PM Najib, Umno's marathon man: The Star columnist

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak will mark his 40th year in politics next month.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak will mark his 40th year in politics next month.PHOTO: REUTERS

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak will mark his 40th year in politics next month, a journey that he embarked on following the death of his father Abdul Razak Hussein.

By Joceline Tan

The Star/Asia News Network

It has been a nostalgic week for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

The media has been brimming with ­ articles and documentaries about his late father and Malaysia's second Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein.

Malaysia's second Prime Minister was one of a kind. He rose to power on the embers of May 13, his policies were bold and impactful but the candle burned out too soon.

He was only 53, in the hot seat for barely six years when he died of leukaemia in London on Jan 14, 1976.

Mr Najib, the eldest-born, has been quite ­central in the string of events ­commemorating the 40th anniversary of his father's death.

His emotions bubbled to the surface and he teared up when paying tribute to his father at a seminar on Thursday. It was probably a combination of sentimental and filial feelings as well as a certain realisation of the journey he has travelled in his father's footsteps.

At 63, he has outlived his father by a good 10 years. He has also outlasted Razak as Prime Minister.

Mr Najib will mark his own 40th year in politics next month. Mr Razak's death was an immensely sad and poignant junction in the lives of his wife Rahah Noah and their children.

It also pushed Mr Najib into the world of ­politics. He was then only 23.

It was unlikely he had politics on his mind but he was the firstborn and was expected to rise to the occasion. He took over as MP for Pekan after winning the seat without a contest.

Feb 21 will be 40 years to the day of the start to his political career. Politics can be such a ruthless game and it is amazing he has survived this long.

His more visible contemporaries from back then include Mr Razaleigh Hamzah, 78, and Mr Lim Kit Siang, 75.

Mr Najib has often told his close political ­circle that politics is a "marathon run". If that is so, then he is Umno's marathon man and also the great survivor given the way he swam to shore after a tumultuous 2015.

Every single one of those 40 years in politics has been spent in positions of some responsibility and power. He was immediately appointed a deputy minister in 1976. In 1978, he contested a state seat within the Pekan parliamentary area and went on to become the Mentri Besar of Pahang.

There had been a crisis between the palace and the then Menetri Besar who had to resign and Mr Najib was a timely solution. His ties with the Pahang palace is still as smooth to this day and that says a lot about his finesse with regard to the Malay Rulers.

He first mentioned his four decades in politics at the Umno general assembly last December.

"It was his way of telling us that it has been a long journey, with lots of ups and downs," said Kapar Umno division chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah.

It was not a sentimental message but a pointed reminder to his audience and particularly to those trying to topple him that he is no pushover.

As one political insider pointed out, Mr Najib is a product of the system. It is in his blood, he knows where all the nerve points are, and which buttons to press.

But he has often pointed out that throughout his career, he has only contested a post when it became vacant. He has never tried to topple an incumbent.

"He went up step by step. He knows the terrain, he is very experienced and he has seen it all. That's why it is not easy for anyone, including Tun Mahathir, to take him on," said Faizal.

It took Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim a mere 11 years from the time he became Permatang Pauh MP to become Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr Najib was born with a silver spoon in his mouth but it took him 28 long years to become Deputy Prime Minister and another five years to reach the top post.

But nothing in all those years could have quite prepared him for his annus horribilisin 2015. It was terrible being the target of attack by the once formidable Dr Mahathir Mohamad but he made it through.

There are basically two ways to remove a sitting Prime Minister. One is via his party and the other is through a vote of no ­confidence in Parliament.

In Mr Najib's case, Umno stood by him, the powerful division chiefs rallied around him and the endorsement he received at the party general assembly in December said it all. On top of that, he has the numbers in Parliament.

However, Dr Mahathir and also the 1MDB issue have damaged him in a way that no one else could.

Although Dr Mahathir has backed off somewhat since the rationalisation plans for 1MDB were put into place, Umno politicians think the elder man is merely waiting for the next opportunity to attack. The perception in Umno is that Dr Mahathir no longer cares whether his attacks on Mr Najib will also bring down their party or Barisan.

The chasm between the two men is beyond repair.

Mr Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is a great admirer of Mr Razak, was invited to speak at one of the events commemorating the latter's legacy. But it is understood that Dr Mahathir was not invited to any of the events, which is quite sad because Dr Mahathir and Mr Razak enjoyed a certain political bond in their time.

Mr Razak had brought Dr Mahathir back into Umno in the 1970s and the latter had continued his legacy of development during his premiership.

The irony is that surviving Dr Mahathir has also strengthened Mr Najib's hand in Umno.

"When politicians survive this kind of ­crisis, they come out stronger than before because they would have defeated or ­eliminated their key opponents and ­enemies," said a former Putrajaya official.

The best example is Dr Mahathir himself. His political might grew each time he ­defeated or axed those who were against him such as Tun Musa Hitam, Tengku Razaleigh and Anwar.

"Those who were predicting Najib's demise last year did not realise he is such an ­experienced party man. He understands the Umno psyche. At the end of the day, as long as the party is with him, he will be there," said a long-time friend of Najib from his days as Umno Youth chief.

Mr Najib's political longevity is also thanks to the political network he established during his years in the Youth wing. He continued to cultivate them even after he moved up the party.

Recently, he was seen visiting PAS ­president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang in IJN. But he had gone to IJN specifically to visit Johor ­politician Datuk Nasir Safar who was also hospitalised there.

Mr Nasir is from his old Umno Youth circle and he was one of those who stood by Najib last year. Mr Najib is not a touchy-feely person but they held hands as they posed for a photo.

"He remembers names and, without fail, he will have a buka puasa every year for our batch. Any of our friends who passes away, he is the first to go and he will find out if the family needs any help. The friendship is there even after so many years. He looks out for them, they go the extra mile for him," said his old Umno Youth friend.

This network of friends and allies forms an important part of his support base.

It is what the above political insider calls the "batch system". They rise together as a batch and when he is in danger, they are there behind him.

Dr Mahathir and the 1MDB issue almost did Najib in but his 40 years of experience held up.

Some of his friends in Umno refer to him as the "tai chi master", in the sense that they had not anticipated many of his survival moves. In any case, he outmanoeuvred the old maestro.

And now that the party is in calmer waters, some of the Umno division chiefs joke that what Mr Najib went through in 2015 was reminiscent of the movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The title of the movie comes from a Chinese idiom in which the tiger and dragon refer to concealed danger and people with hidden skills, and the idiom is often used as a reminder to never underestimate anybody.

Mr Najib's annus horribilis is over. The year 2016 will present a different kind of ­challenge as he grapples with the economy.

Forty years and a second lease of life - that is more than any tiger, dragon or politician could ask for.