Malaysia’s PM Najib: Immovable Object

On June 17, the regular meeting of the United Malays National Organization’s Management Committee, chaired by UMNO Deputy President Muhyiddin Yassin, turned into a free-for-all, according a source in KL, with Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the head of the party’s women’s wing, unloading bitterly on Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak.

Shahrizat reportedly said Najib was wrecking the party** and bringing it into disrepute. She also criticized Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, for her extravagance, the source told Asia Sentinel. The meeting, which included the party’s three vice presidents and other top members, appeared largely kept silent, the source said. Muhyiddin has been aligned with former Premier Mahathir Mohamad on a months-long, off-again, on-again campaign to push Najib out of office.

But when the meeting was over, despite the outright fury at the prime minister, nobody was willing to join the effort to dump him. Their silence illustrates the seeming impossibility of ridding the party of a leader who many think has become a national liability and who, according to many political analysts, is doing irreparable damage to UMNO’s prospects in the next election.

Weariness with Najib has extended into major sectors of the business community and the general public, with an April poll by the respected Merdeka Centre showing that nearly half of the voting public have no confidence that the government has the ability to clean up the massive scandal surrounding the 1Malaysia Development Bhd state-owned investment fund. Some 33 percent are undecided and only 18 percent said they had full confidence. Among younger voters, 57 percent say they have no confidence in the government’s ability to solve the issue. According to a six-month-old poll taken before the current round of criticism, his public approval rating had fallen to 44 percent, the lowest of his career.

But nobody wants to follow Mahathir out of the trenches and into the line of fire. Shahrizat is also an unlikely candidate, since she was rehabilitated by Najib herself in the wake of a major scandal involving RM250 million for a halal cattle feeding operation, much of it diverted to condominiums and luxury cars. It is a question how much of her fury against Najib is over 1MDB and Rosmah’s reckless spending, and how much is over the fact that the government refuses to return her husband’s passport to him after he was enmeshed in the scandal.

Meanwhile, the political fight between Mahathir and Najib has virtually paralyzed the nation. The value of the currency has dropped by 18 percent against the US dollar in the past 18 months and there is growing concern that Najib, in his desperation to defend himself against Mahathir, who wants him in jail, is neglecting the country’s economic performance. Foreign investors are fleeing the markets, among the world’s worst performing in 2015. Foreigners have been net sellers on the KL stock market for seven straight weeks, with as much as RM2.55 billion abandoning Malaysian companies.

None of this has publicly fazed the UMNO cadres, described by one source as “warlords,” who appear to be living in a vacuum in which the growing anger of the voting public can’t be divined or heard. Whatever thebehind-the-scenes angst, party leaders including division heads and the cabinet have agreed that the prime minister be given time to sort out the 1MDB mess. The government has been frantically borrowing money, shifting it from other government departments, to make monthly payments on what appears to be badly mismanaged debt.

The general feeling among the cadres, many of them Malay nationalists, is that Mahathir has miscalculated by taking his concerns to the international press and damaging the country’s reputation.

Meanwhile, the opposition has cratered, with Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, saying it would no longer work with the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party. Malaysian political analysts say PAS decided to leave the coalition to attempt to make common cause with UMNO in the belief that between them they can convince enough of the country’s Malays to vote for them in the election due in 2018 to hold onto power. That has left the other two wings of the coalition trying to figure out what to do.

Najib’s brother Nazir stepped quietly into the middle of the controversy earlier with a plan to start what has been called an NGO whose ultimate aim would be a unity government. Top businessmen have been contacted, many of them Chinese concerned about the increasing tilt toward ketuanan Melayu, or Malay superiority and Muslim fundamentalism, especially if PAS, with the covert backing of UMNO, engineers the implementation of Islamic hudud law in the state of Kelantan. They are concerned that if the Kelantan genie gets out of the bottle, it will spread to more Malay-dominated states. There is no longer a viable opposition to act as a brake on PAS.

“Everybody wants Nazir to move forward on this and make it an actual political party,” said a Malay businessman who said he was willing to help fund it. “But he’s not willing to move decisively.”

The hope apparently is that enough moderate ethnic Malays would leave UMNO for a secular unity party rather than put up with the threat of physical violence for wrongdoing, and that the Malaysian Chinese Association, Gerakan and the Malaysian Indian Congress would break away from the Barisan as well to combine with moderates from the shambles of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat, founded by the now-jailed Anwar Ibrahim. Some officials, including Tony Pua in the Democratic Action Party, reportedly have been approached about bringing the DAP into the unity movement.

But as with the question of who will break ranks publicly with the UMNO leaders, the question is who wants to be seen out front in the business community. Malaysia, despite a relatively healthy private sector, remains very much Malaysia, Inc. Regulators could be expected to do plenty of damage. So for now, wishes to the contrary, Najib is likely to stay where he is. Mahathir remains implacable. But at 90, he has few individuals besides a handful of bloggers who publicly agree with him. He has often disparaged Nazir as well, and it is also unlikely, as a stalwart advocate of ketuanan Melayu himself, that he would join a unity effort

*Story changed to reflect new information, June 24, 2015