By: Our Correspondent

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the reluctant Kelantan prince and Malaysia’s elder statesman, issued a public statement Wednesday, July 15, calling for “honorable men” to step forward to reverse the country’s descent into racial unrest and political chaos as battling politicians seemingly ignore a deteriorating social and economic picture.

The crisis has deepened considerably following press reports last week that nearly US$700 million from the controversial 1MDB government investment fund ended up in Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s personal accounts. Those revelations have led to calls for Najib to resign and have led many to seek out Razaleigh as a potentially unifying figure.

The disarray was illustrated ominously by a riot on July 12 in which 200 Chinese and Malays battled at a Kuala Lumpur shopping plaza when a Malay youth allegedly stole a phone from a Chinese store clerk.

Critics charged that the tension had been fomented by United Malays National Organization leaders to take voters’ minds off scandals and the political squabble between Najib and former Premier Mahathir Mohamad. Indeed, one of the two said to be responsible for sparking the riot was an UMNO party branch leader; the second was a blogger known as Papagomo, who is widely known for his anti-Chinese comments.

Papagamo has often been seen with top UMNO leaders. Here he is with Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein.

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Razaleigh’s message, delivered after 40 days of mourning for the death of his wife, said he feels “freer to reflect upon and address the goings on in Malaysia during the past several months.” As elliptical as Razaleigh’s statement is, it is being greeted with enthusiasm in some quarters as a call to arms from a political figure long out of the public eye who is regarded as one of a few relatively clean UMNO members, and it coincides with a spate of other fast-moving political realignments that could spell a major shift in the political picture.

Razaleigh, 78, however, has not been a force in Malaysian politics since 1987 when he tried unsuccessfully to drive Mahathir out of the UMNO leadership. Although some consider him a figure of the past, he has in recent weeks been the focus of attempts by members of the business community and others to head a unity movement that would counter the paralysis brought on by the fight between Najib and Mahathir. He has yet to tip his hand.

Mahathir ready to pounce again

Najib is trying to stop Mahathir with an all-out attack on his critics, accusing them of treason and attempting to bring down the country. However, Mahathir is believed to be ready to deliver fresh attacks after the end of the Muslim fasting period on July 17.

At the same time, Najib’s estranged younger brother Nazir, chairman of the CIMB banking group, is reported in the Straits Times of Singapore to be contemplating linking his planned NGO, first disclosed in Asia Sentinel on June 16, with moderates driven out of Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, in the fundamentalist party’s recent annual conclave.

The moderates have since formed a new political party, Gerakan Harapan Baru [New Hope Movement] to attempt to lure rank-and-file members from PAS along with the increasing numbers of ethnic Malay voters disgusted with the deep corruption in UMNO that is exemplified by the scandal-ridden 1Malaysia Development Bd.

But, said Dzulkefli Ahmad, a moderate and former executive director of the PAS research center, “What is another NGO? You have got to be where the action is. Not to belittle them, they are a force to be reckoned with. But if you want to be in the heat of things, you have got to be a political party.”

One of the drawbacks to a tie-up is that Harapan Baru intends to remain an Islamic party, if a moderate one. Nazir’s movement is aimed at being secular. He has been meeting with a wide range of moderates including top leaders of the Chinese business community as well as Malay and Indian executives who are alarmed by the political paralysis and deteriorating racial situation.

The leadership battle within UMNO appears to have left the leadership either unable or unwilling to address the mounting problems. In fact, as the Kuala Lumpur riot shows,  there are concerns that the leadership is attempting to use the racial situation to solidify its standing with ethnic Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population but who believe the Chinese [23 percent] are seeking to usurp political leadership along with their economic dominance.