Destabilizing a nation to stay out of jail

Dennis Ignatius

Ever since the 2018 elections, Malaysia has been in a state of turmoil. Political in-fighting has taken centre stage. Economic policy, defence and foreign affairs, education and health have all been relegated to the sidelines. Government, or what remains of it, is in the hands of mostly incompetent and self-seeking ministers. Not a few foreign ambassadors have given up even trying to deal with some of these inept ministers.

At the heart of the political infighting is the so-called “court cluster” – a clutch of senior UMNO leaders who have been charged with or convicted of corruption, abuse of power and money-laundering. They could face years in prison if found guilty. Former prime minister Najib Tun Razak has already been found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He is out on bail pending appeal to the Federal Court.

With the stakes so high, the court cluster is engaged in an all-out, life and death struggle to regain power as quickly as possible and by any means necessary in order to rejig the system and avoid prison. It’s not about political or ideological differences; it’s about personal interests. It matters little to them that they are dragging the nation into the gutter. What matters is their own political and personal survival. And they won’t stop until they get what they want.

The destabilization campaign started soon after GE14 when the anti-corruption agency was unleashed against corrupt former UMNO leaders. They quickly cobbled together a loose alliance of Malay political parties and several gullible NGOs and academics to stir up opposition, create instability and challenge Pakatan Harapan (PH), then the ruling party, at every turn. They weaponised race and religion to an unparalleled degree, playing up the narrative that the Malays had lost power, that Islam itself was under threat. Tun Dr Mahathir’s duplicity did the rest. After 22 months, the PH administration collapsed like a deck of cards.

When Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the PPBM president, took the reins of power with the support of the court cluster, there was an expectation that he would be sympathetic to their plight. However, while corruption charges against some former officials were withdrawn, Muhyiddin refused to interfere with the court process involving key members of the court cluster. That was the beginning of the end of the Muhyiddin administration.

Muhyiddin was, of course, an easy target. A mediocre leader at best, with few real allies and a deadly pandemic to contend with, he was vulnerable. The court cluster harassed him at every stage, challenged his decisions and excoriated him for every mistake his administration made, never mind that some of the worst performers in his administration were from UMNO itself. After barely 17 months in office, the Muhyiddin administration collapsed as well.

Hopes that Muhyiddin’s departure would pave the way for a more pro-court cluster administration, however, proved premature. Dato’ Sri Ismail Sabri (one of the three UMNO vice-presidents) who succeeded Muhyiddin, had ambitions of his own. Fate had suddenly dropped the prime minister’s mantle upon him and he was determined to make the most of it. If he could sideline the court cluster or at least keep them on the defensive, he could perhaps lay claim to the presidency of UMNO and thereby consolidate his position. The MOU he subsequently signed with Pakatan Harapan strengthened his hand against the court cluster.

Unable to take him on directly at the federal level, the court cluster has opted to isolate and weaken him by triggering early elections at the state level. Within weeks of the Melaka state election, the government of Johor collapsed; fresh elections are scheduled for next month. Kedah and quite possibly Perak could follow. Expect more instability in Sabah as well. If UMNO does as well in Johor as it did in Melaka, the pressure on Ismail Sabri to call for nationwide elections might be impossible to ignore.

Having toppled two administrations and with a third tottering, the court cluster is now closer than ever to achieving its goal of recapturing Putrajaya. Muhyiddin’s shrill warning that if the court cluster is not stopped in Johor, they will return to power may be too late. With the opposition weak and divided, UMNO is favoured to form the next state government.

Voters in Melaka didn’t seem bothered by the ill repute of UMNO leaders; sentiment in the rest of the country is unlikely to be any different. Voters are weary; they want to move on. If general elections are held this year, as expected, it is more than likely that the court cluster will retake Putrajaya. Who says crime doesn’t pay?