KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 8 — Over the past week, media reports that Low Taek Jho, the alleged mastermind of the 1MDB scandal, had obtained Cypriot citizenship set social media abuzz with talk that the fugitive billionaire could elude capture.
But political analysts and politicians have mixed feelings on whether the failure to extradite Low, who is wanted for money laundering charges in several countries, would affect voters’ perception of the Pakatan Harapan government.
Some said the ruling coalition could suffer backlash from voters already frustrated by its many unfulfilled pledges. Seeing the Penang-born financier escape justice, they concluded, would only add on to the fury.
This is because PH had vowed to exert the full force of the law on all those found involved with the 1MDB fiasco, including bringing back the person seen as the scandal’s chief architect, Jho Low.
“The public cares,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.
“They want Jho Low, Najib and Rosmah in jail. Remember that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had famously promised before the election that all those involved with 1MDB will be jailed.
“If PH cannot deliver Jho Low it will lead to a loss of confidence, and expect votes to be affected in the next general election.”
Chin believes the trigger point to this potential voter anger was Low’s settlement with the US’ Department of Justice.
Earlier this month, Low’s elite legal team, led by a former US governor seen close to the Trump administration, issued a statement suggesting its client had been exonerated by a settlement that saw the fugitive returned assets bought with misappropriated 1MDB fund worth US$1 billion (RM4.2 billion).
Chin said the settlement likely came as a shock to Malaysians since the forfeiture arrangement did not presume guilt or wrongdoing.
“In other words, Low is still (perceived to be) clean as a whistle,” the analyst said in an opinion piece published shortly after news about the DoJ deal spread, though he did note the asset surrender in no way absolved Low of wrongdoing.
“He does not have to admit wrongdoing, he simply gives up some assets, perhaps for more lenient sentences if he’s ever convicted, and even his legal fees will be borne by that settlement.”
Chin also felt that the slow pace of the 1MDB corruption trials involving former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, is reinforcing public doubt if justice would ever be meted out.
Bolstering this point was the defensive nature of statements issued by many PH leaders calling for calm, which Chin argued reflected the growing impatience over the new government’s sluggish reforms and the perceived inability to address graft that involved past elected officials.
“Malaysians are already angry... Najib’s trial is currently underway but it is clear that no verdict will be forthcoming this year,” he said.
“The other high-profile figure charged, Rosmah Mansor, who is Najib’s wife, has just seen trial begun and is proceeding slower than a snail.”
On the ground, there are murmurs that Low’s continued evasion of the law would play well into the Opposition’s hands, but so far, leaders from BN or PAS have mostly kept silent.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, felt it unlikely that the Opposition would be keen to exploit the issue, considering the 1MDB scandal was a legacy of BN’s political leadership and the very cause of its downfall.
“That would be self defeating for them,” the political analyst said.
No BN politicians were readily available for comment.
Among PH leaders, the debate over the political impact of Low’s capture is equally split.
Some agreed with views that failure to extradite the 1MDB mastermind could dent confidence in the ruling party while others thought the numerous criminal and graft charges slapped on Najib and Rosmah were sufficient to indicate PH’s seriousness in fighting corruption.
“Firstly, (extraditing Low) is something out of our control,” former Batu MP and last term’s PKR vice-president Chua Tian Chang told Malay Mail.
“What is essential is the charges brought against Najib and Rosmah and other BN figures because they held the most responsibility as those who allowed the (embezzlement) to take place when they were in power.
“Ultimately it was the (former) prime minister who allowed all this to happen.”
And voters are likely discernible enough to understand that the end goal has always been about institutional reforms, Tian added.
Yet, the PKR leader admitted that success in extraditing Low could give the new government political brownie points and boost its standing.
“If we get him of course, it’s a bonus.”