PEKAN, Pahang: Making his first public appearance after stepping down as Barisan Nasional’s (BN) chairman, Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak returned to his constituency in Pekan on Sunday (May 20) and spent more than half an hour explaining why the coalition’s historic defeat was not his fault.
At an annual meeting of the United Malays National Organisation's (UMNO) Pekan division, the 64-year-old struck a defiant tone and slammed the manner in which his opponents, Pakatan Harapan, had campaigned.
“It wasn't a contestation of ideas. It was a contestation of fake news,” Najib, who has held the parliamentary seat of Pekan for 42 years, told hundreds of his supporters gathered inside the auditorium at UMNO’s Pekan headquarters. Many of them had a grief-stricken look on their faces. Some were in tears.
“There was a campaign of personal attacks, slander, hatred and sweet promises – most of which obviously cannot be delivered,” Najib said. “Unfortunately, they've caused us defeat in the polls.”
The election defeat is the first for his party and the BN coalition, which had ruled Malaysia along with its predecessor the Alliance Party for 61 years since independence from British rule. It also made him the country's first prime minister to have lost in a general election.
To Najib, however, the May 9 election was not a fair contest. His defeat, he implied, is a result of a dirty political game orchestrated by Pakatan Harapan, whose leader 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad is serving as prime minister for the second time.
The nonagenarian shocked the world when he toppled BN in a landslide victory that has rendered his former protege almost powerless overnight.
Najib is now facing a high-profile graft probe into his alleged involvement with debt-ridden state fund 1MDB and barred from leaving the country. The case, reopened shortly after Mahathir took power, could land him and his close associates in a legal minefield if the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and law enforcement officers show evidence that they were involved in a crime.
In 2015, Najib was accused of channelling nearly US$700 million from the fund into his personal bank accounts – a claim he has denied. Following the scandal, two of his Cabinet ministers were removed in a reshuffle after criticising the government’s handling of the investigation. Former attorney-general Abdul Gani Patail was also sacked after leading the probe into allegations against him.
The 1MDB scandal and his government’s introduction of a 6 per cent Goods and Services Tax (GST) were seen as having great influence on voters.
To Najib, the votes were manipulated by a campaign designed to “demonise” him.
“They did everything to tarnish me. They attacked me and my wife, saying I had to refer to her before making any decision. This is slandering. We made decisions in the Cabinet, not at my house,” the Pekan MP said on Sunday.
I didn't say to the ministers, ‘Wait. I have to refer to my wife’. Never. My wife knows many things but it doesn't mean she has the final call.
During his speech, Najib also made a reference to recent police raids at properties related to him and his family, where truckloads of hundreds of luxury handbags, bags stuffed with cash, jewellery and expensive items were confiscated by anti-corruption officers.
“After I handed over the power, this is how I've been treated. Even my children's residences were raided. Baby shoes were also taken away. Their wedding gifts were seized,” he said.
“What is the relation between 1MDB and children's shoes? What is the relation between wedding gifts and 1MDB?”
PEKAN RESIDENTS REMAIN LOYAL TO NAJIB
In his constituency, however, it seems Najib remains well loved and continues to enjoy unwavering support both from the residents and his party members.
Zakri Kassim, head of UMNO’s branch in FELDA Chini Timur Dua of Pekan, told Channel NewsAsia he was touched by Najib’s speech and criticised law enforcement officers for not “treating him like a former leader”.
"He's being treated like a robber, yet without any evidence to prove he's guilty," he said. "But UMNO will rise again."
When Najib arrived at his residence at Seri Kenangan in Pekan on Sunday, a crowd of excited supporters greeted him and his wife Rosmah Mansor with hugs and kisses. The former prime minister was all smiles and thanked them for their support. He also joined local women in making the traditional porridge, bubur lambuk, for breaking fast.
Many Pekan residents believe Najib is an innocent victim of a political game.
“I’m sad about what has happened. He has helped us rebuild our homes after a bad storm. Although he lost at the national level, I’m proud he won in Pekan,” said a 34-year-old shopkeeper, who would only give her name as Syaida.
She said the corruption allegations against Najib could be fake but would accept the investigation result if there is enough evidence.
“We don't know. Maybe he made a mistake. Maybe it wasn't his fault,” she added.
Another resident, who wanted to be known only as Rohayu, refuses to believe that her MP committed a crime. Commenting on the luxury items that have been confiscated by the police during the recent raids, she said: “He is a son of a former prime minister. So the wealth could have come from his parents. He’s from a rich family.”
When Najib spoke, a few supporters tried to hold back tears as they listened to their leader. He consoled them and urged them to trust UMNO in its “holy and noble struggle”.
“Don't feel down. If you want to cry when you see me, it's all right. It's also okay if you want to hug me,” UMNO’s Pekan division chief told the audience.
“Be confident in UMNO's struggle. We must keep fighting. We're in a tough situation but remember, our struggle is holy and noble. One day the people will realise, the youth will realise, that our struggle is real, for our nation and religion.”