Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak kicked off Umno's annual congress yesterday evening by explaining to party delegates two key issues that have buffeted his administration, party officials said.
The hour-long meeting, called a pre-council briefing, was closed to media, but Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi later told reporters what Datuk Seri Najib had said. The Prime Minister, said Datuk Seri Zahid, explained that "the party gave the political donation without expecting anything in return".
Mr Najib also told the nearly 6,000 delegates and party leaders that the anti-corruption agency had met the donor, Mr Zahid added.
Mr Najib has faced calls to quit over the mystery RM2.6 billion (S$850 million) donation and the debt troubles of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
On 1MDB, Mr Zahid said Mr Najib told delegates that its debt troubles were being resolved. "The debts of 1MDB are less than the value of its assets and landbank," he quoted Mr Najib as saying. The pre-council briefing was held in the cavernous halls of the Putra World Trade Centre where Umno has its headquarters.
Mr Najib and Umno have been weakened this year by the scandals that led him to sack Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and senior Cabinet minister Shafie Apdal, both of whom had questioned his handling of both issues.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin and Datuk Seri Shafie remain Umno deputy president and a vice-president respectively. Mr Muhyiddin was not at the briefing.
But in a speech on Monday night, Mr Muhyiddin urged Mr Najib to go on leave so that the Prime Minister would not be seen as interfering in ongoing investigations. He is also worried Umno would be dragged into the issue of the donation.
"What worries me is if this becomes a court case and Umno gets dragged to court," he told a 4,000- strong crowd.
Despite the split, most Umno leaders are leaning on Mr Najib's side and urging dissenting colleagues to put party unity first.
"When Najib was deputy president, he didn't query the president," Umno division chief Johan Abdul Aziz told The Straits Times.
Some party leaders insist Mr Najib has provided sufficient explanation to address allegations against him and that there are other national issues that should be discussed during the five-day assembly.
Some leaders feel more attention should be focused on economic issues like the rising cost of living and the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact.
Private consumption has fallen by more than half in the first nine months of the year, as Malaysians tightened their belts following the introduction of a 6 per cent goods and services tax and negative sentiments over rising prices.
To maintain grassroots support, Mr Najib, in his Budget speech in October, announced cash handouts and incentives to farmers and entrepreneurs in rural states, where most Umno supporters live.
But political analysts see an uphill task for Mr Najib in trying to sell the idea of party unity and stability to all the delegates present, more so after his moves to silence dissenters in his internal circle.
"Because of the way he's been treating Muhyiddin and Shafie, it's hard to convince everyone he's interested in unity," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of local think tank Ideas.
"What he's interested in is control, not unity. That's why critics are sidelined and asked to toe the line."