News Analysis

News Analysis: Najib opens new front in political battle

Malaysian PM Najib Razak (right) and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin in a 2013 photo.
Malaysian PM Najib Razak (right) and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin in a 2013 photo. PHOTO: REUTERS

Observers say Malaysian PM's dramatic move likely to trigger more political turmoil

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has struck a hammer blow against his critics after removing them from office and pushing back investigations into the alleged money transfers that have shaken his government.

But in doing so, he has likely started a bigger war that he can barely afford, analysts, bloggers and opposition politicians said yesterday. And it is a war certain to trigger more political turmoil.

The sacking of Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, Umno vice-president Shafie Apdal and Attorney-General Gani Patail, among others, was probably the most dramatic political move in the country since the removal of then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim 17 years ago.

Anwar was sacked by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad amid debate in 1998 over whether to impose capital controls to prevent the flight of funds during the Asian financial crisis. Anwar was later found guilty in the courts of corruption and sodomy.

There are concerns that the sacking of Tan Sri Muhyiddin, for voicing what many Malaysians are asking privately about the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) saga, shows the Prime Minister will not brook any more dissent over it.

"It shows PM Najib's shrinking sense of security and a determined attempt to clamp down on dissent, especially within his Cabinet and Umno," said Singapore Management University law professor Eugene Tan. "This latest turn of events will not inspire confidence and will only raise concerns about the political stability in Malaysia."

MORE CONCERNS RAISED

It shows PM Najib's shrinking sense of security and a determined attempt to clamp down on dissent, especially within his Cabinet and Umno. This latest turn of events will not inspire confidence and will only raise concerns about the political stability in Malaysia.

SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY LAW PROFESSOR EUGENE TAN

The removal of the Attorney-General (AG) surprised many people because he was loyal to Mr Najib and his ouster raised uncomfortable questions about the reasons. The AG was the leading investigator into 1MDB. The probe's scope includes looking into allegations that US$700 million (S$960 million) flowed into the private accounts of the Prime Minister. Mr Najib has denied taking any funds for "personal gain" but has not clarified whether the funds did flow into his accounts.

Added to this was the surprising move to promote four Barisan Nasional (BN) MPs who are members of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which is also investigating 1MDB.

The PAC has to look for a new chief as Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed has been appointed the new deputy home minister. One BN PAC member was given a full Cabinet post and two others were also made deputy ministers.

Was Mr Najib trying to slow down the AG and PAC probes, ask analysts and opposition politicians. Political analyst Khoo Kay Peng, who runs his own consultancy, said that Mr Najib's moves would seem to "ensure prosecution is under his control". It would also "neutralise PAC and indirectly interfere with the investigation", Mr Khoo said.

Said political analyst Ibrahim Suffian from the Merdeka Centre pollster: "In the short term, this has thwarted the intentions of those trying to unseat him. However, it is a long road to regain the political capital (lost) by the economic issues, GST (goods and services tax) and the 1MDB saga."

The Najib camp should also not celebrate the vanquishing of its critics just yet, based on Umno's bitter history.

The two previous times a deputy prime minister stepped down from office unwillingly were followed by years of political turmoil.

Anwar's exit in 1998 gave birth to street demonstrations, the Reformasi (Reform) movement and what is now the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

In 1986, when then Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam stepped down after disagreements with Dr Mahathir, Umno split in two. Tun Musa joined hands with veteran leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah to challenge Dr Mahathir, and this later led to a court declaring Umno illegal.

Dr Mahathir re-formed Umno under Umno Baru while several Umno leaders led by Tengku Razaleigh started the Semangat 46 opposition party.

"Najib has just opened another front in his losing war," wrote blogger Syed Akbar Ali, who sits on the advisory panel of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

"He has just made open enemies of the Umno deputy president and a vice-president. Do you need these new war fronts at a time when you are going down?"

Mr Muhyiddin of Johor and Mr Shafie of Sabah are from strong Umno states, and they could be expected to rally their supporters against Mr Najib, analysts say.

The next big move is likely to come from Friday's meeting of Umno's policymaking Supreme Council. While the meeting is closed-door, expect leaks of a stormy showdown between Mr Najib and Mr Muhyiddin.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2015, with the headline 'Najib opens new front in political battle'. Print Edition | Subscribe