In Malaysia, Umno’s calls to free Najib risk fracturing Anwar’s unity government as first election test looms

  • The Malaysian PM’s uneasy alliance with rivals Umno will soon face its first real electoral test in 6 statewide polls seen as a barometer of support
  • Analysts say no good can come from pardon chatter for corrupt ex-leader Najib, even as they warn Anwar needs Umno’s pro-Malay platform to ‘survive’

Calls to secure a royal pardon for Malaysia’s disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak reverberated this month through the halls of Umno headquarters, where his party’s leaders and delegates gathered for their annual general assembly to discuss preparations for a clutch of coming state elections.

The speeches over the four-day meet were effusive. To an outsider looking in, it seemed the party that had ruled Malaysia for six straight decades saw its future deeply intertwined with that of a corrupt ex-leader, who became the first in the country’s history to be jailed for his crimes when he began serving a 12-year sentence last August for his part in plundering the collapsed 1MDB sovereign wealth fund.

In the months since, Umno has gone grovelling to the king in search of a full pardon for Najib, who was found guilty in 2020 of criminal breach of trust and money laundering after 42 million ringgit (US$9 million) from former 1MDB subsidiary SRC International conveniently found its way into his personal accounts.

Both he and his supporters maintain his innocence and say the charges were politically motivated.

“We are here, and he is there [in prison], but I believe his spirit is here with us,” party president and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told a packed hall during his policy speech at the start of the general assembly.

“The Umno supreme council has made a resolution, and our stand will not change. We want justice for Najib,” he was quoted as saying by local English newspaper New Straits Times.

But Umno’s unwavering pursuit of a royal pardon puts Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in a difficult position, as he juggles the need to broaden his nascent unity government’s appeal among the country’s Malay-Muslim majority with implementing a reformist agenda more than 20 years in the making while leader of the opposition.

Umno’s unbroken rule over Malaysia spanned the country’s independence from Britain in 1957 to the party’s shock electoral defeat in a 2018 election that was decided by an angry electorate up in arms over the multibillion dollar 1MDB scandal and rising living costs.

Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, then under the chairmanship of on-again off-again political partner and two-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, was quick to act against Najib, his wife Rosmah Mansor and Umno’s top lieutenants after it seized power, as the new government rushed to fulfil its pledge to wipe out corruption.

The trials continued even after the PH administration fell to a political coup 22 months into its term, serving as a constant reminder of the rampant corruption allegations that continue to haunt Najib and his fallen administration.

If there were any lingering doubts about the public’s loss of confidence in Umno, these were put to rest in last year’s national polls when it finished with just 26 out of parliament’s 222 seats as Malay voters threw their lot in with long-time rival the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) as a “green wave” – reflecting the Islamist party’s colours – swept the nation.

Unlikely allies

Umno’s saving grace came weeks after the conclusion of November’s general election. With no single party or coalition winning enough seats to earn the right to rule, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the country’s current constitutional monarch, chose Anwar as prime minister on the condition that he form a unity government with rival parties.

And so it was that Umno was once again given a seat at the table, joining hands with its sworn rivals in Anwar’s PH alliance.
Old habits, however, are hard to shake off. While the parties in Anwar’s unity government have made conscious efforts to at least appear to be on the same page, Umno’s insistence on pursuing Najib’s freedom makes for an awkward partnership at best.

“Umno’s position on Najib makes it complicated for PH and Anwar in the upcoming state election as the coalition tries to position itself as proponents of clean governance,” said Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, an associate director with government affairs consultancy Vriens & Partners.

“This disconcertment between Umno’s position on Najib and PH’s attempts to move away from it will make campaigning difficult unless both sides align on the need to stay away from raising Najib’s imprisonment during the unity government’s campaign.”

Elections are expected as early as next month in six of Peninsular Malaysia’s 11 states. The results will not directly affect the federal administration, but the polls are seen as a barometer of support for Anwar and his government – especially among Malays, who account for around 60 per cent of Malaysia’s 33 million people.

Government policy direction is also expected to be influenced by the state polls’ outcome, especially if those in power receive diminished Malay support.

This is where Umno plays a pivotal role for Anwar’s unity government. The “grand old party” of Malaysian politics provides it with much-needed Malay representation, amid long-standing accusations against the country’s minority ethnic Chinese who are said to dominate the multiracial PH coalition and are supposedly out to dismantle the rights and privileges of Malays.

[Anwar’s unity] government can’t survive without adequate Malay representation
Adib Zalkapli, public-policy consultant

“The government can’t survive without adequate Malay representation,” said Adib Zalkapli, a Malaysia director with government affairs and public policy consulting firm BowerGroupAsia.

“Despite its weaknesses and poor electoral performance recently, Umno still provides a neutral or moderate platform for the Malays, who may not be comfortable with Bersatu’s or PAS’ politics,” he said, pointing to PAS’ partners in the opposition Perikatan Nasional alliance of Muhyiddin Yassin, who served as Malaysia’s prime minister for 17 months following 2020’s political coup before resigning after his government lost the support of a parliamentary majority.

While PAS rode last year’s green wave that made it the single largest party in parliament with 49 seats, analysts say the Malay voters who cast their ballots for PAS in their droves may not necessarily have done so because they bought into its Islamist posturing.

According to a poll published in February by independent pollster the Merdeka Centre, about one-third of Malaysians are most concerned about the economy, while just two per cent of respondents cited racial issues as a top concern.

Umno’s rejection by Malay voters in last year’s polls has more to do with underlying anger over its alleged mismanagement of public funds while in power, analysts say, especially at a time when many were struggling to salvage whatever they could of their personal finances amid a pandemic-induced economic crisis.

With this in mind, continued talk of a royal pardon for Najib can do nothing but harm the unity government’s cause.

“If Anwar were to arrange for Najib’s pardon, he risks alienating PH’s own support base as many supported PH to topple Najib,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs think tank. “But not arranging the pardon will anger the many Najib supporters within Umno.”