Commentary: Malaysia in a delicate balance after Najib Razak’s conviction
Najib Razak’s verdict has left UMNO divided, the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition hopeful and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin more guarded than ever, says Oh Ei Sun.
SINGAPORE: When Judge Mohamad Nazlan Mohamad Ghazali issued his ruling on Tuesday (Jul 28), convicting former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak of seven counts of money laundering, criminal breach of trust and abuse of power, there were distinctly different reactions among groups of political players.
Najib’s hardcore supporters, especially those he rallied and recruited to his political comeback cause in a well-organised “Bossku” campaign after his fall from power two years ago, were utterly devastated. Teary scenes and shouts of disbelief were aplenty outside the courthouse.
Meanwhile, a celebratory mood over Najib’s convictions descended on the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) camp.
They had raised Najib’s involvement in the 1MDB scandals on numerous occasions, as a major campaign platform in the 2018 Malaysian general election that ushered the coalition into power, and had been aggrieved at having the reins of government snatched from them earlier this year by the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, which includes Najib.
Scores of PH politicians posted on social media satirical photos of themselves eating Superings, poking fun Najib having done the same with the popular snack previously following news of PH’s loss of power.
A more nuanced response to Najib’s conviction was issued by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, calling broadly for the course of justice and, more specifically, for Najib’s rights to appeal to be respected.
Perhaps more than many other senior politicians, Muhyiddin would have the moral high ground to laud Najib’s conviction.
After all, five years to the day of Najib’s conviction was when Muhyiddin was unceremoniously fired from the Malaysian Cabinet by Najib for publicly questioning his role in the 1MDB debacle.
No love was lost but political expediency and the passage of time saw them both accept moving into the same ruling coalition, making the last couple of months since Muhyiddin was ushered into the top office awkward and strained.
THE SHAKE-UP IN UMNO
Still, it was somewhat astonishing to see UMNO president Zahid Hamidi to express strong disappointment with the verdict. “Surely UMNO will do something about it. What we are going to do will decide the direction of the current government,” he said.
He sounded as if he had expected a vastly different verdict and was holding the PN coalition responsible, not just only for this particular case against Najib, but possibly with an eye on the other corruption-related charges levelled against him and a number of other senior UMNO politicians awaiting trial.
Will Zahid seek out some way to exact some form of political retribution?
His announcement on Thursday that UMNO as a bloc, would no longer be a part of PN, although UMNO’s members of parliament (MP) would, at least for the moment, support Muhyiddin as prime minister, suggests he has kicked some wheels into action.
In this same announcement, Zahid also revealed UMNO will focus on strengthening its Muafakat Nasional (MN) alliance with the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which Bersatu has expressed interest in joining.
While this purported political realignment does not immediately threaten the viability of the PN government, the stage has been set for a “reverse takeover” within the admittedly loose ruling coalition to take place.
UMNO REVEALS ITS AMBITIONS
UMNO is the backbone of the governing coalition with the highest number of MPs. Sentiments for UMNO to assume the driving seat instead of continuing to play second fiddle to Muhyiddin and his much smaller Bersatu have been simmering since the PN takeover earlier this year.
Najib’s conviction may just be a convenient excuse for this dissatisfaction to be released. But UMNO must be careful to manage the situation gingerly, lest it risk destroying the very government its support is holding up and create an opening for the opposition PH to seize back power.
After all, UMNO may not be as politically monolithic, speaking with one voice through Zahid, as Zahid makes it out to be.
There are numerous other competing factions in UMNO, some of which are unhappy seeing longstanding party figures such as Najib, Zahid and those embroiled in corruption scandals maintain power, and would be contented for them to be marginalised.
If that happens, these other factions hope to rush in to fill the political vacuum and grasp the reins of the party, which still wields a resourceful and formidable political machinery.
Khairy Jamaluddin, former UMNO Youth Chief, who is also the current Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, and a prominent figure in the party, called for UMNO to move forward with leader rejuvenation that will “take the party into a new era” on Tuesday.
A DELICATE BALANCE
For the time being, the PN government will survive this delicate balance, amid a relentless onslaught from the opposition, which continues to mount motions of no confidence against Muhyiddin and an UMNO that has its eye on the top job.
After all, Muhyiddin is a seasoned politician with a highly flexible bent. After getting the sack from Najib in 2015, Muhyiddin joined Dr Mahathir Mohamad in forming Bersatu. When the PH government was formed, he was willing to accept a somewhat more junior position of Home Affairs Minister.
When opportunity presented itself to topple the PH administration earlier this year, Muhyiddin was quick to seize it to cap his political career with the premiership.
His application to join MN speaks to his political flexibility. I would not rule out the possibility of him working with some of the friendlier UMNO factions, or even with some disgruntled factions from PH, to ensure a political coalition that includes Bersatu.
UMNO is pushing for Muhyiddin to call for a general election expeditiously, as it believes it can win more seats that would enable it to unseat Bersatu’s prime position, working together with PAS under MN.
Muhyiddin knows this. He is at best ambivalent. He’s not likely to warm to the prospect of Bersatu being overwhelmed in both seat allocation and subsequent performance in any snap polls that are called.
Oh Ei Sun is a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.