Can Najib survive his leadership test?



(Today Online) – The party is likely to adopt stronger Malay nationalist and Islamist agendas going forward.

Dr Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, coordinator of the Malaysia Programme at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University.

On March 8, the United Malays National Organisation’s (UMNO) division leaders gathered to rally behind their embattled president, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Themed Solidarity with the UMNO President, the closed-door meeting was attended by 160 of the 191 division heads, who expressed their unequivocal support of and solidarity with the Prime Minister.

The absence of a number of key party leaders, including Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir, was perhaps the more significant aspect of the meeting.

Likewise, of the 31 absent division heads, a sizeable number were from Johor, a state where Mr Muhyiddin was Chief Minister and commands substantial support. This has led some analysts to conclude that a leadership struggle is brewing in the party.


Mr Najib’s political woes began over revelations that state funds allocated to 1Malaysia Development (1MDB), a strategic development firm owned by the Malaysian government, might have been misappropriated.

Established in 2009, 1MDB aims to promote foreign direct investment in Malaysia.

Last month, it was announced that 1MDB had accumulated debts totalling RM42 billion (S$15.7 billion), causing the bonds issued by the fund to be downgraded to junk status by ratings agencies. A recent report by news portal Sarawak Report claimed that Penang-based businessman Low Jho Teck, a close friend of Mr Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, had allegedly siphoned US$700 million (S$966 million) in a petroleum deal involving 1MDB.

The fact that Mr Najib is chairman of 1MDB has raised questions about his involvement in the project and whether he is complicit in the alleged misappropriation of funds from the company. The scandal came at a point when it was revealed that Malaysia’s external debt had tripled and stood at RM740 billion — about 54.5 percent of the country’s GDP.

Mr Najib’s political problem is compounded by a recent New York Times article claiming that the Prime Minister’s family possesses vast wealth, much of which is kept overseas.

Within UMNO, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been at the forefront in calling for Mr Najib’s resignation. Mr Nur Jazlan Mohamed, Member of Parliament for Pulai, the first UMNO leader to call for Mr Abdullah Badawi’s resignation in 2008, has also done so.

To date, Mr Muhyiddin’s statement last week that the government should not bail out 1MDB is the strongest indication that there is a rift at the highest echelon of Malaysian society. His statement seems to contradict Mr Najib’s earlier assertion that the state-owned company should be rescued.

The UMNO division meeting was thus an attempt by Mr Najib to shore up support for his faltering leadership. He has been described as a weak Prime Minister but a strong party president. The deafening silence at the meeting, where UMNO division leaders failed to question Mr Najib on any aspect of the 1MDB scandal, is indicative of two possible scenarios.

The first scenario assumes that UMNO leaders are unwilling to change the status quo, believing that any instability in the party will give an upper hand to the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition.

The second scenario may be that UMNO warlords are sharpening their knives to mount a leadership challenge against Mr Najib and are unwilling to show all their cards, given that the party’s annual general assembly meeting is not until later in the year.

There are numerous reasons that suggest the first scenario is more plausible. First, the only potential challenger to Mr Najib is Mr Muhyiddin, who will not mount a political challenge unless he is confident of a victory. The strong support shown to the Prime Minister at the division meeting may discourage him from doing so.

Second, Mr Muhyiddin is a popular leader within UMNO, but not nationally. A recent survey by Merdeka Centre showed that only 1 per cent of Malaysians see him as a potential Prime Minister. UMNO leaders will not elect a leader who is even less popular than Mr Najib, as this may affect the party’s performance at the next election. Notably, Mr Najib faces little global pressure to answer his critics or step down.

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