The Malaysian government is looking to wrap up and move on from one of the world’s biggest corruption scandals — but there are still key questions about the government’s legitimacy now the tainted party is back in power.
The US Department of Justice (DOJ) said more than $6 billion in government funds was siphoned from a Malaysian state investment fund called 1MDB, set up to invest in nation-building projects across Malaysia.
But it became a political slush fund and personal bank account for friends, family and allies of the former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak.
Much of the money went on lavish yachts, decadent parties and hobby projects such as Najib’s stepson producing the Hollywood film The Wolf of Wall Street starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
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The party came to an end in 2018 when at a stunning general election former prime minister and elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad seized power, changing the government for the first time since independence in 1957.
But Mahathir’s government was shortlived: backroom deals and a series of party defections brought it all crashing down in February.
Now those from Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organisation, are back on the government benches, making up the largest party in the new ruling coalition.
Earlier this month the new government took another key step in seeking to move on from the 1MDB corruption scandal: it dropped criminal charges against financier Goldman Sachs.
Goldman Sachs was central to the scandal and the charges were dropped when the US company agreed to an eye-watering $5.3 billion settlement with the government.
The move comes after the DOJ continued its efforts to repatriate stolen funds, returning $300 million in April, despite the change of government meaning the thieves were back in power.
With the Goldman Sachs settlement and the DOJ returning the spoils to the thieves, the Malaysian government is hoping that puts a neat little end to an embarrassing and unfortunate chapter in its history.
But several legal trials initiated by the former government could bring on headaches.
First, Najib was found guilty in July of embezzlement related to 1MDB and sentenced to 12 years’ prison. Despite being a backbencher in the new government, Najib holds considerable clout and it is unclear how many MPs are aligned to him.
He is yet to begin his sentence because his case is on appeal, but if it fails he and his allies may leave the coalition, severing its tenuous grip on power.
The current PM, Muhyiddin Yassin, a former protégé and ally of Mahathir before he stabbed him in the back, rules with the slimmest of majorities — just two MPs — meaning any defections could force fresh elections.
If Najib is acquitted on appeal, the power-hungry and still popular leader may attempt a comeback for the top post, meaning there are headaches for Muhyiddin either way.
Najib isn’t the only one in the hot seat. His party’s president, Zahid Hamidi, faces trial for corruption relating to 1MDB.
Zahid agreed to keep clear from the ministry to give the new government fresh air, but if he is acquitted he would be likely to demand one of the more powerful portfolios in government, forcing Muhyiddin to reshuffle his cabinet.
Meanwhile the man who allegedly masterminded the whole scandal, a young Malaysian financer by the name of Jho Low, remains at large.
He is said to have bought a Cypriot passport and be hiding in Macau.
Jho’s excesses have been well documented in films and movies, and include trying to woo the Australian supermodel Miranda Kerr by buying her about $8 million in jewellery and paying Paris Hilton millions to party with him on his mega-yacht.
If he is caught and returned to Malaysia, the government would be forced to put him on trial. Such a high-profile case would be likely to open another can of worms for the ruling party who just desperately wants to move on from the whole sordid affair.
Jarni Blakkarly is an Australian freelance journalist who has previously worked in Malaysia. Find him on Twitter @jarniblakkarly.