The Malaysian Bar expresses its deep disappointment over the reduction of former Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak (“Najib”)’s prison sentence and fine following his conviction by the courts in the SRC International case, as announced by the Pardons Board through the Prime Minister’s Department on 2 February 2024.1
The SRC International case, which saw Najib being hauled to face justice before the Judiciary to answer for his egregious crimes against the nation, took four long years2 across all levels of the Superior Courts in Malaysia, beginning with its inception on 4 July 2018 when he was first charged in the Sessions Court, until 23 August 2022 when the Federal Court upheld Najib’s conviction and sentence, as originally pronounced by the High Court. Much judicial time, taxpayers’ expenses and costs were expended to ensure justice was meted out by the Judiciary in imposing punishments that fit the crimes committed by Najib.
The Federal Court’s decision, which should have brought an end to all possible avenues of appeal for Najib, represented more than just a victory for Malaysians. It was a message to the world that Malaysia was not afraid to bring to heel all those who break the law, regardless of their station or status in life. It was a message that Malaysia was committed to good governance and upholding the rule of law — that those who dared to make the citizens suffer for monies laundered to the detriment of the nation must pay for their crimes and be continually deterred from committing such crimes. It was a message that perpetrators of such crimes against the nation should not be spared so easily for the huge debts incurred that would eventually be passed on and undertaken by the citizens of Malaysia. It was a message that brought credibility to the administration of justice in the country and to the Malaysian Judiciary.
The Pardons Board’s recent announcement puts enormous doubt in the eyes of citizens of Malaysia as well as the world, and the Madani Government’s commitment to upholding the rule of law and to eradicating corruption. It cannot be emphasised enough that the crimes committed by Najib are unlike other crimes, due to the rippling effect it has on Malaysians. Each Malaysian citizen took it as a personal betrayal of the power and trust entrusted to Najib as a Prime Minister, when he abused his power and pilfered from the nation’s coffers — monies that should have been used to develop Malaysia for the benefit of Malaysians.
The Malaysian Bar asserts that the Executive has lost its moral authority to address the public and to purportedly defend their fight against corruption, when it is abundantly clear that in spite of the entire nation being embarrassed and suffering from the crimes committed by Najib, singular and preferential treatment was given to him through the Pardons Board. The reduction of Najib’s sentence and fine was abhorrently disproportionate to the gravity of the crime committed by him.
It is undeniable that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (“YDPA”) would be fully aware of the doctrine of separation of powers, which determines three branches, namely the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary — but it should also be noted that one branch may overshadow another, or two branches may necessarily overlap. Such is the situation that has come to pass, where the decision of the courts to punish Najib with a prison term of 12 years and a fine of RM210 million, was disproportionately reduced to a prison term of six years and a fine of RM50 million.
The effect of this reduction of Najib’s punishment greatly diminishes the due process and administration of justice in Malaysia, as well as the exemplary work done by the Judiciary, lawyers, prosecutors, and witnesses who were involved throughout the SRC International case.
The Malaysian Bar underscores that there must be a full measure of recognition towards the legitimacy of the decisions of the Judiciary and the justice meted out by the courts.
It is recognised that the YDPA’s exercise of power is mandated under the Federal Constitution (“FC”). Such “power” must be distinguished from “discretion” as articulated under Article 40 of the FC. Where there is a “power”, the YDPA acts with advice, on advice, and “shall accept in accordance with such advice”. In the light of Article 40(1A) of the FC, the Malaysian Bar takes the position that the granting of a pardon is not a discretionary power and must be exercised on advice. Such being the case, the issuance of the announcement under the Prime Minister’s Department is rather telling of the role the Executive played in the Pardons Board for the YDPA to accept the advice and act accordingly under the FC. In contrast, matters in which the YDPA has “discretionary” powers are restricted under Article 40(2) of the FC, and pardons do not form part of the YDPA’s “discretionary” powers.
The Malaysian Bar also finds it equally disturbing that the Madani Government has chosen to curb the freedom of speech as guaranteed in the FC, by choosing to silence dissent3 using the convenient excuse that the Pardons Board’s announcement concerns 3R (religion, race and royalty) issues, when in reality, the overwhelming outcry by Malaysians is an exercise of the right to express their utmost dissatisfaction that the justice they sought by participating in the 2018 and 2022 General Elections, all came to naught as a result of the decision to reduce Najib’s sentence.
As previously highlighted by the Malaysian Bar,4 Article 42(1) of the FC empowers the YDPA to grant pardons, reprieves, and respites in respect of all offences which have been tried by court martial and all offences committed in the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur, Labuan, and Putrajaya. Indeed, in the case of Superintendent of Pudu Prison & Ors V Sim Kie Chon  1 MLJ 494, the Supreme Court ruled that the YDPA’s power to pardon under the FC cannot be justiciably reviewed. The case of Juraimi bin Husin v Board of Pardons, State of Pahang & Ors  4 MLJ 529 further affirmed that the YDPA’s decision to pardon or otherwise is not subject to judicial review. Whether the apex court will change its stance remains to be tested.
The Malaysian Bar observes that the manner in which the pardons process is carried out is devoid of consistency. Najib began serving his sentence on 23 August 2022,5 some 17 months before the Pardons Board issued its statement on 2 February 2024. This is contrasted with the case of Affandi Abdul Rahim,6 who spent over 20 years languishing in prison after being sentenced to life behind bars in 2001 for a firearm-related offence, which did not involve the loss of life nor billions of ringgit from the coffers of the country affecting all citizens. Yet, there have been no updates on Affandi’s case that the Malaysian Bar is aware of. What is the justification behind this difference in treatment?
The recent announcement by the Pardons Board highlights the need for reforms to our institutions, so as to provide safeguards and re-establish its credibility, specifically with respect to the composition of the Pardons Board. Article 42(5) of the FC provides that the Pardons Board consists of, among others, the Attorney General (or his/her representative) and the Chief Minister of the State — who in the case of the Federal Territories, is the Minister of Federal Territories. In order to prevent the influence of the Executive and to ensure independence in the pardons process, it is necessary to reduce, if not completely eliminate, the role of the Government in the Pardons Board. To this end, an amendment is required to remove the influence of the Attorney General and the Minister of Federal Territories or Chief Ministers of States in the Pardons Board, and to appoint independent persons to the Pardons Board to ensure inclusivity in terms of expressions from the public.
A further reform to the Pardons Board would be to introduce safeguards that ensure such power is exercised sparingly, as well as within clear boundaries and established circumstances or categories. Remorse and repentance surely must be a substantial part of such an exercise. To date, after having served one year and five months in prison, Najib has yet to show remorse, any form of repentance, nor apology for committing the offences of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering, for which he was convicted.
The Malaysian Bar unequivocally insists that the deterioration of due process cannot go unchecked and unimpeded. It is alarming that this announcement by the Pardons Board comes in relatively close succession with another controversial high-profile case, namely Dato’ Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s discharge not amounting to an acquittal in the Yayasan Akalbudi case.7 The Malaysian Bar cannot stress enough that a similar discharge must not recur for Najib’s ongoing 1MDB prosecution and two other ongoing cases, failing which it will render the Government’s efforts to combat corruption hollow and meaningless, and it will send the message that political power holds the rule of law in shackles.
The announcement by the Pardons Board through the media statement dated 2 February 2024 has thrown light, on a large scale, on the opaqueness of the entire pardons process, and is indeed the clarion call needed to push for reforms to the Pardons Board and its processes.
While it is true that justice must be tempered with mercy, it is also true that mercy must not rob justice.
Karen Cheah Yee Lynn
6 February 2024
1 “Kenyataan Media: Lembaga Pengampunan Bagi Wilayah-Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur, Labuan Dan Putrajaya Kali Ke-61”, Legal Affairs Division of the Prime Minister’s Department (Bahagian Hal Ehwal Undang-Undang Jabatan Perdana Menteri, “BHEUU”) website, 2 February 2024.
2 “Timeline of Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s SRC International Case”, New Straits Times, 2 February 2024.
3 “Fahmi calls on all parties to respect Pardons Board’s decision on Najib, refrain from commenting on social media”, Malay Mail, 3 February 2024; and “Tony Pua faces sedition probe over posts on Najib”, Free Malaysia Today, 4 February 2024.
4 “Press Release | A Royal Pardon for Najib Now Would Make a Mockery of the Rule of Law and Administration of Justice”, Malaysian Bar website, 13 September 2022.
5 “Najib to seek update on royal pardon bid”, The Star, 1 December 2023.
6 “Mother seeks royal pardon for son on life imprisonment”, New Straits Times, 5 January 2023.
7 “Press Release | The Attorney General’s Chambers’ Media Statement Fails to Provide Justifiable Reasons to the Public on the Withdrawal of the 47 Charges against Zahid Hamidi”, Malaysian Bar website, 7 September 2023.