Joceline Tan

Umno leadership crisis gets hotter

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (left) with Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin at the 2015 Umno Supreme Council meeting at the Putra World Trade Centre on May 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: NSTP 
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (left) with Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin at the 2015 Umno Supreme Council meeting at the Putra World Trade Centre on May 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: NSTP 

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has been under pressure for breaking ranks with the prime minister over the 1MDB issue. There had been a rumour that Mr Muhyiddin was going to resign.

It was wishful thinking on the part of his detractors. No one walks away from power just like that. No one, except for Tun Musa Hitam back in the 1980s when he resigned as deputy prime minister after falling out with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Well, Mr Muhyiddin is not Mr Musa and he is staying put - for now, at least. Mr Muhyiddin and those aligned to him have been under pressure ever since Prime Minister Najib Razak told his Cabinet members they were free to hand in their letters (of resignation) if they were not comfortable about what was happening, especially regarding the handling of the 1MDB issue.

This was after the Cabinet was briefed about the latest development on the troubled investment fund a week ago. Some have called it an ultimatum but it was, in plain language, a warning.

Datuk Seri Najib was flexing his powers of incumbency. He understands how important a Cabinet position is to any would-be challenger and he was reminding them that he holds the cards.

Umno vice-presidents Shafie Apdal and Hishammuddin Hussein have not been spared. The political blogs have been throbbing with speculation about their political fate. Some Umno blogs have even asked them to resign.

"Why should I quit for raising issues in the interest of the country?" said Datuk Seri Shafie recently.

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin, on his part, tried to fall back on the "cousin connection" and claimed the family bond would never be broken. But he had quickly gone to see Mr Najib after news reports about his tweet on 1MDB was read as criticising Mr Najib. He felt it had been misinterpreted and he wanted to explain to the boss.

However, things between Mr Shafie and Mr Najib will never be quite the same again. Loyalty is very important in politics and a bond has been broken.

Only Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the leading Umno vice-president, is still standing tall. The Mahathir-Muhyiddin camp badly wants him on its side because it can see that Mr Hishammuddin and Mr Shafie are incapable of moving the Umno ground.

In fact, this has been a major source of frustration for Dr Mahathir - there is still no visible groundswell for a Muhyiddin- Shafie team-up despite the elder man's repeated endorsement. Dr Mahathir has been the prime mover in this high-stakes power game. He has pulled out all the old tricks but things have not turned out the way he expected.

The Finance Ministry's recent explanations about the funds have taken some of the sting out of his attacks and he can sense the media losing interest. He is running short of new things to say about 1MDB and he can see that Mr Najib is making some progress in containing 1MDB's debt situation.

So, he has moved squarely into the game of perception.

Hence, his appearance at last Friday's forum, where Mr Najib was supposed to have addressed some NGOs. But opinion is somewhat divided on whether he should have taken over the forum against the wishes of the organisers by addressing the crowd at the rostrum. It was not something that one would have expected of someone who enjoys the status of elder statesman.

Dr Mahathir is a master at political theatre and he managed to turn what would have been an ordinary forum into a talking point, a controversy and a PR disaster for Mr Najib. Whichever way one looks at it, there is no denying that Mr Najib backed out of the event. Mr Najib is not a confrontational person but he is dealing with someone whose strategy has often been: Attack is the best form of defence.

The prime minister did not expect anyone to resign despite the Cabinet warning. He was sending a signal to those planning to go against him. "Najib knows how to use the carrot. But he is now waving the stick. He has not really used it yet, but he may if they force him," said a Najib insider.

According to this same insider, there will be some kind of change or reshuffle around August when Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Idris Jala's senatorship expires. There is also talk that Mr Najib may give up the Finance Minister I post. These, said the insider, are the two basic changes that are in store.

However, depending on the political circumstances, Mr Najib may also find it timely to make additional changes, such as bringing in new faces, rewarding those who deserve it and demoting others.

"I don't see him dropping people, he is too nice. The political casualties will be those who are moved to less important portfolios. But he will allow everybody to enjoy the Raya celebration," said the insider.

Mr Najib has also been meeting small groups of Umno division chiefs for lunch at his residence. Groups of eight each join him for a meal and chit-chat almost every day. "He doesn't ask us for support, he is too polished for that. We talk about politics, about what's going on in the party. It's his way of staying in touch with us," said Cheras Umno chief Syed Ali Alhabshee, who was one of the guests last week.

Almost every prime minister has had some sort of trouble with Dr Mahathir. Both Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Hussein Onn died outside of Umno after disagreeing with him on issues of the day and he had a direct hand in Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's early exit.

Dr Mahathir had more than his share of challenges. He struggled for legitimacy after Mr Musa walked out on him and narrowly defeated Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah for the presidency in 1987. He won by only 43 votes, which was about the number of passengers on a bus, and was labelled the "one-busload PM". But with his challengers gone, he became quite invincible and the rest is history.

"All PMs have challenges. It is up to Najib whether he is strong enough to survive his first five years and become a better PM," said Datuk Seri Idris.

Dr Mahathir, said Mr Idris, had to grapple with two former prime ministers who were against him.

In Mr Najib's case, one former prime minister is with him and the other against him.

The Umno rank and file understand all too well why Mr Najib is nervous about confronting Dr Mahathir. But Mr Najib is riding the tiger. No one can tame this tiger even though it is rather long in tooth, but Mr Najib has to show that he is able to handle the tiger.

Mr Najib has left to perform the umrah. The more worldly side of life is supposed to play a secondary role during the Muslim fasting month. But this could be a very political holy month.

THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK