Malaysia: Muhyiddin's razor-thin parliamentary majority in spotlight after MP found guilty of corruption

Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
PHOTO: Reuters

Malaysian politician Tengku Adnan Mansor has been found guilty of graft, two weeks after a separate corruption trial involving the member of parliament was halted following a prosecutor’s call for a discharge not amounting to acquittal.

The Monday verdict came just days after Malaysia’s hotly debated 2021 budget was narrowly passed, raising questions as to whether Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin ’s slim two-vote parliamentary majority will now be further weakened.

Tengku Adnan was on Monday sentenced to 12 months in prison and fined 2 million ringgit (S$662,100), with the judge allowing a stay of execution pending appeal.

Before sentencing, deputy public prosecutor Julia Ibrahim said a fine of “nothing less than 2 million ringgit” would be sufficient, pointing out that in March, during the early days of the trial, Tengku Adnan had described the amount as “just like my pocket money”.

The former top leader in the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) was in 2016 charged with receiving a bribe of 2 million ringgit from a businessman in his capacity as a public servant , two years before Umno was dethroned in the 2018 election.

While not officially part of the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition, which took power earlier this year after an internal coup, Umno politicians make up part of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s cabinet.

Analyst James Chin of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute said that for now, the prime minister’s tenuous position as leader of the fractured Perikatan Nasional alliance was safe.

“He survived the budget process with 111 votes in favour to 109 votes against. Now it will be quiet until the Lunar New Year in February,” he said.

Amid Malaysia’s chaotic political scene, there was previous speculation that lawmakers facing charges in court had pushed for trials to be dropped in exchange for political support – suspicions bolstered by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s admission in September that he had thrown in his lot with Umno members in a bid to gain parliamentary supremacy.

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In court on Monday, Tengku Adnan’s lawyer mentioned his position as an MP and the “slim majority” held by the ruling government, only to be swiftly countered by Justice Mohamed Zaini Mazlan who retorted: “Should I be concerned with the political situation in this country?”

In Malaysia, MPs are disqualified if sentenced to a jail term of more than a year or a fine exceeding 2,000 ringgit if the sentence is not overturned at the highest level and they have not received a “free pardon”. Tengku Adnan is currently able to retain his position, but will not be able to run for office should elections be called.

Said Chin from the University of Tasmania: “This guilty verdict doesn’t mean much, there’s an appeal process. He stands a good chance of getting away with it. Now all eyes are on different deals – there is talk of a cabinet reshuffle to see more Umno faces made ministers alongside Muhyiddin’s [nationalist] Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.”

Political scientist Wong Chin Huat said “slow negotiations” would continue to take place between Muhyiddin and his political allies, Umno and right-wing Islamist party PAS.

“The premier is perhaps overestimating his security,” Wong said. “However, I am highly doubtful that elections will be called soon. Firstly, the pandemic may not subside so soon. Secondly, economic depression may set in by then.”

Tengku Adnan was a minister in the cabinet of former prime minister Najib Razak , who was this year found guilty of multiple charges of corruption linked to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) global financial scandal.

The ex-premier still faces a raft of charges of abuse of power and money laundering, spread out across several pending trials. However, Najib remains a powerful figure in Umno, the nation’s largest party, which has 3.2 million members.

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Analyst and academic Awang Azman Awang Pawi of University Malaya’s Institute of Malay Studies said the Tengku Adnan verdict would weaken Najib’s faction within Umno, opening up opportunities for others within the party to wrest control.

“On top of that, the verdict also tells potential detractors that there is no political interference in this case, as they suggested was the case in Musa Aman‘s acquittal,” he said, referring to another Najib ally who was recently acquitted of 46 charges of corruption and money-laundering.

Other politicians from the previous regime are also facing graft charges, including Umno supreme council member Bung Moktar and former minister Isa Samad.

In May, the government dropped money-laundering charges against Riza Aziz – Najib’s stepson and the co-producer of Hollywood hit film The Wolf of Wall Street – who was arrested for allegedly receiving nearly US$250 million (S$333 million) from Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund 1MDB .

Riza received a discharge not amounting to an acquittal upon agreeing to a settlement with the government, which included the compounding and recovery of U$107.3 million in overseas assets.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.