On Friday, Malaysia’s Pardons Board confirmed that imprisoned former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has received a royal pardon halving his 12-year prison sentence.
In 2020, Najib was convicted of involvement in the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal, and began serving his sentence in August 2022, after exhausting the various avenues of legal appeal. Almost immediately, his lawyers attempted to circumvent this decision by applying for a royal pardon.
In a statement on Friday, the Pardons Board, which is chaired by Malaysia’s king, said that it made the decision after a meeting on January 29. It did not give a reason for approving Najib’s request for a pardon, which will see the former leader walk free on August 23, 2028.
The Board also reduced Najib’s 210 million Malaysian ringgit ($44.2 million) fine to just 50 million ringgit. If this is not paid, the Board said that one year will be added to Najib’s sentence and he will be released on August 23, 2029.
The decision on Najib’s pardon, which was reported by several media outlets ahead of time, was one of the last official acts of Malaysia’s king Sultan Abdullah of Pahang before he handed the role to Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar last week.
In office from 2009 until his shock loss at the general election of 2018, Najib was found guilty in 2020 of abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering for illegally receiving around $10 million from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB.
While the former PM faces a number of other trials related to 1MDB, the Pardons Board has opened up the possibility of a political comeback, given the considerable clout that Najib still has within the formerly dominant United National Malays Organization (UMNO).
Najib will become eligible for parole after two-thirds of his new sentence has elapsed, which could mean that he walks free as early as August 2026, well in time for Malaysia’s next general election. Malaysia’s parliament is due to be dissolved by December 2027, with the next election to be held within 60 days of that.
The decision to grant Najib’s pardon request was greeted by outrage, as an example of the differential standards of law that are applied to those with wealth and power. Many have zeroed in on the fact that the Pardons Board granted Najib an “early hearing” of his pardon request, even though he had served just 17 months of his prison term, while many other less privileged convicts have waited for years and never received a hearing from the Board.
“The person who received the pardon is the ultimate personification of corruption,” one writer opined in Malaysia Today yesterday. “The undeserved leniency will display the nation’s dishonesty and disrespect in a most disgraceful way.”
The pardon is almost certain to have political implications for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who has taken a public stand against corruption and whose administration has initiated a number of anti-graft probes against high-ranking former government officials.
Anwar has been accused of backsliding on his anti-graft promises and preferential treatment for allies, after a string of corruption cases linked to leaders in his coalition government were dropped last year. Part of the problem for Anwar is that the inconclusive general election in late 2022 forced him to form a government with UMNO, which has been tainted by corruption allegations against a number of current and former leaders (including Najib). This has created a considerable tension with Anwar’s image as a clean politician determined to root out corruption.
As a number of leading observers told Channel News Asia, the decision to grant a partial rather than full pardon was a compromise designed to “appease the largest coalitions in Mr. Anwar’s unity government”: UMNO, the dominant part of the Barisan Nasional coalition, and his own progressive Pakatan Harapan coalition. Sure enough, partisans on both sides of Malaysian politics were displeased with the outcome, with UMNO leaders say they will keep pushing for Najib’s release from prison and others describing the outcome as revealing a rot at the heart of Malaysian politics.
James Chin of the University of Tasmania told CNA that he believed that the outrage would be limited. “I think there will be a very strong social media backlash among the urban people, but it will die down very quickly especially among the Malay groups, because they will say that this is the Malay king’s prerogative,” he told the news organization. “And in Malaysia, if you go against the Malay king, it is seen as sedition.” Indeed, the Pardons Board proceedings are deemed an official secret whose public disclosure is punishable under the Official Secrets Act.
After Friday’s decision was made public, Anwar said he respected the king’s decision, adding that the pardons process was “beyond the prime minister or the government,” and said that the other 1MDB-related trials faced by Najib will continue, Reuters reported, citing an interview with Al Jazeera on Friday. “At the same time, Najib has every right to again appeal to the king,” the Malaysian leader said. “The process has to be respected.”