Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has worn many hats over the years – diligent student, rising political star, and leader-turned-kleptocrat – but none are as versatile as his latest: actor. According to a recent Facebook post, Najib is enjoying himself on set as he films his first drama.
How is this possible? Two years ago, Najib was sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined $50 million after being convicted of involvement in the infamous 1MDB scandal. He has four other corruption cases pending against him, and yet he is once more on the campaign trail and has even experienced a recent upsurge in popularity.
The short answer is that the disgraced prime minister has been granted bail and is free to pursue whatever diversions take his fancy. But the crux of the issue is how difficult it is to hold powerful leaders accountable under national-level anti-corruption institutions. Najib’s story is outrageous but not unique; every day, kleptocrats from around the world revel in their impunity despite mountains of evidence proving their guilt.
Clearly, the world’s existing anti-corruption mechanisms are not working. What the world needs is a new solution: an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC) that holds corrupt individuals accountable when national law enforcement is unwilling or unable to do so.
The systematic embezzlement of 1MDB’s funds has been described as “one of the world’s greatest financial scandals.” The Malaysian investment development fund was created by the government in 2008 to improve the quality of life of its citizens. Instead, corrupt individuals splurged the money on everything from a 300-foot superyacht to, ironically, the production of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a cult classic American film about a corrupt stockbroker.
Najib, who was Malaysia’s Prime Minister at the time, faces 42 charges of alleged corruption and abuse of power. In 2020, he was found guilty by the High Court of Kuala Lumpur of illegally receiving $9.8 million from SRC International, a former unit of 1MDB.
However, Najib continues to deny any wrongdoing. He maintains that he was in the dark about the true purpose of the funds and any intentional embezzlement was conducted entirely by other parties. Najib has since appealed his case, buying himself years of freedom. And in political cases such as his, the guilty verdict is often overturned on appeal, especially when political winds are blowing in favor of the defendant.
It is almost too perfect. In a stars-align moment, Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has recently returned to power, despite the fact that many of its other members, including the party’s president, also have corruption cases against them winding their way through Malaysia’s legal system. It is now unclear when, if ever, the remaining charges against Najib will see their day in court.
In other countries, the prosecution of parties involved in the 1MDB scandal has borne more fruit. A successful U.S. prosecution forced Goldman Sachs to pay over $5 billion to regulators, which essentially emptied out its slush fund. The investment banking giant admitted to paying around $1 billion in bribes to a number of foreign officials, likely including Najib. Probes conducted in Singapore and Switzerland, among other nations, have also yielded more promising results.
This is precisely why an International Anti-Corruption Court would be helpful. Even if Malaysia’s law enforcement agencies are unwilling or unable to hold Najib accountable, under the current conception of the IACC, the court would still be able to prosecute him as long as a country where a portion of the stolen financial assets is laundered or hidden is a member state or willing to assist through a cooperation agreement with the court.
Global momentum is building for the creation of such a court. More than 270 luminaries have signed a declaration in support of an IACC, and the foreign policies of the governments of Canada and the Netherlands include commitments to work to help establish the court.
While not every case of corruption is as heinous as the multi-billion dollar looting of Malaysia’s development fund, a primary reason why Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam, and many other nations are struggling to prosper is that they also have corrupt leaders who fill their pockets at the expense of the people. The international community desperately needs a court of last resort to cover the existing gap in enforcement.
When the 1MDB scandal broke, it was a shooting star moment for Malaysia, a rare opportunity to oust its corrupt officials and build a more ethical government, but the failure to capitalize on this opportunity has once more consigned the country to kleptocratic rule. Najib is free and thriving, and it seems increasingly likely he will never be held accountable for his actions.