By Zofia Reych
Until recently, we thought Najib Razak was Malaysia’s only choice. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had lost his influential position, and Najib’s deputy Muhyiddin Yassin had been sacked. Prime Minister Najib Razak seemed untouchable even amidst the 1MDB scandal.
Now, Malaysians have another option – Muhyiddin Yassin has just registered a new political party.
The man who paid the 1MDB price
For more than three decades, Muhyiddin Yassin was faithful to UMNO, a political party that has dominated the country’s post-colonial history. Educated in economics and Malay studies, Muhyiddin moved through ranks and in 2008 became UMNO’s vice-president, as well as Deputy Prime Minister under Najib Razak.
But soon the political situation became tense. At first, only economic uncertainty was eating at Najib’s support. Then, in February 2015, the 1MDB scandal hit the media, further reducing the country’s chances of recovery. Calls for an explanation over the millions that had disappeared from the public purse started coming not only from the opposition, but also from within UMNO. Former PM Abdullah Badawi, as well as his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, were repeatedly calling for Najib’s resignation.
Among those criticising Najib was Muhyiddin Yassin. In July 2015 a leaked private video showed Muhyiddin describing a 1MDB related conversation with Najib. According to Muhyiddin’s claims, Najib confessed to defrauding USD700 million of public money.
Although initial rumours of an imminent arrest turned out to be false, Muhyiddin quickly lost his position as Deputy Prime Minister was barred from speaking at UMNO’s general assembly, and was then expelled from the party.
“Truly, stealing the country’s wealth and covering up criminal acts is a disgusting act of treason to the country,” said Muhyiddin, defending himself amidst criticism from party colleagues who called him a traitor for not upholding party rules.
UMNO’s constitution implies collective resposibility and, in Najib’s words, “any difference in opinion is not supposed to be expressed in an open forum.”
A shift in power?
In 1990 and 1999, former UMNO politicians-turned-opposition led campaigns against Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. They failed, and this time it is Mahathir who hopes to leverage the same strategy to unseat Najib Razak. If successful, his new political faction would unite the opposition and, after the 2018 election, form a government to replace the ruling coalition.
This bold plan was unveiled at a press conference on July 14. Mahathir spoke of a “concentrated effort” and a “single front” against the current government. Later he also added that he will take on a role of “the first among equals” in the new party.
Muhyiddin Yassin was chosen to lead. Last week he registered a new party called Pribumi Bersatu. The word pribumi is synonymous with bumiputera, meaning the autochthonous Malay, Sarawak and Sabah peoples. However, Muhyiddin revealed that non-bumiputeras (Chinese and Indians) will be able to join as associate members.
“This is a party that is inclusive in nature, progressive and open minded. We have a reform agenda that is comprehensive, to take care of each citizen’s welfare regardless of race or religion,” Muhyiddin told the press in Malay.
The Chinese and Indians will have somewhat limited rights within the party, but this policy is still a big step forward when compared to a strict bumiputera model operated by UMNO.
While Pribumi is going to be “more democratic, progressive, [and] dynamic”, it will remain “with Islam, [fighting] for the people, including the Malays”. Clearly, Muhyiddin and Mahathir want to appeal to more Malaysians beyond the Malays, while their Malay-nationalist past might assure the bumiputera majority that under Pribumi they won’t lose rights.
Formation of the new party was met with dismissive comments from UMNO. “I am confident that the people will not be fooled again and that the loyalty of UMNO members is unshakable,” said Azlan Man, while at the same time expressing concerns about creating division among the Malays.
However disillusioned with the current set up, Malaysia might not be ready for a shift in power. For now, UMNO’s dominance is upheld by ethnic grievances among the fragmented nation, and Najib Razak’s grip on the party remains firm. Although the international enquiry into 1MDB is ongoing, and Muhyiddin has devised a domestic campaign to educate the public about the alleged frauds, not long ago even Mahathir doubted if UMNO could be overthrown.
Even if successful, politically Pribumi is expected to be very much like UMNO. In practice, the situation might be similar to how things were in 1999; a coalition of small, somewhat conflicted parties won’t provide a viable counterweight to the current establishment.
The country is still waiting for a new generation of politicians, free both from financial machinations and Malay nationalism, to offer a new, multi-ethnic option that could tackle matters such as economic growth, corruption and environmental degradation – universal issues that are important to all voters, regardless of ethnicity, religion and political affiliation.