By Minderjeet Kaur and Noah Lee
A Malaysian court sentenced a lawmaker who was the country’s youngest ever minister and a rising star in national politics to seven years in prison on Thursday for embezzling more than U.S. $200,000 from a political party’s funds.
Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, who was convicted on all four charges he faced, was also fined 10 million ringgit ($2.13 million) and became the first politician to receive a flogging sentence – he will get two strokes of the cane.
He was found guilty because the defense “failed to raise reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case for all four charges,” Kuala Lumpur High Court judge Azhar Abdul said in delivering the verdict in the case filed in 2021.
Syed Saddiq, who was clad in a black suit and tie to match his party’s color, was seen trying to hold back tears after the judge handed down the ruling. His parents had accompanied him to court.
In a country where old men dominate government, the 30-year-old lawmaker was in the news two months ago, when he quit Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s ruling coalition in protest after a raft of corruption-related charges were dropped against Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
Back then, Syed Saddiq said he believed that “the legal institutions of the country have been tainted and it is as if the government is normalizing the culture of corruption.”
On Thursday evening, he resigned as president of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda), the youth party he co-founded, saying he wasn’t fit for the job anymore.
“In order to be president of Muda, the leader must be ‘whiter than white,’” he said.
The lead prosecutor in the case against Syed Saddiq, Wan Shaharuddin, had asked the court to impose a heavier sentence against the MP, saying it would act as a deterrent for others contemplating similar crimes.
Shaharuddin told BenarNews that Syed Saddiq was the first politician in Malaysia to be sentenced to lashes from a cane.
After the ruling on Thursday, Syed Saddiq did not immediately go to prison because the judge stayed the verdict and the sentences pending appeal, said his lawyer, Gobind Singh Deo, who filed an appeal Thursday afternoon.
“For us now, [it] is to take it to the next level, which is to the Court of Appeal,” Gobind said.
“Syed Saddiq will continue his duties as an MP and to remain on bail pending the appeal.”
The convicted lawmaker entered mainstream politics after being elected MP for the Muar constituency in Johor state in the 2018 general elections.
When he was 25 years old, he became the youngest ever minister in Malaysian history, after being appointed as youth and sports minister in the Pakatan Harapan coalition government, a post which he held from 2018 to 2020.
As the leader of Muda, he also led a successful campaign to lower the voting age in Malaysia to 18.
Syed Saddiq is known for his sharp oratory skills and his advocacy for youth empowerment.
Syed Saddiq said at a press conference after the verdict that he had full respect for the court and the judiciary system despite the outcome in his case.
“In the end, the judicial system and the court will decide on my fate and it is also the best platform to clear my name,” he told reporters.
The former minister for youth and sports, who had headed the youth wing of the Bersatu party in 2020, was convicted Thursday on charges of abetting a former party official in withdrawing 1 million ringgit from the youth wing’s account.
He was also found guilty of misappropriating another 120,000 ringgit (U.S. $25,650) from a separate youth wing account for use in his election campaign in April 2018.
Syed Saddiq was charged and convicted for criminal breach of trust, misappropriation of assets and two counts of money laundering.
He had told the media when the case was filed two years ago that the charges against him were politically motivated because he had refused to pledge support for the then-shaky Muhyiddin Yassin government.
Syed Saddiq was expelled from Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party in May 2020.