Banker Nazir Razak, the younger brother of beleaguered Prime Minister Najib Razak, may link his planned political platform with rebels from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) who were defeated in the Islamic party's internal polls last month, a move that could further shake the ruling Umno's grip on Malaysia's Malay majority.
Datuk Seri Nazir, 48, is setting up a non-governmental organisation (NGO) as he seeks ways to change the direction Malaysia is headed, with former Umno deputy minister Saifuddin Abdullah as its public face. The Straits Times understands that Datuk Saifuddin has held exploratory talks last month with the Gerakan Harapan Baru (New Hope Movement), or GHB, which groups progressive PAS leaders.
Parit Buntar MP Mujahid Yusof Rawa, a key figure of GHB, which was formally launched on Monday, confirmed the meeting, but told The Straits Times "I need to discuss the proposals with the rest of the group before deciding" on a link-up with Mr Nazir's NGO.
Mr Saifuddin said he "exchanged notes with Mujahid on what we plan to do as they have often worked across the political divide in the past".
Mr Saifuddin told The Straits Times: "We broadly agreed to continue cooperation in the future. If, for example, one of us starts an NGO and the other a new party, we will work closely and consult each other." He was deputy higher education minister in the Najib administration for five years to 2013.
The GHB says it will open its party to non-Muslims and give them equal rights, but those involved in the Nazir platform are clear about not using Islam as the label.
A STRAITS TIMES SOURCE
The GHB includes former PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu, former vice-president Salahuddin Ayub and 14 elected lawmakers.
Mr Nazir, chief of Malaysia's second-largest bank, CIMB, has grown more vocal concerning national issues this year, unlike the rest of the largely benign corporate captains.
The banker's criticism of 1Malaysia Development Berhad - whose chief adviser is PM Najib - and comments on investigations into allegations of abuse of public funds by the debt-laden state firm have generated widespread interest.
Mr Nazir was forced last month to deny he was setting up a political party with Mr Saifuddin, insisting they had only discussed forming an NGO. But sources involved in the talks told The Straits Times "it is a political platform that is geared to be a king-maker at the next general election" even if it may not be an official political party.
Datuk Seri Najib is facing internal revolt within his own party led by his predecessor, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, after being the first Barisan Nasional coalition chief to lose the popular majority in national elections. Mr Najib has also had to deny allegations this month that up to US$700 million (S$950 million) of 1MDB-linked funds was deposited into his personal accounts over the past two years.
The Nazir-led entity also aims to bring corporate bigwigs and civil society leaders together. A tie-up with the Islamic leaders of GHB could appeal to Umno's entrenched vote bank in the Malay rural heartland. These voters often look up to successful Malay businessmen but are growing conscious of Islamic values.
But sources say a merger with GHB faces a substantial stumbling block as the PAS rebels want an Islamic party, while those committed to Mr Nazir's plans are for a secular and multiracial party. "The GHB says it will open its party to non-Muslims and give them equal rights, but those involved in the Nazir platform are clear about not using Islam as the label," a source said.