UMNO May Restart Delayed Putsch of Disloyal Chieftains

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, apparently believing he has solidified his party base in the midst of twin massive scandals, appears likely soon to sack several rebellious United Malays National Organization officials.

The sackings, said to have been demanded by Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, were rumored in advance of a party supreme council conclave in early September, but for reasons that are unclear, they were put off. UMNO Secretary General Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, however, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur on Oct. 28 that seven UMNO members are being investigated by the party’s disciplinary committee. It appears they are likely face ouster.

Tengku Adnan didn’t name the seven. But names published earlier by Asia Sentinel include former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who kept his job as party deputy president despite being kicked out of the cabinet after he questioned how US$681 million ended up in the Prime Minister’s bank account in March of 2013.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s fiercest critic, is also expected to be on the list along with his son, Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir. Mahathir could also well be charged in court for comments he made during a rally for the Bersih clean government NGO on Aug. 29 in which he accused Najib of bribing members of the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, to keep them in line. Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who replaced Muhyiddin as deputy premier, said two complaints had been lodged against Mahathir and had been referred to the Deputy Public Prosecutor for review.

"There are seven people,” said Tengku Adnan. “I would not like to name the seven people. But I think the seven people know who they are and then maybe you people (reporters) will also know who they are," Tengku Adnan told reporters at Parliament House. "After the technical committee has given their findings we will table it at the presidential council. If the council gives its approval, they will bring the matter to the disciplinary committee. Once that process goes, we will suspend their membership and suspend whatever position they are holding.”

Others whose names have been mentioned previously are Vice-president Mohd Shafie Apdal, who was fired from the cabinet earlier; MPs Aziz Sheikh Fadzir and Jumat Idris and former Terengganu chief minister Ahmad Said and Anina Saadudin, a Langkawi women’s wing delegate who caused a storm with an impassioned rant saying the prime minister was urinating on the heads of the 3 million party rank and file. Rafidah Aziz, a close Mahathir ally, has also been deeply critical of Najib in recent weeks.

After a burst of negative publicity over the summer in relation to his stewardship of the debt-battered 1Malaysia Development Bhd, which is state-backed and faces billions of dollars in unfunded liability, and the secret funds deposited in his personal account in 2013, the prime minister appeared vulnerable to being thrown out of office as Muhyiddin and Mahathir intensified their criticism. A wave of public criticism grew when the 34-hour Bersih 4.0 rally drew hundreds of thousands of participants demanding answers about the twin scandals.

However, the prime minister retains the loyalty of the 192 UMNO division chiefs and a majority of UMNO members of parliament, allegedly, critics say, by a combination of make-work jobs, rent-seeking contracts and outright bribes.

Both Mahathir’s son Mukhriz and Muhyiddin hail from the Malay heartland, UMNO strongholds whose support Najib needs to remain in power. Officials in Johor, where UMNO was born in the 1950s, have already warned that Najib’s dismissal of Muhyiddin as deputy prime minister would wreck the party’s southern power base in 2018. The powerful Sultan of Johor, Ibrahim Ismail, send his personal helicopter to pick up Muhyiddin after Najib forced him out. The sultan is said to have spoken directly with Najib to at least step aside until investigations into the two matters are completed. But he has refused to do so.

Over the past several months, Najib and his allies have gone on a tear to try to keep a lid on the scandals. He fired Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, who was said to be preparing charges against him, as well as the deputy director of the police special branch unit and sent two top officials of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission on “vacation.” A half-dozen MACC officials were arrested and questioned on suspicion they were leaking details of the case against the prime minister. A parliamentary investigation was halted along with the MACC probe.

Former UMNO division deputy chief Khairuddin Abu Hassan, who delivered allegations of corruption to police in Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK and France, and lawyer Matthias Chang Wen Chieh, Mahathir’s aide, remain in jail on “economic sabotage” charges after having been denied bail.

The spiraling corruption scandals have also led the government to block websites and suspend newspapers reporting on them and to announce plans to strengthen its power to crack down on speech on the Internet. While the original focus of the crackdown appeared to be mainly opposition politicians, as public criticism of the government has spread, students, journalists, civil society activists and ordinary citizens have all been caught up in the wave of repression.

The weapon most frequently used in the crackdown been the Sedition Act which Najib had vowed to discard in 2012. At least five opposition members of parliament have been charged for criticizing the government, government officials, or the judiciary since the elections, and three have been charged under other criminal laws. If convicted and sentenced to more than a year in prison or fined more than RM2,000 (approximately US$482), they would be disqualified from serving in parliament for five years after their release from any term of imprisonment. The police have investigated, and in many cases arrested and held in custody for several days, at least 20 opposition politicians since August 2014, some of them multiple times.

The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) has been used to limit the number of printed newspapers, suspend publication of newspapers that report on corruption, deter printing presses from printing books critical of the government, and even to ban the Bersih logo. The Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) has been used to block websites reporting on corruption, penalize radio stations for airing discussions of matters of public interest, and arrest and prosecute users of social media.