Unity Bid to Drive Malaysia’s PM Najib from Power?

With Malaysia’s national ruling coalition government virtually paralyzed by scandal, Prime Minister Najib’s opponents in his own party are said to be seeking to put together a unity government headed by onetime Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, 78, as prime minister.

Razaleigh has not been a significant political force in Malaysia for 28 years. Reportedly, the current deputy prime minister and deputy United Malays National Organization vice president, Muhyiddin Yassin, 67, would ascend to the party presidency under this scenario. Traditionally, the prime minister has always served as UMNO president. The unity bid would split the two jobs, at least temporarily.

The embattled Najib has been able to keep the cadres in line with a river of government money that pours into their pockets through rent-seeking contracts, make-work jobs and other goodies from the 1MDB Foundation, which he controls, to the tune of an estimated RM1 billion, a source told Asia Sentinel. He has engineered repeated informal votes of confidence and cajoled party wheelhorses to make public statements of support. Indeed, his sway may be such that despite his troubles, he can prevail again.

Seeking a way out

But UMNO party elders, particularly those aligned with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, are growing increasingly desperate to rid the government of him after a long string of deepening scandals. Many are worried that the workings of government are being ignored as the prime minister twists and turns to try to shake off his enemies. The Malaysian ringgit has been losing value steadily since last September, drifting down sharply to RM3.70 to the US dollar in May as international investors have lost confidence over the country’s political mess.

Reportedly a meeting was held at Razaleigh’s home in Kuala Lumpur on June 11 with a group headed by Daim Zainuddin, a close ally of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Daim, also a one-time finance minister, is said to have sought the meeting to attempt to persuade the septuagenarian lawmaker to take on the task. A second meeting is said to be scheduled for this weekend to discuss whether to seek a vote of no confidence in Parliament next week.

Razaleigh has periodically been mentioned as a unity candidate for months, but few have given him much chance of ascending to power, and the current attempts to recruit the apparently reluctant politician, UMNO’s longest-serving MP, may be running into roadblocks. But some party leaders, while continuing to profess loyalty, are deeply concerned that allegations of massive scandal are wrecking the party’s chances for the 2018 general election.

Razaleigh “would be totally acceptable,” said a well-informed source in Kuala Lumpur. “But how quickly he wants to move, I wouldn’t know. In the past he has hesitated.” Another source also said Razaleigh is hesitating this time as well on whether to make the bid. His wife, Noor Yvonne Abdullah, died on June 4. According to another source, her death, from multiple myeloma, sad as it is, frees him from caring for her and would allow him to concentrate on the country.

Najib has been crippled by allegations of corruption and massive mismanagement of 1Malaysia Development Bhd, a state-funded investment company established at his behest in 2009. Allegedly a young playboy financier, Jho Low Taek, was the brains behind the development of the firm and Najib is its chief economic adviser. 1MDB, as it is known, has run up RM42 billion [US$11.18 billion at current exchange rates] of liabilities, an unknown amount unfunded. One source said that as the scandal deepens, 1MDB sources are starting to think of saving themselves and that they are going to the press with additional details.

The government has been scrambling around selling 1MDB assets at inflated prices to other government agencies, borrowing massive amounts and seeking other ways to continue payments on the debt in an effort to forestall what many are worried could become a huge crisis that could threaten the country’s financial standing.

At the same time, Najib has appeared almost paralyzed. He suffered a huge blow to his prestige last week by ducking out on a rally of 2,500 people he had called to answer questions when Mahathir appeared, a no-show that observers in Kuala Lumpur said did incalculable damage. He also delayed a trip to visit earthquake devastation in Sabah’s Mount Kinabalu region, instead flying first to Saudi Arabia on business that according to speculation was connected to attempts to find money to stave off the 1MDB disaster.

Lingering mistrust

Last year, the premier was criticized for playing golf in Hawaii with US President Barack Obama when floods were devastating the Kelantan and Terengganu regions, driving 200,000 people from their homes. His popularity has been on a steep dive for months, especially with Mahathir on his tail.

Reportedly the unity plan was taken to Mahathir, who was noncommittal. The former premier continues to mistrust Razaleigh from events of 1987, when Razaleigh mounted the strongest challenge ever against Mahathir to the premiership, splitting UMNO in two. A Malaysian court declared UMNO illegal. But Mahathir reestablished UMNO as UMNO Baru [New UMNO] and eventually won out.

In recent years, as a seemingly never-ending series of scandals has engulfed UMNO, Razaleigh, a Kelantan prince and wealthy Anglophile, has made speeches calling for reform. In July 2010, he said: “Billions have been looted from this country, and billions more are being siphoned out as our entire political structure crumbles. Yet we are gathered here in comfort, in a country that still seems to 'work.'” He called attention to a “political class unwilling or unable to address the central issue of the day because they have grown fat and comfortable with a system built on lies and theft."

The speeches, however, have largely been ignored. They have not been covered by the mainstream press and critics who have been asked about his viability have pointed to Razaleigh’s involvement as finance minister in a US$1 billion scandal involving a Hong Kong-based subsidiary of the then state-owned Bank Bumiputera in the 1980s. The money was never recovered. Razaleigh’s role was unclear.

Opposition collapse

The whole affair involving the struggle for the leadership has been complicated by the virtual demolition of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, which in the two previous elections staged the most successful challenge to the ruling coalition in the country’s history as a volatile mix of race, religion, power and politics take sway.

Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, the Islamic wing of the coalition which is dominated by conservative rural ethnic Malays, has in the past year – at Najib’s behind-the-scenes urging, many sources say – begun to go its own way. PAS first opposed now-jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s proposal to make his wife chief minister of Selangor, which Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat controlled.

It has since disobeyed a coalition covenant to push through a plan for harsh Islamic law in Kelantan, the only state it controls, which ethnic Chinese, Indians and Christian tribes in East Malaysia find impossible to accept. The law calls for amputation of limbs for theft and stoning for adulterers, among other punishments. PAS has been seeking UMNO’s help in pushing the law on the national level.

Then in a recent party conclave PAS drove out moderates who two years ago had sought to take over out of the party leadership.

The other two components of the opposition coalition have been wracked with indecision over whether to expel PAS. Abdul Hadi Awang, the party leader, is said to be hoping for expulsion from the coalition to be the aggrieved party and to realign his party with UMNO on the theory that the two would then dominate the 60 percent of ethnic Malays and preserve the ruling coalition despite the equally certain departure of other ethnic parties including the Malaysian Chinese Association, the Malaysian Indian Congress and Gerakan.

It is a gamble. The majority of ethnic Malays now live in cities rather than the countryside, and it is questionable how many of them would stay with the PAS-UMNO group. Anwar’s party, though rudderless since his imprisonment last January on trumped-up sodomy charges, is largely made up of moderate Malays. Imposition of shariah law, and the plethora of scandals surrounding UMNO, could drive large numbers of them into the hands of the now-debilitated opposition.