Saturday, December 17, 2016

Mother of all battles in Malaysian politics

Najib has been under pressure since the outbreak of the 1MDB scandal last year. UMNO has had to ward off an uprising against the President led by Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister and party president. Having resigned from UMNO in protest against Najib, Mahathir has joined the opposition, even reconciling with his ally-turned-nemesis Anwar Ibrahim to revive their once powerful political partnership and push Najib out.

The 1MDB scandal has energised the divided opposition and Najib’s critics, culminating in the departure from UMNO of Mahathir and three other leaders, including now former deputy prime minister and UMNO deputy president Muhyddin Yassin. Mahathir and Muhyiddin have formed a new party known as Bersatu.

Bersatu has joined the Anwar-inspired Pakatan Harapan coalition, formerly known as Pakatan Rakyat. It is this prospect of a revitalised opposition coalition led in spirit and form by the two formidable former enemies — Mahathir and Anwar — that caused Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to predict ‘the mother of all battles’.

Najib has pulled out all stops to defend himself in the face of a reconfiguring opposition. Putting the UMNO on a war footing at its recently concluded annual general assembly, he manoeuvred to rally support and ready UMNO for a general election by insisting on loyalty to the leader.

With his back to the wall, Najib has transformed from a gentlemanly politician to an almost unrecognisable political animal. At the outbreak of the 1MDB scandal he swiftly removed key senior officials who were not on his side, including the attorney-general, before sacking his chief critic then-deputy prime minister Muhyiddin.

1MDB has now grown into an international scandal as several governments launched probes where the financial fiasco affected their jurisdictions. But at the 2016 UMNO general assembly beginning in late November 1MDB was hardly an issue and the entire party’s attention was deflected towards the impending general election.

Najib has burnished his credentials as an Islamic leader by latching on to the latest humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya in Myanmar, which came at an opportune time for him.

Najib has also made an unprecedented move in ASEAN, brushing aside a warning by Myanmar not to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. Upset that his foreign minister was turned away by Aung San Suu Kyi when he sought bilateral talks on the issue, Najib declared a limit to the ASEAN principle of non-interference when it came to human rights abuses. He even criticised Suu Kyi for not living up to her name as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, while urging Indonesian president Joko Widodo to mobilise a larger rally in support of the Rohingya.

Usually cautious when making his moves and choosing his words, Najib was a different person at the Muslim Ummah Solidarity Gathering for the Rohingya. Najib made efforts at the rally to showcase solidarity between UMNO and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the Islamist opposition that Najib has been trying hard to woo.

In coming together to support the Rohingya, UMNO and PAS have signalled their converging political interests. While this does not necessarily mean they will end up as formal allies in the coming elections, if UMNO can win PAS over then there is less chance of the Pakatan Harapan opposition getting stronger.

UMNO leaders claim that the party has turned a corner and that the 1MDB scandal is now solidly behind them, but the public may not be completely convinced. While UMNO may still be the dominant Malay party it is no longer regarded as the sole representative of the Malay community’s political aspirations. Outside UMNO — indeed outside the Malay community — the mood may be in stark contrast.

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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