Exclusive: UMNO’s No 2 thinks Najib should go to jail

Deputy party leader tells Asia Times that ex-premier must ‘pay his dues’ in prison for 1MDB-related corruption

Mohamad Hasan, deputy president of the United Malays National Organization and deputy chairman of its ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, described Malaysia as a “struggling” country led by a “backdoor” government in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with Asia Times.

Mohamad, or Tok Mat as he is popularly known, also claimed the root of the nation’s current malaise stems from his party’s failure to “tell the truth” about the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal, adding that ex-premier Najib Razak should not expect special treatment from an UMNO-led government if he is eventually jailed on a slew of graft charges.

“The court is the place where you can prove whether you’re innocent or not. He didn’t prove it. He couldn’t prove it,” said Mohamad, cutting the figure of a maverick unafraid of speaking his mind. “Everybody has to pay their dues. But if we want to pardon, he (Najib) has to go through the process. He’ll have to go inside first.”

UMNO’s second-in-command went on to lament Malaysia’s purported failure to keep economic pace with its neighbors, stating that the formation of two successive governments “not out of a general election” but through parliamentary maneuvers had soured foreign investor sentiment and raised questions about the government’s democratic credibility.

“This government of Malaysia today is not a legitimate government. That’s why we need an early election,” said Mohamad. “Not so much because we want to be in power. We want to give the mandate back to the people. We have to put things right. This is a blessed country. But for the last four years, we have regressed ourselves. We are struggling.”

Mohamad’s remarks are particularly striking given that he is referring to a government led by his own party. Though UMNO has sought to project a unified front, the party is deeply divided between two main factions comprising the camps of UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on one hand and Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on the other.

The timing of Malaysia’s next general election is a key contention between the two factions, with the party leadership agitating for snap polls to seize upon the BN’s resurgent popularity and dysfunction within the opposition. Ismail, however, has maintained the timing is not right for a snap election, pointing to surging inflation that has driven up food costs.

Observers speculate that UMNO president Zahid and ex-premier Najib have a personal stake in snap polls. With pending court rulings threatening to end their political careers if their criminal corruption convictions are upheld, many expect the pair to press the next national leader to intervene in their legal cases if UMNO secures a commanding electoral win.

Mohamad, who is aligned with Zahid, said that he had initially urged Ismail, who came to power last August, to call an election in November after announcing the national budget. But with a general election not legally due until the third quarter of 2023, Ismail opted to stay on while his government focused on pandemic management and economic recovery.

UMNO’s leadership then pushed for a snap election between March and June, said Mohamad, to seize the political momentum following thumping BN victories at state elections in Melaka, Sarawak and Johor, but likewise to no avail. “The Art of War says strike when your enemy is weak. That was the time for us to strike,” said the 66-year-old veteran UMNO politician.

Ismail resisted calls by UMNO’s party leadership in both instances because he had “committed himself” to abide by a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, Mohamad said, under which the government agreed to implement several institutional reforms as part of a political ceasefire.

“The prime minister told us he cannot take back his word on this so-called MoU. Some quarters say that if we pulled out of the government today and dissolve the parliament, we will be deemed as condemned. I don’t understand that at all,” said Mohamad. “This isn’t even an agreement, it’s an MoU. But okay, we give him (Ismail) the benefit of the doubt.”

As per that agreement, Ismail’s government agreed not to call an election before July 31 this year, to allow for a period of political stability. Intent on going to the polls early, UMNO’s Supreme Council objected to an extension of the MoU, a decision Ismail has abided by. It is unclear when exactly the premier intends to call for parliament’s dissolution to make way for polls.

“At the moment, the sentiment is very much with us. But I don’t know how long and how far we can last with the economic situation right now,” said Mohamad, who took credit for a UMNO proposal that Ismail, whose ascent to the nation’s highest office was the result of a technical compromise, serve as the BN’s candidate for premier in the upcoming election.

Ismail was UMNO’s top-ranking government official when a group of UMNO lawmakers led by Zahid and Najib withdrew support from then-premier Muhyiddin Yassin, who in February 2020 had joined forces with UMNO and other parliamentarians to topple Mahathir Mohamad’s PH coalition, forming what critics called a “backdoor government.”

“I was the only one who opposed the idea of forming a new government,” said Mohamad. “I made myself known. We should have called the election after PH fell. BN would have had a windfall, hands down. But we missed the opportunity because certain people within my own party wanted to have a shortcut. Maybe somebody just wants to save their own neck.”

Due to graft charges against Zahid and Mohamad’s status as a state assemblyman rather than parliamentarian, Ismail – despite being only third in UMNO’s party hierarchy – emerged as the most qualified figure to lead the new government, upending in the process Malaysia’s long-held political tradition of UMNO’s president being appointed as prime minister.

In May, UMNO unanimously approved an amendment to its Constitution to allow for internal party elections to be held six months after a general election, ostensibly securing corruption-accused party president Zahid’s position as UMNO leader and putting him in charge of selecting election candidates for the upcoming national polls.

“We want to avoid a struggle for power in UMNO, because once that happens, UMNO is finished,” said Mohamad. “That’s why we decided – I’m the one who decided – that Ismail Sabri will be the poster boy. Because he is the sitting prime minister. It doesn’t make sense if a sitting prime minister is there, but the party nominates someone else.”

Ismail’s interests would be better served by a party election held before the general election, analysts say. Should he successfully contest against Zahid and become the UMNO president, Ismail would have the final say on the candidacies of those contesting in national polls and ultimately be more secure in retaining his job as prime minister.

Observers note that UMNO’s highest decision-making body had only “suggested” that Ismail continue in the top job after the election. Others cite the recent example of former Johor chief minister Hasni Mohammad, who ran as BN’s candidate in March’s state election but was pushed aside and replaced at the eleventh hour after the coalition clinched victory.

“He (Ismail) likes to be popular. To me, leaders shouldn’t be popular. Leaders should be effective. You can be unpopular, but [an] effective manager of your organization. Don’t ever go for popularity, it won’t last long,” said Mohamad, adding that “anyone supported by a majority of the members of parliament” could emerge as Malaysia’s next prime minister.

“I told him (Ismail) he can be prime minister, no issue. But I need a strong and dominant party to be in the government, like before,” the UMNO deputy president added, alluding to the heydays of BN’s majoritarian dominance. When asked, Mohamad described the coalition’s first-ever election defeat in 2018 after 61 years of continuous rule as “a bitter lesson.”

“UMNO was defeated in 2018 not because it didn’t take care of the people. There was only one issue: 1MDB. The party and the government were too tolerant. We didn’t manage to explain, we didn’t manage to tell the truth. It was the one issue that we didn’t address properly in the general election,” remarked the Rantau state assemblyman.

“We thought that it was a very simple issue. We never realized that this was a bushfire that would spread very far. People are well informed, so you cannot hide and sweep everything under the carpet anymore, so we have to address the issues… The country has gone down the drain because of this one bloody 1MDB case,” he told Asia Times.

“It was done off-balance sheet, done by one person: the prime minister and he was also finance minister. He also took charge of 1MDB. That’s how the problem started,” Mohamad said. “If that person had been magnanimous to step aside for a while, UMNO would not have been toppled and would have been the government of today.”

But despite ultimately blaming then-premier Najib for BN’s historic electoral defeat, Mohamad also took credit for putting the criminally convicted former leader front-and-center as the coalition’s star campaigner in recent state election campaigns, harnessing his resurgent popularity as a self-styled populist disruptor and victim of a political witch hunt.

“Anybody can help us. Anybody is welcome to help during a campaign. I’m the one who planned for him to go there,” said Mohamad. “He’s gaining momentum, a mass movement. Not only from strong supporters within UMNO but from people on the street. Everywhere he goes, thousands of people come and see him. But it has nothing to do with the party.”