselves.

Whichever way you look at it, 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' (race, religion and country) 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 imperiled."

He could very well be talking about some of the politicians now posturing like peacocks in the Philippines.