The challenge for UMNO

Florence Chong's picture

TWENTY years after a bitter falling out, former Prime Minister Mahathir and his then-deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, have come together in a bid to reshape Malaysian politics . . .


MALAYSIA’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has survived scandal after scandal, giving the impression that such is the political climate in Malaysia that he will continue to rule the country.

But now, a Malaysian politician, Liew Chin Tong, has posed the tantalising question: Is Najib ready to step down?

And, if not, will he survive the next election — with dwindling political support and a re-energised Opposition?

In an address to a public seminar at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Liew, a former Visiting Fellow at the Institute —- now the Member of Parliament for Kluang constituency in Johor — told his audience that Najib had elevated his cousin, Hishammuddin Hussein, in April to the role of Minister with Special Functions in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Hishammuddin was Minister of Defence before moving to the new role, and the shuffle led Liew to question whether, perhaps, Najib is planning to step down as Prime Minister before the next general election?

“Should that happen, an interesting new set of conditions and scenarios present themselves,” he said.

“Even if Najib does not leave the stage, we are already presented with a new power equation in which Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi appears suddenly sidelined. In either case, Zahid may not accept his new situation passively.”

Najib heads the ruling Coalition, Barisan Nasional.

As the political intrigue continues to bubble away, much has yet to play out in Kuala Lumpur.

A year ago, the former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, joined the ranks of the Opposition in an effort to dislodge Najib. 

After a bitter destructive falling out some 20 years ago, Mahathir has now come together with his nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim, to strengthen the hand– and appeal – of the Opposition Coalition, known as Pekatan Harapan.

Parti Islam Se-Malaysia is no longer in the Opposition pact, and the emerging Parti Amanah Negara, an offshoot of PAS, is now reaching out to the hearts and minds of the Malay-Muslim electorate.

Some believe Amanah could well turn out to be the game-changer in Malaysia’s Islamic politics.

Still, Liew argues that, in the face of a more unified Opposition, Najib is perhaps not invincible, particularly when his support base among the indigenous Malays has been shrinking.

Beyond the leadership problem, the ruling party has been suffering, a factor enhanced so dramatically by the persistent 1MBD mega-scandal surrounding Prime Minister Najib Razak. Beyond this, Najib’s main support base, the Malay community, has seen rising living costs impoverishing many Malays, says Lieu.

He notes that support from urban Malays weakened in the general elections of 2008 and 2013, and the ruling Coalition has come to depend more than ever on the rural population.

And the support of that base has diminished dramatically over the years.

Liew says that, while many pundits would like to think that Prime Minister Najib Razak is in a strong and unassailable position, they fail to notice how restless and discontented the Malays are.
That said, he does not believe a change of Government will be a walk in the park. Far from it. “The stakes are very high for Najib and UMNO, and they will do whatever it takes to keep UMNO in power. That will mean some very intense months ahead until the next general election,” he says.

“Many Malays I come across tell me that they and their friends are just waiting for the election to teach Najib a lesson: ‘Kita tunggu sahaja pilihanraya datang’.

“My view is that the sentiment against Najib in the Malay ground is beyond repair. What you see in the mainstream media, be it in the newspapers or on TV, does not tell the whole story.”

As Liew reads it, the challenge for UMNO now is to work out how it is to deal with Najib, and whether the antipathy is just against Najib the person or UMNO the party.

Recent allegations of corruption within “guardian” institutions for the Malays, such as FELDA (the Federal Land Development Authority) and MARA (Majlis Amanah Rakyat Inc), will certainly aggravate the situation. MARA is a Malaysian Government agency formed to aid, train, and guide Bumiputra and other indigenous Malays.

Lieu believes the clincher for the winner of the next Malaysian election will be seats in the semi-urban areas of the West Coast Peninsula – areas where voters are unhappy with the Government.

“Much as the Opposition is vulnerable, Najib is walking on thin ice, too. To the extent that Najib is still perceived as strong, it is because the Opposition is seen as weak and disunited,” he says.

The known knowns are that Najib is not popular, and there is serious discontent among the Malays. But there are certainly challenges for the Opposition to overcome in order to precipitate change.

Liew says the Opposition must not just try to channel the anger against Najib. Rather, it must look to the economy and the well-being of the people as its number one priority.

The Opposition is being strengthened by a reconciliation of former foes. Says Lieu: “Who could imagine Dr Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim forming an alliance nearly 20 years after their very bitter fallout in 1998?”

The coming together of the once political father-and-son could unleash huge energy if handled properly. Both Mahathir and Anwar are positive leadership figures compared to Najib, and they each appeal to certain segments of the Malay electorate, says Liew.

But he also warns against the temptation of the Opposition to try to win the election on racial grounds, because this will depress the support of non-Malay voters and create a lose-lose situation for the entire Pakatan Harapan (Opposition) Coalition.

Ultimately, he says, the newly re-aligned Pakatan Harapan must be able to hold together in the unlikely event that Najib suddenly exits the scene. His departure will take out the raison d’être for the Opposition and dissipate much of the anger in the Malay community.