Malaysian Political Enemies Unite Against Najib

A call for a combined March 27 rally in Kuala Lumpur to put additional pressure on embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak has assumed new importance with the alignment of leaders who seemingly hate each other – former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad; opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed by Mahathir; and the onetime Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim, who has broken with both of them. Many others are also involved.

In addition, it appears for the first time that opposition to Najib is stirring inside the United Malays National Organization, his political party. Charges against the prime minister that were prepared by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission but never brought against him are said to have been circulated widely among party leaders.

Previous rallies by Bersih, the campaign reform organization, have drawn tens of thousands of protesters but have had little or no impact, with Najib remaining impregnable. Despite the huge crowds, United Malays National Organization leaders have characterized the protests as fomented by ethnic Chinese, who are accused of attempting to wrest control of political power from ethnic Malays.

But, sources in Kuala Lumpur say, the gathering storm of international scandals and criticism from a wide range of voices including the US and the United Nations is making Malaysia a worldwide synonym for corruption.

Wide coalition of leaders

The coalition of leaders was to hold a press conference Friday, Mar. 4, to announce their plans. Among those who have decided to make common cause with Mahathir are Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang – who Mahathir jailed in 1987 – as well as former Law Society head Ambiga Sreenevasan and Maria Chin Abdullah, who heads Bersih. Mustafa Ali and Mohamad Sabu, leaders of the moderate Islamist faction that split away from Parti Islam se-Malaysia attended, along with Chua Tian Chang, a vice president of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

“There is a gathering of forces, the stars are aligning,” a source said. “The most important thing is that Anwar is endorsing his arch-enemy [Mahathir]. There is so much frustration and unhappiness that people who hate each other are aligning.”

Najib has shown uncharacteristic concern, rushing off to Saudi Arabia last week to be photographed at an Islamic cleansing ceremony with his wife, Rosmah Mansor. The unscheduled trip is said in Kuala Lumpur to be a sign that Najib is starting to feel the heat, although another source said Najib is attempting to convince the Saudis to provide him cover for the US$681 million that found its way into his personal bank account in 2013. The Wall Street Journal has written repeatedly that the money never originated in the desert kingdom.

In a further sign of Najib’s willingness to do most anything to stay in power, also on Friday, a much anticipated audit report on the scandal-wracked 1MDB state investment fund was classified secret, with lawmakers banned from taking copies outside parliament, according to Tony Pua, a member of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee investigating the company.

At the same time, UMNO leaders are starting to count the costs of going into the 14th general election, which must be held before Aug. 24, 2018, with a party headed by a leader who has become an international pariah propped up in power only through his ability to bribe district chiefs. Both the United Nations and US President Barack Obama, in conversations with Najib, have urged the freeing of Anwar, accusing the government of having imprisoned him on spurious charges.

In a scathing series of comments, The Economist this week published three detrimental articles on Malaysia, one of which said that "Under Najib, the country is regressing at alarming speed. Its politics stinks, its economy is in trouble, and there are worrying signs that the government is not above stirring up ethnic and religious divisions.”

Move on Muhyiddin

The move earlier this week to suspend Muhyiddin Yassin, the cashiered former Deputy Prime Minister, from his parallel position as UMNO deputy president, is part of the situation. Muhyiddin, who has become one of Najib’s biggest foes and an UMNO party rebel, would have succeeded to the presidency of the party and the premiership if Najib fell. Muhyiddin has vowed to stay in the party to attack Najib despite being deprived of his position. He had to be pushed out of the way for the current deputy prime minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, to take over the job of deputy party president. Then, if Najib walks the plank, Zahid and not Muhyiddin would lead the party.

There is no formal move to oust Najib within the party, although “there is a growing feeling that Najib is indefensible,” the source said. “There is too much scandal.”

Among those said to be contemplating a move are Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, the current minister of tourism and culture; Khairy Jamaluddin, the youth and sports minister; and Mahdzir Khalid, the education minister and others. Hishamuddin Hussein, Najib’s cousin and the minister of defense, is another who is said to be growing deeply worried about the political situation.

Zaid puts the coalition together

Zaid Ibrahim, a onetime UMNO stalwart and head of Malaysia’s biggest law firm, was forced to quit the party over the arrests of opponents of the regime. He subsequently joined Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, but eventually fell out with Anwar over his ambition to eventually lead the party. It is Zaid who is seeking to coalesce the disparate forces into the March 27 movement.

“Zaid came up with the proposal at the right time,” a source said. “It didn’t look like it would take off. We are not sure now that the police will allow it.”

Mahathir, who had been regarded as largely a spent force after resigning from UMNO a week ago, appears to be stronger than thought as a party to the rally. He was expected to gather some 40 leaders today from all walks of politics and society to sign a compact to demand the removal of Najib from office.

“This is really significant,” the source said.

The only politics that matter in Malaysia are the politics of UMNO, the country’s biggest political party and the key to the Malay heartland. By tradition, the prime minister and deputy prime minister have always been UMNO leaders. That will remain so, especially with an opposition coalition fragmented and leaderless, and riven by its own internal contradictions.

“It is important that not only is the opposition aligning, UMNO is aligning,” he said. “The rally is important, but it is the second thing, the internal rebellion in UMNO is what will make or break this.”

The merging coalition may bring down Najib or not, he continued. But given the antagonism between the parties aligning for the March 27 event and the quiet movement in UMNO, there is little hope that a unity government would grow out of it. As soon as they come together to do their job, they could easily spin apart again.

“Once this thing is over, they will start fighting each other again,” the source said. “I do not see a bright future for this country, with or without Najib.”