With the United Malays National Organization’s annual general meeting safely out of the way last week and with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in the saddle as expected, the opposition led by dumped Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and former Premier Mahathir Mohamad is expected to set off on a new course. Some are calling it guerrilla war.
The four-day conclave was programmed down to the last speaker and lunch menu to make sure that Muhyiddin, Mahathir and other dissidents didn’t have a chance to upset anything despite huge controversies over dual scandals involving Najib’s personal finances and massive debt owed by the state backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. investment fund.
A political insider said the opposition is planning a two-pronged strategy, working on the grassroots to persuade the 30,000 branch chiefs to abandon the prime minister. That is said to include printing books detailing corruption, pamphlets, accounts of swindles and holding ceramahs --“lectures,” as political rallies are technically outlawed.
The second prong – a longer shot – is to prepare the ground for eventual party elections, which were delayed earlier this year by Najib to avoid a challenge. A pro-Najib blog identified a so-called “5M” slate headed by Muhyiddin to take on Najib in 2018 when party elections are scheduled, although that seems unlikely. At 67, Muhyiddin would be almost 70 and he expressed a desire to retire before the current controversy made him a lightning rod.
Nonetheless, the attrition campaign, as some political observers call it, risks the most dangerous splits in UMNO since the 1980s when Mahathir and onetime Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah succeeded in splitting the party in two in a power struggle that was subsequently healed. This could be worse, a scorched-earth drive aimed at the 3 million UMNO members across the country. Muhyiddin’s forces are said to be planning across the country to try to persuade the members to abandon Najib and the leadership of the party.
“I think UMNO is finished,” said a Malay source. “The party is wrecked.”
There is already spreading disillusion in urban ranks over corruption and the antics of Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor, who has openly flaunted vast wealth. Malay support – the backbone of the party – has fallen to 31 percent, according to the most recent Merdeka Centre poll, driving UMNO to make common cause with Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the rural-based Islamic fundamentalist party. Chinese support has fallen to less than 5 percent.
Nonetheless, none of the 192 cadres who vote Najib’s fate at the top of UMNO have budged despite the multiple scandals. So Mahathir, Muhyiddin, cashiered Rural and Regional Development Minister Shafie Apdal and others have begun a war of attrition, going to grassroots members throughout the country in an attempt to persuade them that Najib and his associates have to go or the Barisan Nasional, the national ruling coalition led by UMNO, will lose the next general election.
Southern state a hotbed of opposition
A relatively significant rump movement has already sprung up in Johor, Muhyiddin’s home territory and the state he served as chief minister before moving on to the national level. Over the weekend, 250 rank-and-file UMNO members from Kedah and Johor called on Najib to step down for the sake of the party and the Barisan. Earlier, in November, 20 branches in the southern Selangor city of Sepang –home of the country’s F1 racecourse – told Najib to get out.
A small group of branch division leaders were recently expelled for demanding Najib's resignation. Najib, however, has been able to maintain the loyalty of the 192 voting cadres through a combination of rent-seeking, make-work jobs and outright bribes of as much as RM2 million, according to the investigative website, which documented earlier this year that checks were handed out personally by Najib to UMNO party heads, with deputy Finance Minister Ahman Maslan receiving a RM2 million check and Back Bench Chairman Shahrir Abdul Samad receiving RM1 million, among others.
Muhyiddin and Mahathir, who weren’t allowed to speak to the UMNO AGM, instead held their own gala at the beginning of the AGM in another area of Kuala Lumpur that drew an estimated 1,000 UMNO delegates, many of them shouting “Hidup (‘Life’) Tan Sri” at Muhyiddin.
Olive branch spurned
Najib sought to offer an olive branch at the convention, only to be turned down by Muhyiddin, who retains his title of deputy party chief despite being sacked as vice premier. Muhyiddin instead posted a thank you note from a supporter who spoke up on his behalf on his Facebook page.
He is expected to make another major address in Kuala Lumpur in the next day or two, calling for widespread rejection of the prime minister.
In the meantime, Mahathir has continued his own campaign through his blog Chedet, in which he wrote before the AGM: “O members and UMNO grassroot leaders. Think carefully. Do not support and be blindly faithful for favors you gain today. Our race will curse us if the fate of the race becomes worse because we are greedy and forget UMNO’s struggle. And all the blessings that we got will be destroyed, in fact the government of the opposition party will be acting on your mistakes when they rule.
“O members and UMNO grassroot leaders. If you want to be safe and win, reject the leadership of (Najib) before GE14. Reject his leadership prior to the GE14 so that UMNO is safe and be able to win the election and remain as a government that is fair to all. I write in my blog because strict restrictions are in place so that I could not meet and talk with members of UMNO and the public. Machinery being used, consisting of government bodies and the party is very efficient. It by itself is proof of offenses being committed.”