Rolling the dice: Will Najib’s political gamble pay off?


Despite corruption allegations and political sackings, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak still holds the reins. Channel NewsAsia’s INSIGHT asks if his political strategies will help tighten his grip or see it slip.

Channel News Asia

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak may have just celebrated 40 years in politics over the weekend, but his political future remains shrouded in uncertainty.

Despite his second term in office being marred by allegations of corruption stemming from debt-ridden state fund 1MDB, he has fortified his position within the ruling Barisan Nasional through a series of cabinet and legislative changes which has effectively silenced many of his critics.

But it remains to be seen if this political gamble will pay off in the long run.

It began with a cabinet reshuffle on Jul 28 last year in which Mr Najib sacked key office holders who had been critical of him, including Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Minister for Rural and Regional Development Shafie Apdal.

In their place, Mr Najib filled the cabinet with staunch loyalists like Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who was promoted to succeed Mr Muhyiddin as Deputy Prime Minister.

The reshuffling coincided with the termination of Mr Abdul Gani Patail’s tenure as Attorney-General, which cited “health reasons” for the move.

At that time, Mr Abdul Gani was leading investigations into allegations that US$681 million (S$960 million) was deposited into the Prime Minister’s personal bank accounts from entities linked to 1MDB.

On Jan 26 this year, Mr Abdul Gani’s replacement, Mr Apandi Ali, exonerated Prime Minister Najib of all corruption charges. His investigation concluded that the deposit was a personal donation from a Saudi royal family.

The Attorney-General’s decision to clear Mr Najib of all charges despite many unanswered questions about the trail of the donations has, according to some observers, demonstrated how skilful the Prime Minister has been in installing allies to safeguard his position.

“When it comes to the security of being in office, the removal of his critics and the changes it has made in the country so far is definitely going to protect him and let him stay in office until the day that he wants to go by himself,” said Mr Wan Saiful Wan, Chief Executive of the KL-based Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.


But the sackings have not ended.

On Feb 3 this year, Mr Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of Mr Najib’s fiercest critic, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, became the latest casualty of Malaysia’s political changes.

Mr Mukhriz was forced to resign as Chief Minister of Kedah when 12 UMNO division leaders cited his weak leadership and the state’s poor economic performance as justifications for his sacking.

Mr Mukhriz Mahathir. (File photo: AFP/Saeed Khan)

UMNO MP and former minister Shahrir Samad believes that Mr Mukhriz’s ousting was necessary because he had criticised Prime Minister Najib over the 1MDB issue instead of concentrating on his key responsibility of developing Kedah.

“When you have a leader of a state not focusing on the task that he’s supposed to do, it will be distracting for the party machinery in that particular state,” Mr Shahrir said.

“Replacing Mukhriz as Menteri Besar (MB) of Kedah is a step towards getting Kedah to focus on the general elections which is not that far away.”

Mr Wan however believes that Prime Minister Najib had a hand in Mr Mukhriz’s ouster.

“All the previous critics of Mukhriz have suddenly stood up and made the announcement that they have lost confidence in him and this will not happen unless the president of the party has given the green light first,” said Mr Wan.

“Nobody would take that risk unless they know that someone higher up will be supporting them. So I cannot imagine a situation where this happened without Prime Minister Najib knowing.”

Mr Zol Dabat, 26, a university student from Kedah who voted for Barisan Nasional in the 2013 Kedah State election feels disappointed that Mr Mukhriz was not allowed to serve a full term. He had voted for Mr Mukhriz with the hopes of seeing him become Chief Minister because of what he calls the “Mahathir Brand”.

Mr Zol Dabat, 26, a university student from Kedah, voted for Barisan Nasional, in particular, for Mr Mukhriz.

Mr Zol has grown disenfranchised with UMNO’s internal politics which he feels has prized loyalty over performance.

“All we want is a functional MB and you can see Mukhriz has been doing that and doing the job very well.

“I understand that the party has their own calculations but at least give him the decency of being a full-term Chief Minister. We don’t want a political fiasco. We want the state’s business to run as usual.”


By deposing Mr Mukhriz, the pro-Najib camp in UMNO has attempted to hit Dr Mahathir where it hurts most.

Can Dr Mahathir – who has been widely associated with the anti-Najib movement – fight back or is Mukhriz’s removal testament that Mahathir’s influence is waning against Mr Najib’s political stronghold?

Chairman of the 1Malaysia Foundation, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, feels that Dr Mahathir is left with no real power now that he is no longer in office.

“He is no longer at the levers,” Dr Chandra said. “He just has a certain degree of moral authority and I think a lot of people still listen to Dr Mahathir. But he doesn’t have power, because power and influence are two different things.”

But political analyst Ibrahim Suffian believes that Dr Mahathir, who has been piling pressure on Mr Najib to resign, can still win the political battle against the Prime Minister if he expands the battle beyond UMNO where Mr Najib has succeeded in consolidating his powers, and protecting himself from his critics.

“He has not taken his case to the wider electorate, to the wider public and therefore, what we see are his limits within UMNO,” Mr Ibrahim said. “I think his ability to influence the wider Malaysian public has yet to be seen.”


Mr Najib might have strengthened his position within his own party, but his actions have inadvertently alienated certain segments of the Malaysian electorate, such as 27-year-old Kuala Lumpur resident Fathi Faruq.

The oil and gas engineer is constantly worried about the rising cost of living and job security in an era of plunging oil prices and global economic instability. Mr Fathi feels that Mr Najib has invested more efforts in fortifying his position within his party than addressing economic woes.

Mr Fathi feels that Prime Minister Najib has invested more efforts in fortifying his position within his party than addressing economic woes.

“It’s a general sentiment that everyone is disappointed and that he has been doing what he has so far (just) to keep himself in power,” Mr Fathi said. “But at the same time, the bread-and-butter issues of this nation are ignored. People still live in hardship.”

Dr Chandra believes that the most effective weapon Malaysians can use against Mr Najib is their vote at the next general election, scheduled for 2018.

“I think there would be an expression of disaffection with the leadership, with Prime Minister Najib in particular because our people have become used to expressing dissent through the ballot box, as seen in the 2008 and 2013 by-elections,” Dr Chandra said.

“If you look at the erosion of support, there is some indication that the people will speak through the ballot box and they should be allowed to speak through the ballot box because there is actually no other avenue.”

But Merdeka Center’s Ibrahim Suffian is doubtful that the opposition coalition which recently re-branded themselves as Pakatan Harapan, can pose a credible threat to Mr Najib and the BN at the next election.

File photo of Malaysia’s former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He has since become Mr Najib’s harshest critic. (AFP/Toru Yamanaka)

Their leader, Mr Anwar Ibrahim, who was widely seen as the glue holding the different opposition parties together, was sent to prison after being convicted of sodomy a year ago. His departure saw the collapse of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, with the Islamic Party, PAS, leaving the alliance.

The opposition remains fragmented and disorganised.

“They are unable to put together a coherent front,” Mr Ibrahim said. “At this very moment, the opposition is in a bit of disarray. They don’t have a clear leader. The parties are not talking to each other in the terms that they used to. So this gives some breathing space for the BN.”

But with a Prime Minister who is embroiled in a financial scandal and under constant public scrutiny, the ruling Barisan Nasional is not breathing easy either.

“There will come a time when UMNO as a party will decide if Najib is the right person to lead the party into the next general election and when that time comes, all these actions that Najib is doing will come back and haunt him,” Mr Wan said. “He might become a liability rather than an asset and his actions will bite him unsuspectingly.”

However, Mr Najib will have the next two years before the election to restore faith in his leadership. It would depend largely on how his government addresses the bread and butter issues and revives Malaysia’s sluggish economy.

“The economy is slowing down and there are people who are facing an uncertain economic future. These are enormous and unprecedented challenges which Prime Minister Najib and his government are faced with.”

In what continues to be a risky political gamble, Mr Najib has gone “all in” to stay in power. But it is Malaysia’s economic performance and the livelihood of the people that will determine if the cards are in his favour in 2018.

And the stakes remain high not only for the Prime Minister, but for the country as a whole.