Fundamentalist Leader's Political Kiss of Life for Malaysian PM

Despite credible allegations of deep corruption and of accusations of being the architect of “kleptocracy at its worst” by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the US$3.5 billion Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been given a second wind by Hadi Awang. the head of the country’s rural fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, who appears to have formed an alliance with him.

Najib’s United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, has been wracked by a long list of scandals and saddled by infighting. Officials have been exposed in the international press as having allegedly embezzled millions of ringgit from under the noses of seemingly unsuspecting ministers. Many of its politicians and close associates including the heads of the government-linked corporations or GLCs have been linked to corruption and abuse of power.

Although logically UMNO would have been trashed by the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, it is the opposition that is on the back foot. Instead of presenting a strong and united front to bring down a weak UMNO, it has been hamstrung by Najib, who has skillfully manipulated PAS and Hadi to render the Islamist political party ineffective. In past years PAS, with its power to pull rural votes, was an integral part of the opposition.

Years of Careful Wooing

Najib’s campaign to snare Hadi has been years in the making, with the principal vehicle an amendment sponsored by PAS that has been progressing through the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, that would allow seventh-century Shariah law, known as hudud, including stoning for adulterers, amputation for thieves, among other punishments, to be administered in Kelantan, the only state that PAS holds.

In an extraordinary move, Azalina Othman, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, late last year moved Hadi’s private member's bill from the bottom of the list to the top, facing down a furious backlash from the the largely moderate urban public and opposition politicians. It is unheard of in Malaysia’s parliamentary system for a government figure to support an opposition member’s bill.

"When has any political party helped a rival?” one political observer asked. “UMNO tabling the hudud bill for PAS shows that UMNO and PAS are thick as thieves."

Many fear that should Najib lead his ruling coalition to victory in the general election, which must be held this year, he will push the bill through to keep his side of the bargain -- although others believe the long stalling act by Najib, who has often demonstrated his moderate cred on an international stage, is designed to woo Hadi as long as possible without actually handing him passage.

Unlikely Islamic Hero

Najib is widely regarded as having massaged Hadi to make him believe that both can emerge as heroes of the ethnic Malays, who make up about 60 percent of the population, with the Chinese at about 20 percent, Indians 7-8 percent, and other bumiputras in Sabah and Sarawak making up the bulk of the rest.

Naji’s overtures to Hadi about uniting the Malays and protecting Islam under the guise of a unity government, and the prospect of shariah and hudud law in Kelantan, have worked. Hadi's role has been to destabilize the opposition, although now Najib has to chart another course because opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has languished in jail since January 2015 on what many regard as trumped-up charges, has been replaced by his former nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad, who once hand-picked Najib as his successor during his two decades and more as Malaysia's leader. The former prime minister has waged all-out political war against Najib since 2014.

Anwar is to be freed in June and, as Malaysia’s most charismatic politician, could be expected to electrify the electorate. But the betting is that Najib will suspend parliament and call the election before that date. With a splintered opposition, he and his top allies expect another five years in power.

Nonetheless, Najib cans no longer use Hadi to charge that the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party leads the opposition with a Muslim, albeit a half-Indian one, leading the coalition.

Although it is suspected that Najib began courting Hadi before PAS's former leader and respected spiritual guru, Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, died in 2015, signs that Hadi was biding his time are, in hindsight, more evident. By his recalcitrance, often opposing opposition political gambits and leaning toward the government on some issues, Hadi, with his unreliability, has surfaced as the real threat to the opposition, splitting it against a unified Barisan Nasional.

Hospital visits

As an example of Najib’s mastery of the situation, observers describe bedside visits made by Najib to Hadi when he was hospitalized with heart problems at the National Heart Institute in Kuala Lumpur, in 2016. Two years earlier, when Hadi suffered a heart attack in Turkey, Najib is said to have ordered the Embassy to offer immediate assistance.

When he was still alive, although seriously ill, political analysts in Kuala Lumpur say, Nik was able to contain Hadi's fierce political ambition. After Nik’s death, Hadi split the party and drove out people like Husam Musa, a former PAS vice president, who left and took the moderate wing of the party with him to form Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah), a moderate Islamic opposition offshoot that hasn't gained a lot of traction.

As religious head of PAS, Hadi fancies himself God's right-hand man. He is clearly confused by discussions of global economics, equality, environmental degradation or 1MDB, tending to proceed on all points by evaluating them as halal or haram – permitted or prohibited in Islam. It would take four witnesses, he believes, to declare what the US Justice Department has already decided, that 1MDB is irretrievably corrupt. Hadi has no other world view apart from Islam being a dominant force in Malay lives.

Najib is well aware of Hadi's poor track record as an administrator as a one-term chief minister of the northeastern rural state of Terengganu (2003-2008). Under his leadership, PAS ignored the mismanagement of neighboring Kedah, which was under PAS rule, as the state was administered by an ailing and out-of-touch chief minister.

Women off to Hell

Hadi betrayed his true credentials when he failed to endorse Wan Azizih Wan Ismail – Anwar’s wife -- to be the chief minister of Selangor, the country’s richest state. In the initial stages of the nomination controversy, he claimed that sex was not an issue. A month later, he said Wan Azizah was unsuitable because she lacked qualifications and was weak. It later leaked out that he had told delegates at a PAS general assembly, that his conscience would be pricked if he were to endorse a woman because women are destined for hell.

Najib is also aware that few people among ethnic Malays dare to question clerics. When the PAS Youth leader claimed that 2016 floods were an act of God to punish the people in the state of Kelantan for failing to implement hudud laws, Hadi didn’t disagree.

Hadi's unpopularity with the opposition coalition is well documented. After saying it was his prerogative to attend opposition council meetings, he caused massive problems by going against decisions made on his behalf by his representatives. He skipped crucial voting for the Prevention of Terrorism Act in the early hours of 10 April 2015, which saw the government pass the law, which allows for detention without trial of suspects for two years and is widely regarded as draconian and unnecessary – other than to intimidate opposition views.

PAS Abstains

More evidence of the unwritten mutual support between Hadi and Najib was revealed during the tabling of the 2018 national budget last November. The budget was passed with 107 MPs voting for, 59 against, and 11 abstaining. The 11 who abstained were from PAS.

The Penang Institute political studies program head, Wong Chin Huat, accused PAS of being an unofficial BN coalition partner and said, "This signals what will happen if BN loses a parliamentary majority in GE-14 but remains the largest bloc. PAS will likely formalize its coalition with BN and get a substantial share in the cabinet."

He added that PAS’s abstention would reignite suspicions of an alleged financial collaboration between UMNO and PAS, which both have denied.

“Hadi has suffered several heart attacks, and there is a possibility that a fatal one could occur at any time,” said James Chin, the Director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, writing in the East Asia Forum. “If he dies, PAS will split, and Najib may be unable to hold the new PAS leaders to the deal made with Hadi."

When Hadi was in the coalition, he caused dissent by claiming that DAP was acting against the interests of the Malays and Islam. He only has to stay alive for another few months.