The arrest of former Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Thursday came as little surprise, analysts say, but puts pressure on the government to prove that the case against its main election rival is not politically motivated.
Muhyiddin was arrested at the headquarters of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission after arriving for questioning in an ongoing graft case. In a statement, the commission said he would face “a number of charges” on Friday under corruption and money laundering laws in connection with the Jana Wibawa project, a multibillion-dollar stimulus program for ethnic Malay and Indigenous minority contractors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The former prime minister denies the accusations, painting them as a political witch hunt.
Muhyiddin served as prime minister for 17 months in 2020 and 2021 and lost a close election last November to Anwar Ibrahim, who was eventually appointed to the post by the country’s king. The political coalitions headed by each man will go head-to-head again in state-level elections expected in a few months.
His arrest had been expected for some time, said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute in Malaysia.
“We’ve had two members of his party already charged. There’s been ongoing investigation of the Jana Wibawa scandal case. And I think it’s been pretty clear that signals have been sent that Muhyiddin was to be charged and arrested,” she said.
Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, a government professor at Utara Malaysia University, agreed, adding that suspicions of graft had been swirling around the stimulus program well before last year’s elections.
The analysts said Muhyiddin’s arrest was also more proof that the country’s law enforcement agencies are increasingly willing to tackle allegations of corruption at the highest levels.
Muhyiddin is now the second former prime minister of Malaysia to be arrested and charged with corruption. Najib Razak, prime minister from 2009 to 2018, began a 12-year jail sentence in August for his role in the estimated $4.5 billion looting of state development fund 1MDB, and faces several more related charges.
“Very few countries can say that two prime ministers are now facing charges on corruption, and one of those has been jailed. I think that in itself is … a testimony to the strength and commitment to the fact that there has been this desire to deal with these issues of corruption,” said Welsh.
“At the same time, there is a real challenge in that the issues of corruption have continuously and historically been highly politicized,” she added.
Najib, who has also dismissed the charges against him as politically motivated, was prosecuted soon after losing the 2018 election. Anwar himself spent years in jail on charges brought by political rivals, which he has always denied.
“People ask, ‘How independent are the anti-corruption bodies?’ And, legitimately, questions can be asked about what is happening,” said Welsh. “It’s OK to ask the questions, but one has to look at the answers, and those answers are the issue of what’s the evidence that [is] going to be used for the charges, and also how is the case going to be prosecuted, and so forth.”
Ahmad said the government will have to lay out a very strong case to fight those doubts.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission “already has a very distinguished reputation. They will not simply charge anyone without any substantial evidence. But still the onus is on them to prove that this is not a political prosecution,” he said. “Everybody should remember that he [Muhyiddin] is still innocent until proven guilty.”
How the government and courts handle the case may also have consequences for the coming elections, said Wong Chin Huat, a political science professor at Malaysia’s Sunway University.
He said the case will likely drive some voters, put off by the taint of corruption, away from Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition. But he said others will see him as a martyr for challenging Anwar and his ruling alliance. Others, Chin Huat added, may decide that all parties are equally corrupt and stay away from the polls altogether.
“Which response would be stronger may depend on how the government conducts this case and treats the opposition,” he said. “The government would stand to gain only if the prosecution can present convincing evidence against Muhyiddin, there is no immediate instance of double standard favoring government party politicians in [a] comparable situation, and if the government treats the opposition fairly in federal funding for states and also electoral district allocations.”
Several members of the United Malays National Organization, a key party in the ruling bloc, are facing corruption allegations of their own, including Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who remains free.