Against the backdrop of wave after wave of corruption scandals and rising opposition in Malaysia, Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Haji Mohammad Najib bin Tun Haji Abdul Razak seems – paradoxically – more securely entrenched than ever.
By Tan Zhi Xin, edited by John Pennington
From the 1MDB scandal to the 2013 electoral fraud and mismanagement of the country, Najib Razak’s reign as Prime Minister has been marred by controversies throughout. Yet nothing seems able to knock him off his perch and he continues to sit comfortably at the top of the tree.
In many ways, Najib is a natural politician. He is endowed with shrewdness, and has a flair for political cunning. Najib has shamelessly denied all sorts of allegations by maintaining his innocence, as epitomised by the electoral fraud in 2013 that swore him in. Najib has also repeatedly denied accusations of corruption in the 1MDB scandal, claiming that the sum of money came legitimately.
No matter how serious the issue, Najib is immovable
The unusual deaths of AmBank founder Hussain Najadi and deputy public prosecutor Kevin Morais made little impact on him. He also refuted Mahathir Mohamad’s accusation that he sold Malaysian sovereignty to China in exchange for time amid the mismanagement of the economy and the freefall of the Malaysian Ringgit. Much older controversies including the alleged corruption surrounding the purchase of two French submarines in 2002 and his alleged links to the murder of a Mongolian national in 2006 show just how thick-skinned he is.
Najib entered politics at just 26 and in his four decades of political experience, he has established enough networks. These networks insulate him from pressure and potential impeachment. His absolute control over institutions of power through appointment of offices and media also guarantees him immunity – at least until he leaves office.
Is Najib about to run out of time?
Najib cannot reign forever. The upcoming 14th general election (GE14) – due no later than 2018 – could be a turning point in Malaysian political history and a real opportunity for the opposition to unseat Najib. As Democratic Action Party (DAP) parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang puts it, “GE14 must be about liberating the country and the people from the rampant corruption, abuse of power, widespread failure of socio-economic policies and nation-building of the Najib and the Barisan Nasional (BN) government.”
Former PM Mahathir and de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim would at first glance appear to be two strong contenders that may unseat Najib. Their unexpected marriage of convenience has surprised Malaysians and their “historic handshake” signifies a convergence of interests, and above all, hopes for the opposition. With Anwar behind bars on a trumped-up sodomy charge, Mahathir becomes the likely rallying figure for opposition forces in Malaysia. However, many Malaysians do not trust him, and feel that his “return” to politics is simply part of a grand scheme to pave the way for his son, Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, to become the next Prime Minister. Well aware of his lost influence and prestige, Mahathir has dismissed the possibility of a comeback as PM. Mahathir’s awkward relationship with the opposition stands in the way of his political career.
Muhyiddin Yassin is a more credible contender to replace Najib
With both Mahathir and Anwar out of the picture, the next most likely contender is Muhyiddin Yassin. Muhyiddin started his political career by joining the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), eventually becoming Najib’s deputy PM. Muhyiddin was dismissed as deputy PM due to his open criticism of Najib’s involvement in the 1MDB scandal, and was later sacked from UMNO. But that was not the end of his political career.
In August 2016, Muhyiddin, together with Mahathir, established opposition party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM or Bersatu). Muhyiddin also holds the title of President of this new party. Even Mahathir tellingly remarked, “At the moment, we are not saying anything except that if the opposition wins, the most likely prime minister will be Muhyiddin”. This shows how the opposition has swallowed a lot of pride to ask a former UMNO leader and an ex-Najib aide to lead them. Even more telling is the fact Muhyiddin now has the support of the man who once previously tried to get rid of him.
Politics of race will dominate GE14
Malaysian politics has always been characterised by racial politics. Most political parties in Malaysia were created along racial lines: UMNO for Malays; Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) for Chinese; and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) for Indians. Even the newly created opposition party PPBM is meant to be a Malay nationalist party, established to defend Malay nationalism and to fight for the rights of the Malays and indigenous Bumiputras.
UMNO is also infamous for using the Democratic Action Party (DAP) as a target to maintain their support among Malay voters. It is noteworthy that in a land dominated by Malays, there has never been a Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister from a minority race – Chinese or Indian. The highest political post ever taken by anyone of Chinese origin is transport minister, held by MCA President Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai.
Racial politics is here to stay, despite appearances suggesting otherwise
Although PPBM and the DAP recently joined the tripartite Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance racial politics will continue. Even the opposition themselves are not confident that a minority candidate will become the next PM or DPM. DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng told The Star in an interview that his party had never wanted the DPM post.
Mahathir, an old timer, has also already played his racial card in an attempt to narrow Najib’s majority and undermine UMNO’s standing in Johor – UMNO’s birthplace. PPBM, led by the Mahathir-Anwar alliance, is also cooperating with Islamic Party PAS to lure rural Malay voters for GE14.
Voting along race lines helps BN consistently cling to power
Racial politics has allowed BN to consistently capture the states of Sabah and Sarawak. Of the 222 parliamentary seats, the Chinese dominate urban constituencies while the Malays dominate rural and suburban constituencies. Then there are Sabah and Sarawak, which account for 57 seats.
In Sabah, BN has a record of vote buying by handing out “goodies” distributed by a vehicle bearing the BN flag. Considering how the Najib administration spent approximately RM4,363 (US$985.30) per vote in a prolonged pre-election campaign, it is not surprising that BN won 47 out of the 57 seats available in the East Malaysia constituency in GE13.
As political scientist Dr Faisal Hazis summarised, “The opposition party here still fails to strike a chord with the majority rural voters of Sabah and Sarawak. The issues they bring up are valid, but at the end of the day, bread and butter issues are what will win over their votes.” To the rural voters in Sabah and Sarawak, issues like corruption, autonomy, and weakening economy are far too abstract and intangible.
Dark clouds loom over Malaysian politics
Race still plays a huge role in determining how a party fares in any Malaysian election. Unfortunately for the opposition, UMNO is the party that commands much of the Malay voters, especially those from the rural areas. Urban Malay voters who are better informed, liberal, and are keen for change are in the minority. Even if these urban Malays were to turn to the opposition, the opposition stands a small chance of winning if they do not have the rural Malays’ support.
For now, time is on Najib’s side. Najib still controls power within UMNO. If successfully implemented, Najib’s 2017 national budget will cement his hold over the rural and poor voters, giving him an added edge over other political parties. GE14 is a golden opportunity for the opposition to oust Najib. But the opposition will need to win the hearts of the poorer Malay voters who have been neglected by parties other than UMNO in order to get into power.