The case of Dr Khir, who was sentenced to a year in jail, set several valuable precedents, not least of which is that he was actually convicted. The last politician of comparable stature to be jailed for graft had been Harun Idris, another former Selangor chief minister, back in 1977. Dr Khir’s conviction marked a precipitous fall. Once a rising star in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), he had climbed rapidly to become the youngest chief minister of Malaysia’s richest state, and only a short while back seemed poised for a top national job.
Significantly, it was also the first time the prosecution had applied to take the properties in question away from a public servant convicted for the offences Dr Khir was found guilty of. Hitting the wallets of graft prone politicians might turn out to be a bigger deterrent than mere jail time.
Still, the case that Malaysia is turning the tide against corruption should not be oversold. Dr Khir is out on bail, pending an appeal against his sentence. It is also conspicuous that the charges against him were brought after he left office following his state government’s defeat in the 2008 elections. Serving politicians under suspicions of graft, in particular Shahrizat Abdul Jalil – the federal minister for women, family and community development under pressure for alleged misappropriations in a state enterprise that her husband and children have prominent positions in – do not yet appear to be running for cover.
In this context, there is a perception that Dr Khir was a “sacrifice” made by Mr Najib to burnish his corruption-fighting credentials ahead of snap polls expected to be called by him sometime next year. Such rumours – encouraged in part by Dr Khir who complained of being the victim of a UMNO plot – have unsurprisingly been taken up by the Opposition, which fears that Dr Khir’s conviction was meant to soften any perceptions of impropriety in the impending verdict against its leader Anwar Ibrahim next month.
Mr Anwar is on trial for allegedly committing sodomy, and most in the Opposition expect him to be convicted in an attempt by the government to undermine the delicate alliance between the main Opposition parties before the snap polls.
The Opposition’s assertions of a link between the trials of Dr Khir and Mr Anwar are far-fetched, but there is still likely to be some political calculation behind the government’s relative non-interference with the judicial process in Dr Khir’s case.
The Selangor state government – currently run by the national Opposition – had dug up quite a few shenanigans that allegedly took place under its predecessor’s watch. That was why Dr Khir, while still a powerful grassroots leader in the party’s state unit, had seen his standing decline, which he contributed further to at times with thinly veiled Malay-first rhetoric in a state with large minorities. It might therefore not have been worth saving Dr Khir, who in any case did not occupy a significant party position at the national level.
Moreover, some believe that Dr Khir’s plight was a shot across the bow of former PM Mahathir Mohamad – who had been his chief patron – to keep him in line ahead of the polls. The ruling coalition’s poor performance in 2008 had been in part due to Dr Mahathir’s unceasing attacks against Mr Najib’s predecessor, and there were signs that Dr Mahathir was similarly growing disenchanted with Mr Najib’s leadership.
The key question for Mr Najib now is whether he can keep a lid on factionalism in a party reeling from the rare sight of one of their own being thrown to the wolves. The PM has to balance public expectations with party demands. While Dr Khir’s conviction has been broadly welcomed by the public, it should be recognised that perhaps an equally big number of constituents feel that he had not been punished enough for his transgressions. Allowing the increasingly discredited Ms Shahrizat to be taken down would bolster Mr Najib’s standing further, but the canny PM would be cognisant that pushing his party too far could result in a backlash against him.