SINGAPORE – Former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin is the latest Malaysian politician to face legal trouble and potential jail time after a court in Kuala Lumpur charged him with graft and embezzlement on March 10, a day after authorities arrested and questioned him over the alleged misuse of funds from a Covid-19 stimulus initiative.
The 76-year-old faces four counts of abuse of power involving 232.5 million ringgit (US$51.4 million) and two counts of money laundering of 195 million ringgit ($43.1 million), charges that are punishable by up to 20 years in prison and heavy fines.
Muhyiddin has maintained his innocence and has described the charges as a political vendetta.
“This selective prosecution is a political ploy done with malicious intent,” the former premier told reporters after being charged, claiming the move intended to “suppress and destroy” the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition he leads.
“It is aimed at embarrassing me by dragging me to court… Therefore, no matter what explanation I provide, I will still be charged,” Muhyiddin said.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) had been investigating allegations that beneficiaries of an economic relief program for ethnic Malay contractors had funneled kickbacks to Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) political party, funds that are suspected to have been used for PN’s well-funded general election campaign in November.
The charges come only months after Muhyiddin lost those divisive and tightly contested polls to Anwar Ibrahim, who was appointed premier by Malaysia’s king after forming a “unity government” coalition with rival political parties. Anwar then ordered a review of major government projects approved by Muhyiddin, alleging they did not follow proper procedures.
Muhyiddin, who led the country for 17 months between 2020 and 2021, is the second Malaysian leader to be charged with crimes after losing power.
Former premier Najib Razak, who was convicted of corruption linked to the infamous 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, scandal after his election defeat in 2018, began serving a 12-year prison sentence in August last year.
The graft charges are a blow to Muhyiddin, who has postured as a dogged opponent of kleptocracy and fashioned Bersatu and PN as a clean alternative to Najib’s scandal-plagued United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Two other leaders from Muhyiddin’s party have also been charged with bribery and several bank accounts belonging to the party have been frozen.
Muhyiddin has been granted bail by a judge and forced to surrender his passport. The case against him comes ahead of state elections due in July that will serve as a barometer of support for Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan-led (PH) ruling alliance, which is backed by UMNO. Analysts expect the Muhyiddin-led PN to pose a formidable challenge to the governing coalition at the polls.
The graft probe into Bersatu will intensify Malaysia’s already highly polarized politics. PN is accused of using divisive racialized rhetoric and observers expect it to galvanize its supporters by framing the corruption charges as a discriminatory move by the multi-ethnic unity government to squash the predominantly ethnic Malay opposition, which outperformed in November’s elections.
Though the ethno-nationalist PN fell short of winning a governing majority, its components Bersatu and Islamist coalition partner Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) won a majority of ethnic Malay votes, trouncing even the once-hegemonic UMNO in constituencies long regarded as its strongholds. Anwar’s PH has similarly struggled to win crucial Malay support at national elections.
Though the upcoming state polls will have no direct bearing on parliament’s numbers and balance, a strong performance by PN would likely test the fledging government’s stability. UMNO’s decision to partner with the center-left PH was unpalatable to many in the nationalist party, and analysts do not rule out a government-toppling revolt if the pairing is deemed to be electorally unviable.
UMNO performed poorly during the November polls in three of the six states – rural conservative Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah – where regional polls will be held.
PN is expected to ride the so-called “green wave” of PAS’ religious populism to victory in those areas, while potentially gaining major ground in PH-ruled multi-ethnic states Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan.
“Assuming that Muhyiddin is incapacitated politically in one way or another, I think PAS is bound to take over and play a proactive role to drive PN,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “With Muhyiddin being charged and so on, I think the PAS supporters will come out en masse, and they’re likely to dominate the state elections.”
PAS, a long-standing advocate of a strict interpretation of Islamic criminal law, surprised many by outperforming all other parties at the recent general election, winning 44 seats.
Abdul Hadi Awang, its party’s president, recently taunted Anwar’s government by claiming it would not last its full five-year term. However, critics say the PN opposition bloc remains myopically focused on regaining power.
Some analysts believe a dismal performance for UMNO at the state polls could lead to grassroots calls for the party to ditch Anwar’s PH for PN, thus creating conditions for another “Sheraton Move” – the political maneuver that toppled the first PH government and controversially brought Muhyiddin to power in March 2020 with backing from PAS, UMNO and other parties.
Muhyiddin’s tenure was characterized by political instability due to PN’s slim governing majority, which made his government vulnerable to political defections. His administration was widely criticized for suspending parliament on grounds of preventing Covid-19, with opposition parties and civil society groups accusing him of attempting to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.
His premiership ended when a ruling faction in UMNO led by party president and incumbent deputy premier Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and former leader Najib withdrew support for his PN-led government. Though Zahid has now lent his party’s backing to Anwar, some within UMNO are known to be more amenable to cooperation with PN given that both parties champion Malay rights.
Wong Chin-Huat, a political science professor at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University, described the charges against Muhyiddin as a double-edged sword.
“Some will cease to see PN as a clean and stable alternative to UMNO. Others who see these charges as a witch hunt or draw a cynical conclusion that all politicians are dirty,” he said.
“This may, in turn, affect voters’ decisions in the midterm state elections. It might make Muhyiddin a political martyr if convincing details don’t appear in the court quickly, if PH leaders or influencers weaponize this explicitly and even push it towards the deregistration of Bersatu, or if there are new instances of the state bending over to save UMNO-PH or their politicians,” he added.
Anwar’s decision to appoint UMNO president Zahid as his deputy despite his facing dozens of corruption charges was highly controversial. Though the appointment was one of political necessity, given that PH could only form the government with UMNO’s support, analysts say it has taken the shine off the PH-led government’s professed zero-tolerance of corruption.
It has not helped that Zahid has since sacked and suspended his rivals and detractors, and engineered a motion to prevent his post and the deputy president from being contested when UMNO holds its internal party elections later this month. While PN figures have been speedily brought to court for corruption, Zahid’s trial has been postponed to April.
Observers note that probes into a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal involving six undelivered littoral combat ships commissioned by the Malaysian navy over 12 years ago, dating back to Zahid’s tenure as defense minister, have seemingly stopped since Anwar became premier. That is despite the PH coalition vowing to investigate the matter while on the hustings.
PN leaders will easily convince their supporters that the latest charges amount to political persecution, with Zahid himself taunting PN leaders in a party assembly speech in January with claims that a “new court cluster” would emerge from their ranks, invoking a label that critics had used to refer to UMNO leaders facing corruption charges during Muhyiddin’s tenure.
Anwar, for his part, has said he considers Zahid innocent until proven guilty. The premier has, meanwhile, denied any interference in graft investigations involving Muhyiddin or notions that the probe is politically motivated. “To say every case is politically motivated, does it mean (the MACC) can’t make arrests? That all big corruption cases should be let go?” Anwar recently asked reporters.
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