Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has been charged with multiple counts of corruption, becoming the country’s second former leader to be indicted after leaving office. According to The Associated Press, Muhyiddin pleaded innocent to four charges of abusing his power to obtain 232.5 million ringgit ($51.4 million) in bribes for his party Bersatu, and two charges of money laundering involving 195 million ringgit ($43 million).
The charges come after Muhyiddin was summoned yesterday by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to answer questions about an economic stimulus program for ethnic Malay contractors during the COVID-19 pandemic. After the questioning, he was formally arrested before being released on bail. If found guilty, Muhyiddin faces up to 20 years in prison for each of the corruption charges, and 15 years for each count of money laundering.
Muhyiddin, who led Malaysia from March 2020 until August 2021, is now the country’s second former PM to be indicted after leaving office. Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was in office from 2009 to 2018, is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for his involvement in the globe-spanning 1MDB corruption scandal.
The charging of Muhyiddin is the latest sign that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is taking serious steps to fulfill his long-standing promise to tackle the corruption and glad-handing that has long flourished at the heights of the Malay political establishment. Last month, the MACC announced that it was investigating the provenance of around 300 million ringgit ($70.7 million) that had been found in Bersatu’s bank accounts, and two other officials from the party have already been charged with bribery in connection with the economic project.
The charges come just three months after Muhyiddin lost a closely fought general election to Anwar’s multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition, and as Malaysia’s political parties prepare for a series of important state elections in Selangor, Kelantan, Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah, and Penang later this year, which will test the solidity of Anwar’s unwieldy and many-sided coalition government. This all but ensures that the case will acquire a political valence and that Anwar’s opponents will attempt to frame it as political vendetta – despite the prime minister’s claims to the contrary.
Sure enough, Muhyiddin yesterday described his arrest to reporters as “persecution” and a “malicious political act” designed to hamstring his Perikatan Nasional (PN) opposition coalition ahead of the upcoming state elections. “I stress that I am not guilty, and I will face all charges against me in court… This action is because they fear the strength of Perikatan Nasional,” he told reporters.
As such, the charges are likely to raise the political temperature going into this year’s state polls. Indeed, as I suggested last month when the MACC’s investigation of Bersatu first came to light, we can expect Bersatu, which includes PN and the Islamic party PAS, to lean heavily into tropes about ethnic Malay impermanence, and to paint Anwar’s multi-ethnic coalition government as bent on undermining Malay privileges and the status of Islam in Malaysian society.