Malaysia’s 1988 judicial crisis, in which the United Malays National Organization – the country’s biggest political party – was termed an illegal party, has come back to haunt the incumbent Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, just as it did the erstwhile PM, Mahathir Mohamad.
The architect of the crisis in 1988 was PM Mahathir, just as the architect of today's crisis is PM Najib. There were voting irregularities, in 1988 and the High Court declared Umno an illegal party.
The legal wrangle is occurring just days before electoral nominations and two weeks before the election itself at a time when arguably Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, is facing arguably most direct challenge to its six decades of dominance of the political discourse. Today it is hampered by a series of continuing scandals that depict Prime Minister Najib as a thief.
The action, instigated by 16 disgruntled UMNO members, is because the party has not held an internal election since 2013. They have been postponed several times as Najib has fought off party members eager to dent e him with the long-running 1MDB scandal, which the plaintiffs argue goes against the party constitution. He has answered by kicking most of his enemies out of the party.
The timing of the suit couldn’t be worse. With days to go before nomination day and just two weeks before polling day, neither Najib nor the party can afford a declaration that the party is illegal. Political observers have already predicted that both the judiciary and the Registrar of Societies (ROS) will come to Najib's rescue, and that the current drama is just shadow play. If that happens, UMNO faces an already-disillusioned public fed up with scandal and political chicanery.
The 1988 crisis, also known as the Malaysian constitutional crisis, culminated eventually in the suspension by Mahathir and eventual removal of the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Salleh Abas and ultimately the emasculation of the judiciary. Today's crisis puts the spotlight on judicial independence, as happened 30 years ago.
The roots of the 1988 crisis began in 1987, when for the first time in 12 years, the position of the UMNO president was challenged, by then-Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. Mahathir's Team A won by a nose: 761 votes to 718 for Razaleigh's Team B.
Rumors circulated that the voting had been rigged and that election documents had been "tampered with." A furious Mahathir purged members of Team B who held cabinet posts.
With tempers running high, 12 UMNO members sued to declare the election null and void and demanded polls. Razaleigh didn’t join the legal challenge, but is believed to have funded and directed the rebellion.
The charge was that 78 of the delegates who were eligible for to vote had come from branches not registered with the Registrar of Societies. Thus, the plaintiffs argued, these delegates should have been disqualified.
Three decades later, the 2018 crisis has similar undertones although this time it stems from the failure to hold internal elections.
At the last party election, held on Oct. 19, 2013, Najib and his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, won unopposed. The vice-president posts were won by Zahid Hamidi, Shafie Apdal and Hishammuddin Hussein.
At the party's general assembly the following year, an increasingly alienated Muhyiddin, who also held the post of deputy UMNO president, disagreed with Najib's decision to postpone the party election. He argued that UMNO leaders were sufficiently mature to handle preparations for GE-14 and would not split.
Muhyiddin's assertions were brushed aside, and in June 2015 Najib announced that UMNO's internal elections would be postponed, as the party had to prepare for GE-14.
When a Langkawi UMNO member, Anina Saadudin, sued Najib over allegations around a RM2.6 billion donation in his personal account that was believed to have been stolen from 1MDB, she too was promptly sacked.
All the while, Mahathir has been turning up the pressure on Najib, whose disdain for party dissenters meant that he started to mistrust his deputy, who now was criticizing him. Both Muhyiddin and Shafie Apdahl were raising concerns over the growing scandal over 1MDB. He fired Muhyiddin. Shafie left the party of his own accord.
With the country on election alert, and an opposition energized by the presence of Mahathir, Najib's worst nightmare was realized.
On April 20, 16 UMNO members from 11 branches in six Malaysian states, sued in High Court in Kuala Lumpur to quash the decision to grant UMNO an extension to the time limit for internal elections. They named the Registrar of Societies and UMNO organizing secretary, Abdul Rauf Yusoh, as respondents.
Although elections for the leadership positions in UMNO’s Supreme council can be delayed by 18 months, critics claim that the provision is only to be used once, which it was, in 2016. As an alternative measure, the 16 also want action to be taken against Rauf, whom they alleged had violated articles of the UMNO constitution for failing to hold the party elections. They are also demanding that UMNO be de-registered
The Opposition coalition Democratic Action Party (DAP), leader, Lim Kit Siang, joined in the fray and said that the party became illegal on April 20, adding that the registrar has no power to grant an extension, either under the UMNO constitution or the Societies Act.
Various former ministers have also advised Najib to seek the court's clarification. Former Information, Communications and Culture Minister, Rais Yatim said that UMNO leaders must seek accurate legal guidance, because to do nothing would seriously damage their reputations, as its members and others would think that they do not take the party's constitution seriously. Rais agreed that an extension of 18 months was allowed, but disagreed that the Registrar had the power to keep UMNO registered without elections.
Malaysia's longest serving International Trade and Industry Minister, Rafidah Aziz, a Mahathir ally who has in effect been drummed out of the party, also said that from a legal standpoint, UMNO would be considered illegal. She shared Rais's view that the Registrar was prohibited from allowing postponements.
Concerned by the comments from various former senior ministers, UMNO's Secretary-General, Tengku Adnan Mansor, stressed that UMNO isn’t illegal and sought to calm rank-and-file concerns from members who fear that they could be barred from standing in the coming elections. He also kicked out the 16 disgruntled members.
The top brass has reason to worry, as the courts have moved with uncharacteristic efficiency. The 16 who filed their case on April 10 were informed on April 24 that their case would be heard on April 24.
The Registrar appears to have ignored the law. It does not have any power to waive the statutory requirements, which apply to Umno and all other societies. The only recourse is the courts, but as has been seen, the law has been broken.
One political observer said, "What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the courts find nothing wrong with UMNO ignoring its own constitution, the people will say ‘I told you so.’ When will we see justice being served in Malaysia? Last week, the G25 group of eminent Malaysians, which comprised of retired ambassadors and civil servants, claimed that Malaysia is a mature democracy. Really?”
Mariam Mokhtar is a Kuala Lumpur-based journalist and activist