Not many tears were shed when the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) slapped the cuffs on former prime minister Najib Razak.
The arrest was inevitable. Pakatan Harapan had built much of its election campaign on allegations of corruption involving Najib’s administration and it was probably that campaign that finally brought Umno tumbling down after 60 years in power.
In contrast, when Anwar Ibrahim was arrested in 1998, the nation was nearly torn apart. That arrest solidified Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s image, in the eyes of many, as an iron-fisted autocrat whose method of dealing with dissenters and political opponents was to simply toss them into jail.
Najib, however, is a different cat because in his case, rightly or wrongly, many Malaysians, including those who voted for Umno in the recent general election, believe he is guilty. The advances in communication technology and the loosening of media shackles following Mahathir’s resignation as prime minister in 2003 may have something to do with that.
Regardless of the reason, many see Najib’s arrest not as persecution but the triumph, at last, of the rule of law in a country where it was long perceived as inoperative when the alleged criminal was politically powerful.
It wasn’t tears that followed Najib to court, but applause.
Political analyst Kamarul Zaman Yusoff, however, believes that amidst the roaring crowd there must have been a few who were questioning whether there weren’t dark motives behind Najib’s arrest.
“These few,” he said, “probably see the arrest as a means for the government to cover up its failure to fulfil some of its election promises or to prevent an internal crisis from becoming too serious.”
Explaining his reference to an internal crisis, he cited a criticism from DAP of Mahathir’s choices for his Cabinet. Recently, DAP Youth chief Wong Kah Woh was quoted as saying that his party should have received more ministerial positions since it won 42 parliamentary seats.
Nevertheless, Kamarul said, most people were receiving news of Najib’s arrest and prosecution in cheerful spirits.
“The action has the support of the majority, especially because of Mahathir’s current popularity and his success in unifying Pakatan Harapan,” he told FMT.
“Many from Umno will also wait for the decision of the courts to decide whether to defend Najib’s image or to distance themselves from him.”
Another analyst, Wong Chin Huat of the Penang Institute, said it would be difficult for Najib’s supporters to make him out to be a martyr like Anwar’s supporters did for him.
He noted that the chief prosecutor in Anwar’s first trial was Abdul Gani Patail, who was seen as a lackey of the powers that be and who, in fact, rose afterwards to the position of attorney-general.
“This time it’s Tommy Thomas, whose integrity is known inside and outside the legal profession,” he said. “As long as this is a fair trial, Najib wont get to spin a martyrhood story for himself.”
Awang Azman Pawi of Universiti Malaya said it was likely Pakatan Harapan had already considered public perception and had taken measures to ensure that Najib would not be turned into a martyr.
“You can see that Najib was arrested in daylight, whereas Anwar was taken from his home at night,” he said. “Also, Najib was not made to wear the orange suit which those arrested are usually made to wear.”
He said Pakatan Harapan needed only to be sure not to make slips of the tongue when speaking to the media.
“If Pakatan Harapan makes too many comments regarding Najib while there are still many promises in its manifesto yet to be fulfilled, it could all backfire.”
Mahathir himself has refused to comment on Najib’s arrest. When reporters asked for his reaction, he only said, “I don’t know, ask him.”
Sheith Khidhir Bin Abu Bakar works at FMT.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.