Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin and other critics of Prime Minister Najib Razak are set to be punished by the ruling party to head off potential embarrassment for the embattled Malaysian Premier at its December annual general meeting (AGM).
Media reports of a move by the majority of its 191 division leaders - powerful grassroots warlords - to kick out Tan Sri Muhyiddin from Umno hogged headlines yesterday, but The Straits Times understands that he and six others will likely be suspended instead.
This will be less divisive than an outright sack, while still blocking Mr Muhyiddin from addressing the opening of the youth and women's wings at the Umno annual assembly as dictated by longstanding convention.
Umno secretary general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said yesterday that a committee is looking into the suspensions of seven leaders who have publicly attacked Malaysia's biggest political party.
He did not name them, but sources indicated that Mr Muhyiddin was the main target. Mr Muhyiddin was dropped from Cabinet on July 28 along with one of the three Umno vice-presidents, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, after they questioned the government's handling of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy.
"It will be damaging to sack him. But if he is suspended, he won't be able to speak at the AGM," a source said, adding that many in the ruling establishment were still sympathetic towards the veteran leader.
A suspension would also avoid another potential embarrassment for the party, as the deputy president and the three vice-presidents are also traditionally allocated time at the end of the assembly to respond to the speeches from delegates. The Umno president would then wrap up the meeting with his closing address.
A division chief in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Shafie Abdullah, told The Straits Times that at least 80 per cent of division leaders supported "some kind of action to punish the unbecoming reaction" by Mr Muhyiddin in recent months.
Datuk Seri Najib has faced calls to resign over 1MDB's shocking accumulation of RM42 billion (S$13.7 billion) debts in its first five years amid allegations of money being siphoned out.
The attacks grew louder when US$700 million (S$970 million) said to be linked to the state investor was discovered in his private accounts. He has denied using funds for personal gain, while the national anti-graft agency has said the money came from unspecified Middle Eastern donors.
Other Umno figures such as influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad and Malaysia's longest-serving MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah are among those who have criticised Mr Najib in relation to 1MDB. It is unclear if they, too, would be suspended.
According to local media reports, more than 100 divisional leaders had met in secret to drum up support for Mr Muhyiddin's ouster. Malay daily Sinar Harian quoted Datuk Jamal Yunos, a Selangor Umno chief - a staunch supporter of Mr Najib - as confirming the closed-door talks, saying that the president was too soft on his deputy.
But Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, a member of the Umno Supreme Council, its top decision-making body, said Mr Jamal was merely expressing a view.
However, Mr Nazri did not specifically deny that Mr Muhyiddin would face disciplinary action.
Mr Muhyiddin had limited himself to tough and stern questioning of how the administration handled the 1MDB saga until he was removed from Cabinet. Last week, he called his party colleagues "cowards" for not speaking up on the issue.