On Tuesday, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will appear in court – facing years in prison if convicted on corruption charges which seemed impossible less than a year ago.
The son and nephew of former prime ministers, scion of the Malay elite and head of the all-powerful United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has dominated Malaysian politics since the country’s independence, Najib’s downfall is as staggering as the scale of the corruption he has been accused of.
Even after the scandal over 1MDB – the sovereign wealth fund Najib set up and allegedly helped embezzle billions of dollars from – erupted worldwide, the idea of Malaysia prosecuting its former leader still seemed like fantasy. Najib was the “Teflon prime minister,” and almost all observers expected him to weather the storm.
Najib grew up surrounded by privilege and power. The son of Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein, he attended the elite Malvern College in the UK from the ages of 15 to 18 before going on to study economics at the University of Nottingham, an education which reportedly left him with a pronounced British accent some observers felt could hold him back in politics.
After a brief stint as an executive at the state-run oil company Petronas, Najib entered politics at just 23, taking over the Pekan parliamentary seat occupied by his father after the older man’s death in 1976. He quickly rose through the ranks of UMNO, the largest party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition set up by Abdul. Between 1976 and 1999, Najib held finance, culture, education and defense portfolios, overseeing in the latter role a significant investment in and modernization of Malaysia’s armed forces.
Najib proved an adept electoral operator, winning majorities of 23,000 and 26,000 in 2004 and 2008 respectively – among the highest margins in Malaysian history. In 2009, he succeeded Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as both UMNO leader and prime minister. While UMNO had previously succeeded in appealing to ethnic Malays, at the expense of Chinese and Indian voters, Najib emphasized a “multiracial, multi-religious” nation under the banner of 1Malaysia.
A key part of this approach was the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign wealth fund, which Najib and others said would be instrumental in “propelling Malaysia towards becoming a developed nation.”
However, according to prosecutors in Malaysia, the US and Singapore, 1MDB became a slush fund for executives including Najib, who allegedly used it to pay fo