Najib can breathe easier at Umno meet

Former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin (left) and Mr Najib at last year's congress. This year, Mr Najib's supporters expect him to rally the party for the next general election, which he should win handily if the opposition ranks - including M
Mr Najib addressing the Umno general assembly at Kuala Lumpur's Putra World Trade Centre in November last year. In contrast to the muted support he received at last year's meeting, some expect week-long praise for the Malaysian leader when the annual event starts tomorrow.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin (left) and Mr Najib at last year's congress. This year, Mr Najib's supporters expect him to rally the party for the next general election, which he should win handily if the opposition ranks - including M
Former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin (left) and Mr Najib at last year's congress. This year, Mr Najib's supporters expect him to rally the party for the next general election, which he should win handily if the opposition ranks - including Mr Muhyiddin - remain disunited.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Critics within party purged, impact of 1MDB scandal muted among rural Malays: Analysts

A year ago, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was smarting from a massive financial scandal, with dark clouds looming over his political future and with his then deputy Muhyiddin Yassin snapping at his heels.

As the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) begins its annual general assembly in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow, Datuk Seri Najib, the party's president, is breathing easier, party insiders and analysts say.

In contrast to the muted support he received at last year's assembly, some expect week-long praise for Mr Najib, 63, this time round.

After all, he has successfully removed his critics in Umno, some of whom had demanded his resignation over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. He also enjoys the solid support of the decision-making Umno Supreme Council and is actively going after his other critics, such as Ms Maria Chin Abdullah who heads electoral reform group Bersih.

The five-day assembly, attended by some 4,000 delegates from across the country, is the most closely watched annual event here. Umno is the country's biggest party with 3.5 million members.

  • Why it's Malaysia's top political event

  • Umno's general assembly is the most closely watched annual political event in Malaysia, except when there is a general election.

    Here is why:

    • It has 3.5 million members in the country's population of 30 million. The second-biggest party by membership is Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which is 800,000 strong.

    • Umno won 88 seats in the federal Parliament in the 2013 General Election, or 40 per cent of the total 222 seats. The next biggest winner is the opposition Democratic Action Party, with 38 seats. The Umno-led 13-member Barisan Nasional coalition won a total of 133 seats in 2013. Former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and former Kedah menteri besar Mukhriz Mahathir have moved over to the opposition, their seats among several that have changed sides.

    • Twenty men and women, or just over half of the Cabinet's 38 members, are from Umno. They include the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and those holding the Home, Finance, Defence, International Trade and Education portfolios.

    • Issues raised during the five-day congress at its headquarters in the Putra World Trade Centre complex have led to new or tweaked government policies in Asean's third-biggest economy.

The meeting is not just about making serious speeches, but also provides a platform for ambitious politicians to be seen and heard.

"It's going to be a consolidation of support for Najib because all rivals have been purged," said Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "There'll be a lot of pledging of loyalty to Najib, talk of how Umno needs him, and so on."

Mr Najib's supporters expect him to rally the party for the next general election. He should win it handily if the opposition ranks - which now include the sacked deputy premier, Tan Sri Muhyiddin - remain disunited.

National elections are widely expected to be called next year, though they are not due until late 2018.

This is not to say that the 1MDB scandal has been totally buried, say party insiders, as international investigations are continuing, with Swiss investigators saying that US$4 billion (S$5.7 billion) may have been misappropriated from the state fund.

Singapore has closed two Swiss investment banks over the scandal and sentenced one banker to jail.

The United States' Department of Justice, in its civil suits to get back some of the missing funds, named a key person involved as "Malaysia Official 1" - which a Malaysian minister identified as Mr Najib himself.

In Malaysia, however, Attorney- General Mohamed Apandi Ali has cleared the Prime Minister of any wrongdoing in the 1MDB scandal early this year.

And even though the opposition, joined by Mr Muhyiddin and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, has been harping about 1MDB, the issue has not gained much traction among rural Malays, who form the bulk of support for Umno.

They are more concerned about cost-of-living issues, such as higher cooking oil prices, and whether international prices would remain weak for palm oil, rubber and rice - the three biggest planted commodities in Malaysia.

"1MDB is not the biggest worry now," said an aide to a senior minister. "We want to talk about solving bread-and-butter issues. For example, though the economy may seem to be getting worse, people are not losing jobs."

Umno leaders are expected to attack the opposition, especially Tun Dr Mahathir, who has taken part in street protests, made peace with his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim, and is now working with one-time archenemy Lim Kit Siang.

"They are quite bitter that Dr Mahathir is doing everything that he had opposed in the past," said Professor Mohamed Mustafa Ishak from the National Council of Professors. "Umno will hammer at these issues to divert attention away from its own party issues."

Umno would want to diminish Dr Mahathir's image as a Malay nationalist as he could weaken the party's grip on rural Malay seats.

The 13-party Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition led by Umno won 133 of the 222 seats in the federal Parliament in 2013. The wins were mostly in constituencies in Sabah and Sarawak and rural areas in Peninsular Malaysia.

The University of Tasmania's Asia Institute director James Chin said the 222 seats can be roughly divided into three groups: some 40 urban, and 120 or so rural wards in Peninsular Malaysia, as well as nearly 60 constituencies in Sabah and Sarawak.

The opposition has a strong grip on the urban seats, while BN is strong in Sabah, Sarawak and the rural wards.

"You need to control two of the three groups to win," Prof Chin said.

While Umno is united today, ground readings indicate that the feel-good factor is not quite there, said an aide to another minister.

"There needs to be this feel-good (factor) among the people and, so far, the feeling is not fully good yet."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'Najib can breathe easier at Umno meet'. Print Edition | Subscribe