Is Najib an asset or a liability to UMNO and Barisan Nasional?

Photo: Firdaus Latif/CC BY 2.0

By: Vanitha Nadaraj

Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Tun Razak is facing what no other prime minister in Malaysia has ever faced: international scrutiny as a result of investigations by five countries involving people close to him, a domestic economic situation that is worsening, strong voices of dissent from key government officials and former national leaders, and blatant taunting by the public. All at the same time.

How long he can withstand these pressures is hard to say. Time will tell whether the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) finds him ineffective or a liability. How close is UMNO to this view? The unresolved matters below may give an indication.

Unresolved matter #1 – Division within UMNO

There has been a series of people being moved within UMNO.

The Kedah chief minister Dato’ Seri Mukhriz Mahathir recently resigned after losing the support of the state assembly. This has been seen as UMNO strengthening itself in the northern state and also nationally. The majority of the assemblymen are UMNO members who are aligned to Dato’ Sri Najib. Dato’ Seri Mukhriz has previously criticised the party president. He is also the son of Tun Dr Mahathir, one of the fiercest critics of Dato’ Sri Najib.

On the surface of things, Dato’ Sri Najib appears to have developed a stronger grip on his party. The removal of Mukhriz episode however has driven a wider wedge in UMNO between Najib’s supporters and those opposing him. Already, there are UMNO grassroots members in southern Johor who have been muttering under their breath over the removal of Johorean Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as deputy prime minister in July last year. Tan Sri Muhyiddin however, has not been removed as UMNO deputy president.

Along with the removal of Muhyiddin, Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, from Sabah, was also removed from his post in the Cabinet. Again he was not removed as UMNO vice-president. Earlier in 2014 in May, Terengganu’s chief minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Said was removed causing a furore among UMNO members in the eastern state.

In the end, UMNO is still very state-centric in how power is structured. Removal of a leader from a state is regarded as a slight against UMNO members and leaders of that state. The feelings run deep at grassroot level.

Dato’ Sri Najib cannot afford to divide UMNO any further at this time. He needs a truly unified UMNO that will stand by him. This means he needs not just the support of the 191 division leaders in whose hands lies the fate of the president, but the UMNO grassroots.  (Party officials are elected by the 191 division leaders.)

Unresolved matter #2 – Economic Uncertainty Eating at Support

The economic malaise hanging over the country does not help Prime Minister Najib’s position.

The majority of the 1.6 million civil servants are Malays. In December 2014, the government imposed a hiring freeze for the civil service affecting thousands entering the job market. To give an indication of the kind of numbers involved: in 2014, there were 26,000 new appointments in the civil service.

Jobs in the private sector are limited because businesses are languishing in the slower global economic environment and fall in commodity prices. This year is likely to bring more job freezes and retrenchments in the private sector.

The escalating cost of living and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) are making it even harder for many to make ends meet. With a good majority of the 3.5 million Umno members as either civil servants or business people, it is going to be a highly challenging year for Dato’ Sri Najib. He has to make sure UMNO grassroots are able to cope.


Unresolved matter #3 – Key officials’ discontent

A few weeks ago, when the Attorney-General announced his decision to close investigations into the RM2.6 billion (US$620 million) found in the Prime Minister’s personal bank account, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) asked for a review of the decision. The MACC has issued a string of statements previously to respond to the investigation and this is simply the latest.

In August last year, several MACC officers were questioned over leaked information on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) probe. Two officers were ordered transferred to the Prime Minister’s Department. After a public furore, the transfer order was rescinded three days later.

Prior to this, other government officials were removed or transferred. This generated skeptical responses from the public. In July, Tan Sri Gani Patail was removed as Attorney-General. No reason was given for the transfer of Special Branch deputy director Hamid Bador to the Prime Minister’s Office. Hamid Bador has coincidentally criticised the way the government handled the 1MDB matter.

Bank Negara Malaysia governor Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz has emphasised on a few occasions that the 1MDB saga requires some explanation.

Unresolved matter #4 – Not effectively dealing with allegations

Daily reminders in the media of alleged corruption involving billions of ringgit linking the prime minister or people close to him have not been dealt with effectively. With each new report, the trust deficit grows. Prime Minister Najib has been unable to shake off the growing suspicion. Response from ministers and government officials like the new Attorney-General only make matters worse.

One of the latest media reports came from no less than the UK-based Financial Times. A French judge was reported to have opened investigations into a 2002 contract for two Scorpene submarines for alleged bribery. A Putrajaya spokesman, however, says the Prime Minister was not guilty of bribery in the matter and that his name was being dragged through the mud for political reasons.

The rebuttals from Putrajaya however must stand up against a series of other international investigations which are piling up.

  • US federal grand jury is examining allegations of corruption involving the prime minister, Najib Razak, and people close to him. This involves properties in US bought by shell companies that belong to the prime minister’s stepson, among others.
  • Hong Kong police are investigating a series of deposits worth US250 million allegedly linked to Dato’ Sri Najib
  • Swiss prosecutors requested assistance from Malaysian authorities in investigating massive theft believed of about US$4 billion from Malaysian state-owned companies.
  • UK’s Serious Fraud Office is looking into the 1MDB money-laundering allegations and also examining the case where Swiss authorities have frozen bank accounts linked to 1MDB.
  • Singapore authorities have seized a large number of bank accounts as part of its investigations into alleged money laundering and other offences related to 1MDB.

How will UMNO members or grassroots leaders explain this to the public? It is not going to be easy to convince the public that there is no truth to the allegations.

The next general election needs to be held by 2018 and low-key campaigning is likely to begin next year. UMNO members’ task to convince voters to support Barisan Nasional is going to be that much harder this time around.

Can UMNO / Barisan Nasional win the next elections?

Given all these factors, the question arises: will Dato’ Sri Najib be able to successfully lead the party and coalition to elections and form the next government? Is he an asset or a liability to UMNO and Barisan?  These are the questions which UMNO delegates and leaders must be asking themselves.

The next general election may be the hardest one in the history of UMNO and Barisan Nasional due to the baggage they have to carry. For the first time in the UMNO’s history, the longest ruling party in the country may face the possibility that it could lose the elections. Their only consolation is that the opposition will need to be united enough to defeat the UMNO party machine and whether they are able to do this is very much in question.