Opinion: Who Will Stand Up to Najib?

The news this week that former strongman Mahathir Mohamad and his one-time rival for power, Tengku Razaleigh, have met in KL to discuss forming a “unity government” to take over from scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak, is predictably tantalyzing to many Malaysians looking for a way out of an intractable political crisis.

But simply getting two old war horses from the United Malays National Organization to settle their poltical differences and seek a modest amount of common ground may not be enoough. There is nothing new about a political leader being caught in scandal, as Najib is now. He is so deeply tainted by the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund mess that his departure seems inevitable, at least to outsiders.

But it may not happen. UMNO as a party is beholden to a transactional structure that limits democracy at the grass roots and allows parliament to be easily manipulated. The business community is under UMNO’s thumb and the tools other nations have used to build coalitions that can supplant failed governments seem largely absent in Malaysia.

Business is missing

The third leg to an effective effort to oust Najib – along with protests and an alternative of some kind –would presumably have to come from the business community. Along with rising popular discontent and moves within UMNO to form a unity government, Malaysia's tycoons might hold the key should they withdraw support from Najib publicly.

But with companies beholden to the "Imperial Premiership" – a beast forged by Mahathir when he concentrated power in his own hands a generation ago ­– it is proving difficult to find any tycoon willing to break ranks.

"They are mostly Chinese and they see this as an UMNO and Malay problem," said one well-connected Malaysian business source. "They are not going to move."

Hopes that Najib's disaffected brother, Nazir Razak, who heads the powerful CIMB Niaga Bank, might lead a "good government" NGO to pressure the PM to step aside also seem ill-placed.

"Nazir won't do more," said a well-placed source. "He is constrained by family."

In this important aspect, Malaysia is reacting to a crisis of confidence far differently than other countries have. When the framework of his rule was fraying in the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos was finally pushed out the door with the help of many of the country's top business families along with eventual pressure from the US.

Those same business forces were behind the ouster of Joseph Estrada in 2001, along with the military and public protests.

In Indonesia in 1998, top tycoons did nothing to protect Suharto when the end came during a massive banking collapse. Of course, in Jakarta in 1998, self-interest was paramount as many tycoon families looted their own banks and fled with the money for Singapore while parts of Jakarta burned during anti-Chinese riots. Suharto finally gave up when a small group of insiders and allies went to him personally with a letter asking him to resign. He was given little choice.

With Najib seemingly unable to govern, his ruling clique a national joke and the economy badly in need of a steady hand at the tiller, he may yet survive if corporations, wealthy supporters and powerful insiders do nothing.

Is there a street?

Malaysia has also yet to experience a major protest during this crisis and as a result there is no unrest in the streets. If truly massive crowds turn out for a planned August 29 rally called by the Bersih NGO, that would surely ratchet up the pressure. But once again, the system seems to mitigate against the kind of massive protests that have been seen during changes of regime in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. There is too much to lose, perhaps, and racial fears are easily manipulated.

But it almost certainly will take more than two elderly gentlemen – Mahathir and Ku Li – sitting down to tea to talk about the "what ifs" of forming a unity government, assuming the parliament is kind enough to allow for a no-confidence vote on Najib.

The fact central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz said Thursday she would not resign, may help, but only if she steps forward with evidence of wrongdoing in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund scandal that is linked to Najib.

One major factor is the collapsing ringgit, of course, and economic uncertainty going forward. Real economic pain could surely be destabilizing. But some people will inevitably have to risk standing up to the man some now call “Emperor” Najib in KL and shout that he has no clothes.

Otherwise, Najib's reported private threats to unleash a political and even legal "Armageddon" against disloyal officials and party hacks may allow him to brazen through.