Najib’s moves: Shrewd political brilliance, or simply a risky gamble?

By Jolene Yeo

“A fractious opposition, an ethnically polarised electorate, and a forgetful public.” These reasons, as put forward by Professor William Case of City University of Hong Kong, suggest that despite Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s alleged transgressions in the 1MDB debacle, he is here to stay.

Winning without a fight

Following the 1MDB scandal, UMNO has been said to be bereft of candidates who can seize the public’s imagination, in replacement of embattled Najib.

While Najib’s public image has most evidently been sullied – with the Najib government’s popularity falling to an all-time low of 23% in 2015 – efforts to bring down Najib have not only fizzled out, but have appeared to be a driving force to unite UMNO, ostensibly to safeguard vested interests.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s “Save Malaysia” movement, meant to gain momentum for a popular revolution to kick-start the ouster of embattled Najib, saw the strange collaboration of erstwhile political enemies.

In what appeared to political pundits as a strange turn of events, Mahathir managed to unite political enemies who had hated each other. Among these were Democratic Action Party (DAP) veteran leader Lim Kit Siang, whom Mahathir jailed in 1987, as well as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Reuters reported that in a dramatic flourish, Mahathir had called upon all Malaysians, irrespective of race, political affiliation, creed or parties, young and old to join them in saving Malaysia from the government headed by Najib Razak.

If it is not strange enough that a group of political enemies have united against Najib, the question to be raised is whether Malaysia’s current political turmoil has been Mahathir-made – a long history of national decline that started with Mahathir paving the way for Najib’s rise to power.

The Economist’s stance towards the state of affairs in Malaysia is scathing, having said that “under Najib, the country is regressing at alarming speed. Its politics stinks, its economy is in trouble, and there are worrying signs that the government is not above stirring up ethnic the religious divisions”. But Mahathir’s fight against Najib, and the UMNO which Najib leads, has arguably helped put Najib’s importance on a pedestal, raising his significance as the sole saviour of UMNO’s political power in face of Mahathir, the former prime minister who was never happy with any of his successors.

In a fury to safeguard their own personal interest, coupled with the high stakes of various UMNO leaders who threw their support behind Najib, the current state of affairs appears to signal that UMNO is forced to keep its infighting under wraps and, like it or not, stick through with their decision to support the dishonoured prime minister.

Malaysia’s flawed political infrastructure

Not only has the character and competence of Malaysian officials been called into question, but the compounded consequences of Malayisa’s flawed political system has now become more evident than ever before.

The concentration of power in a flawed leader, backed by a coalition of political veterans – all with vested interests, coupled with the lack of enforced judicial independence – has allowed UMNO to bypass any checks and balances. This has had the effect of consolidating power within UMNO, and especially in the hands of Najib himself.

Doubts have since been raised on Malaysia’s lack of democratic accountability. To put things into perspective, communist China does not hold elections, but Xi Jinping has waged a fierce anti-graft campaign on Chinese officials – whatever his political motivations may be. In the case of corrupt high-ranking official Zhou Yongkang, Zhou was first expelled from the party, before being investigated and handed over to prosecutors.

On the other hand, Najib’s government was democratically elected, but due process in investigations into allegations of misappropriation of funds involving 1MDB was not allowed to take its course. In fact, Najib appears to have further consolidated his power by removing those in his way. For instance, Najib’s dissenting deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, was removed from Cabinet in 2015 in a reshuffle. Recently, Muhyiddin has even had his party position suspended. Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail was similarly gotten rid of, and replaced with Mohamed Apandi Ali, who then cleared Najib of any misconduct.

This thus raises an urgent question on the state of Malaysia’s democratic institutions. The hope of a more democratic Malaysia, once raised in the 2013 elections, appears to have not only taken a setback, but has taken a sharp turn.

The bipartisan Malaysian parliamentary panel has called for the removal of provisions that make Najib’s approval a requirement for any major decision in 1MDB, having heard in an inquiry that the company’s management repeatedly utilised the prime minister’s powers to bypass its own board as well as officials from the finance minister, which own the 1MDB.

In all, Najib has sacked five cabinet ministers, in what appears to be an effort to silence dissent and shore up his political position amid the scandal.

As posed by Channel NewsAsia’s Insight series, the question is this: are Najib’s actions a testament to shrewd political brilliance, or simply a risky gamble?