Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on June 27 reshuffled 10 portfolios in his cabinet, rewarding a handful of United Malays National Organization stalwarts including Noh Omar, the Selangor UMNO chief, as Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister. The only notable departure is Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah, who resigned as Second Finance Minister.
What didn’t happen is probably more important. Hishamuddin Hussein, 54, Najib’s cousin and the current defense minister, and Khairy Jamaluddin, 40, the federal Minister for Youth and Sports and the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose career seemed to be in eclipse when Badawi was driven from office in 2009, appear to be consolidating their own power under Najib despite not moving.
“At present Hisham and Khairy remain in their current positions but UMNO is theirs,” said a political observer. “They are the future of the party assuming UMNO wins the next election.”
Hisham has been regarded as a bit of a dim bulb. A wooden speaker, he was roundly criticized for bumbling over the investigation into the mysterious loss of MH370, the Boeing passenger jetliner that disappeared without a trace on March 8, 2014, with 239 passengers and crew. Although occasional fragments have been found that are believed to be part of the craft, the mystery of its disappearance has never been solved.
Khairy was considered a major reason for the fall of Badawi over allegations of undue influence over public service contracts.
What it all means for Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 63, the Deputy Prime Minister and Najib’s chief spear-carrier, is unclear. He retains his position but in the past he has been regarded with distrust by many. He was a one-time ally of the now-imprisoned opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim but returned to UMNO after Anwar, then Finance Minister, fell from power. He is looked on as a loose cannon but he has risen rapidly in power.
It is the third reshuffle in the seven years, some of it stormy, since Najib took power in 2009. The other major development happened on June 24 when Najib engineered the sacking of former Deputy Prime Muhyiddin Yassin from his position as vice president of the United Malays National Organization, along with Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, on a unanimous vote.
The ousting of Muhyiddin, who was axed nearly a year ago as Najib’s deputy prime minister, and Mukhriz, who had been removed as chief minister of the state of Kedah, had long been expected. UMNO’s rousing victory in two by-elections earlier this year and a convincing win in Sarawak state polls earlier are an indication that despite being enmeshed in a huge scandal that has drawn money-laundering investigations in seven other countries, Najib is bullet-proof as premier.
The are aligned with the 91-year-old Mahathir in his attempt to drive Najib from power. They have joined him in an opposition attempt to gather more than a million signatures asking Najib to leave. The attempt so far has been inconclusive. It appears that the prime minister feels secure enough to call a snap election, more than two years before the current five-year term expires in August of 2018, according to the drums in Kuala Lumpur.
Although the firing of Muhyiddin last year kicked off an uproar that rank and file UMNO members, with the help of the Mahathir wing of the party and particularly in Muhyiddin’s Johor base, would rebel and drive the Najib faction from power, it didn’t happen. It seems quite likely that Najib has calculated correctly that there will be little today.
It is likely that the only shadow on Najib’s career today is the investigations going on in the United States, Switzerland, Singapore, Hong Kong and other jurisdictions. Swiss authorities have charged that as much as US$4 billion has been laundered from the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd., an investment vehicle set up in 2009 with Najib as its principal financial adviser. Literally dozens of news stories have traced the money out of 1MDB into a variety of accounts in the Cayman and British Virgin Islands, Switzerland and Singapore. Najib himself appears to have been the recipient of as much as US$681 million that was mysteriously deposited in his personal account in 2013 before the general election, and was equally mysteriously withdrawn and transmitted to another account in Singapore before it disappeared outright.
In May, the Monetary Authority of Singapore forced the closure of BSI Bank Ltd – the first merchant bank to be closed in Singapore in 32 years – for its role in moving money in and out of Singapore for individuals connected to 1MDB and fined the bank S$13.3 million for 41 cases of breaches of money laundering and other laws. MAS Managing Director Ravi Menon called BSI Bank “the worst case of control lapses and gross misconduct that we have seen in the Singapore financial sector.”
The monetary authority also said at the time that it was investigating “several other financial institutions and bank accounts through which suspicious and unusual transactions have taken place.”
None of this has had any effect on Najib’s standing within his party and, if the three recent elections are any gauge, with the voters. By sacking government officials, neutralizing investigations, threatening critics with sedition charges, closing important press outlets and banning external news sources including Asia Sentinel and the influential Sarawak Report, he has managed to largely contain criticism.
He has also been helped by social attitudes among ethnic Malays that regard all attempts to expose what is manifestly widespread corruption, both on Najib’s part and within UMO itself as a plot on the part of the minority ethnic Chinese community to take political power away from them to match economic power, which has resided in the Chinese community for decades.