We know who lost this round and why, but who is the winner of the war?

umar mukhtar

Umar Mukhtar

That Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Muhyiddin Yassin lost this round of their war against UMNO President Najib Razak for their party’s favour, and losing very badly at that, is so obvious. But lost exactly what? Lost the heart and minds of the UMNO delegates to the current UMNO General Assembly. They had hoped to make the assembly the battleground for whatever they stand for, having lost the opportunity to defeat Najib in parliament. They couldn’t even have the delegates’ ears and had not been resourceful enough to go around that. They lost. No two ways about it.

Credit is due to Najib for his choice of timing and battleground to lash back at his detractors. He knows his party more than he was estimated to be, and he is also in control of the issues. Does winning this battle mean that the war is over? It depends if this is a single-front war. But UMNO is not Malaysia and Najib’s enemies are not just from within the party. But let’s not take anything away from Najib for this victory he had duly earned. It’s time to reflect on why his party detractors lost. The lessons are many.

First and foremost, there is nothing more incriminating than evidence from a smoking gun. Without it, don’t try to kill the king. The process of turning circumstantial evidence to be a fatal bullet is in Najib’s domain. Of course, there is the court of public opinion but such verdicts can only be exercised in a general election, which is years from now. The party could have been one platform to oust Najib much earlier, but Mahathir and Muhyiddin have now lost that platform. All the wishful thinking is down the drain. Here are the reasons why.

Second, the pot cannot call the kettle black. That being the case, you can only argue on which is blacker. Mahathir has a long list of black soot, too long to discuss now. Muhyiddin has that land-deal-gone-sour with Singaporean owners case when he was the Menteri Besar of Johor and the floundering billion ringgit Bestari IT schools project deal with YTL to answer for. So support from party members will just depend on subjective evaluations of who looks better. That would bring in extraneous factors on how to look good.

Third, if cash is king, then old sentiments can be a solid make-up as a cosmetic foundation. So Mahathir had hoped. But he forgot that nonagenarians like him don’t make up the UMNO of today. And he himself had alluded to the phenomenon that Malays have short memories. Muhyiddin, on his part, has not been working hard at nurturing his party roots, and being always ineffective anyway, it is too much to expect the party structure to bend to his way. Maybe he never wanted to be the PM but Mahathir, who had always ignored him, sweet-talked him into entering the turbulent waters when he, as a practice, would rather not get his feet wet.

Fourth, working with the opposition and singing praises for opposition publications are the sure ways to lose support with people who felt besieged and unfairly threatened. A firm partisan leadership is what people fall back on in times of survival, not necessarily a better leadership. DAP leaders know that. That is why they now spend more time building up their partisan support rather than governing.

Fifth, foreigner’ expressions and actions of support are viewed with suspicion by most party members. After all UMNO was founded on the sentiments that foreigners are here to rip us off, and that they still do. Whatever their biases, foreign governments still work with the winners eventually. Our tragedy is secondary to their vital interests. Why Mahathir sent Khairuddin Hassan and Matthias Chang to work up foreign interest in this matter is mind-boggling. After all, Mahathir was the one who had always used the issue of foreign interference as a thorn to national solidarity during his rule.

Sixth, Mahathir’s double-speak is so intolerable to Malaysians, especially those who have long memories. And Muhyiddin’s refusal to listen to answers to questions he had asked in his rally just the night before was puzzling and self-defeating. It speaks of bad faith and his indirect acknowledgement that the crowd had been worked against him. What did he expect? But as the deputy president he should have attended. His absence made him look helpless and insincere. Maybe he is.

But Najib is not out of the woods just yet, not by a long mile. He has won the battle but not the war of all wars – the PRU14. Ruling the country is the real stake. 2018 seems like a long way away. Plenty of time for him to address the problems brought about by a declining economy caused by falling oil and other commodity prices. But most crucially, how can he make the electorate tolerate the higher cost of living in his bid to tackle problems, which are beyond his short-term control?

Two years is sufficient time for him to make good all the promises of equitable living but it is also long enough for the electorate, even party members, to change their minds, and for the opposition to get their act together. Will Najib succeed in foiling Mahathir’s self-fulfilling prophecies? Will allegations of power abuse remain just allegations? Will Mahathir and Muhyiddin remain relevant?

Malaysians, and not just only UMNO members, will be the ones to decide on the true winner of this war. Meanwhile, the grand old man is licking his wounds and the jury is still out.