News Analysis

Scandal-hit Najib faces uncertain times

PM Najib arriving at a mosque in Semenyih, Kuala Lumpur, on July 5, 2015.
PM Najib arriving at a mosque in Semenyih, Kuala Lumpur, on July 5, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's roller-coaster week has seen him go from strengthening his footing to having the rug pulled from under him as multiple enforcement agencies probe allegations of the transfer of US$700 million (S$940 million) into his accounts.

No doubt about it, Datuk Seri Najib, Malaysia's sixth prime minister, is facing the most serious accusation of financial misappropriation against a sitting premier. The allegation has melted away the good news of a Fitch Ratings outlook upgrade of government finances.

And despite his ruling party Umno agreeing to push back its internal polls by 18 months to mid-2018, his position is weaker today than it was at the start of just last week, analysts and government insiders say.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) alleged in a report last Friday that Mr Najib received the funds into his accounts at AmBank. The Malaysian leader said he is mulling over whether to sue the paper.

There is debate over whether Mr Najib should take a temporary vacation, so as to allow the investigators freer rein to carry out the probe. But not everyone agrees with this. "There have been cases where leaders had to take a break when there were ongoing cases in court. But in this case, it is still under investigation. Let's not be premature in our decisions," Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin said yesterday.

Part of the problem for Mr Najib is that he has not denied the WSJ claim outright. He has said he has never used public funds for "personal gain", and that if he wanted to "steal", he wouldn't have kept the money in a Malaysian bank.

He surprisingly received support in this from the new spiritual leader of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia, Datuk Haron Din. "If someone wanted to cheat, they would have pumped it into a secret account," Mr Haron told The Star newspaper last Saturday, reflecting the view of some Malaysians.

Still, several Umno MPs have asked the central bank, Bank Negara Malaysia, to confirm whether the accounts at AmBank - Malaysia's fifth-largest lender - exist and if huge sums were deposited there. Bank Negara and AmBank have been silent.

So what is next?

For his political enemies seeking his exit, there are two ways to unseat the Prime Minister and both are tough paths to take.

One is via a no-confidence motion in Parliament. But leaders of the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) are unlikely to support a no-confidence vote in the 222-seat Parliament.

BN has 134 MPs, the three opposition parties have a total of 87, and one is an independent MP.

This means that at least 24 BN MPs must support an opposition motion to remove the PM.

Another path to oust him is through Umno, whose president automatically becomes the prime minister. Mr Najib knows that he must keep his party's 191 division leaders, often referred to as warlords, happy. They could pose the biggest threat to him because, as one ministerial aide told The Straits Times, "only division leaders can remove him".

But here again, it would be difficult to call for any emergency vote against the party president, as more than half of the divisions must support such a resolution.

Alternatively, the party rebels must convince two-thirds of the 60-strong decision-making Supreme Council to oust their president.

Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief of policy think-tank Ideas, told The Straits Times that exploring the no-confidence vote is irrelevant as "no Umno president has ever been voted out".

Instead, those Malaysian premiers who were forced out against their will were pressured to make "graceful exits" by their colleagues. One was Mr Najib's immediate predecessor, Tun Abdullah Badawi. He resigned in 2009 after facing the same kind of vitriol from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and after a poor BN showing in the 2008 General Election.

The other leader who stepped down was Malaysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. He did so after a lacklustre 1969 election campaign and subsequent deadly race riots.

Both Mr Abdullah and the Tunku were seen to have made dignified exits, instead of fighting internal battles that would cause bigger damage to Umno.

Mr Najib, analysts and government insiders say, may in fact take the path of his nemesis, Dr Mahathir.

Dr Mahathir faced several close calls to quit in his 22 years in office, and fought tooth and nail to defeat two deputies - Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in 1987 and Anwar Ibrahim in 1998.

Mr Najib is similarly likely to dig in his heels to fight, said Dr Bridget Welsh, an analyst at Taiwan's Centre for East Asian Democratic Studies.

While Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Umno vice-president Shafie Apdal are seen in the party as having "reached their breaking point", said an Umno source, others have been guarded.

For now, a few Umno leaders have openly thrown their full support behind Mr Najib, with several pointing the gun at an "international conspiracy" to topple their leader.

At a public function in Besut, Terengganu, yesterday, Mr Najib thanked those Umno leaders who support him, and repeated his remarks a day earlier: "I did not betray the people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2015, with the headline 'Scandal-hit Premier faces uncertain times'. Print Edition | Subscribe