Malaysia PM Najib Razak beefs up position ahead of Umno meeting

Govt cuts 1MDB debt, passes new security law ahead of tightly scripted assembly

Workers putting up posters for the Umno general assembly at the Putra World Trade Centre.
Workers putting up posters for the Umno general assembly at the Putra World Trade Centre.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

As Prime Minister Najib Razak goes into the five-day Umno assembly starting tomorrow, there are several things going his way after a year of financial scandals that shook his administration.

A total of 5,732 party delegates, including 2,762 for the main assembly, are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for the tightly scripted annual meetings where Datuk Seri Najib will try to unite the party behind him.

The government has managed to cut by a third the huge debt load of state investor 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) after selling off its energy assets to a company from China.

The sting of the attacks by 90-year-old Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has been blunted after the former premier kept repeating the same points like a broken record.


His predecessors have put so much power within the presidency that it has made it very difficult to remove him. As Umno president and Prime Minister, he can dole out a lot of goodies, he has a lot of buttons to press.

KHOO KAY PENG, a political analyst who runs his own consultancy

  • Thrills and spills from the past

  • Each Umno annual assembly is often remembered for one outstanding feature, usually involving clashes of personalities. Here are some.

    1987: The assembly was held at the same time as the triennial party elections. A battle royal ensued between then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his ally, the late Tun Ghafar Baba, in what was called Team A, against the Team B of former deputy prime minister Musa Hitam and former finance minister Razaleigh Hamzah. Team A won, but Umno split into two.

    1993: In the assembly and party polls, ambitious rising party star Anwar Ibrahim, then an Umno vice-president, formed Tim Wawasan (Vision Team) to oust Tun Ghafar Baba from the deputy president's post and, therefore, the deputy prime minister's post. His team included Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the current president and deputy president respectively. Mr Ghafar withdrew when he knew he could not win, and Anwar became deputy president, to the ire of party president Tun Dr Mahathir.

    1997: The meeting is remembered for the open falling-out between Dr Mahathir and his protege, Anwar. Copies of the book 50 Reasons Why Anwar Cannot Be PM were placed in the bags of delegates and at bus stops near the Umno headquarters. The book in Malay contained allegations of Anwar's sexual improprieties. Anwar was sacked from the Cabinet on Sept 2, 1998.

    2002: Dr Mahathir shocked the meeting by unexpectedly announcing he was resigning after failing to change the mindset of the Malays and Umno to become a competitive race and less prone to corruption. Thousands of members cried openly. He withdrew his resignation a day later, but it was the beginning of the end of the Mahathir era. His last day as premier, after 22 years, was Oct 21, 2003.

    2005: Then International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz came under intense attack due to her alleged improper handling of approved permits (APs) for imported cars. The APs given to several Malay businessmen turned them into billionaires as they sold these to others. The scheme has since been dropped. Ms Rafidah was dropped from the Cabinet after the 2008 general election.

    2011: Women's wing chief Shahrizat Jalil came under scrutiny for her family's involvement in the "cows and condos" scandal. Her businessman husband and children, who ran the National Feedlot Corporation, were involved in a government project to breed cows. Allegations surfaced that some of the project funds were used to buy condominium units in Singapore. Her husband was acquitted of the RM49.7 million (S$16.5 million) criminal breach of trust case two weeks ago.

    Reme Ahmad

Mr Najib, 62, has kept his main Umno detractor, deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin, on the defensive. And the Premier has maintained that the sum of RM2.6 billion (S$865 million) found in his bank accounts was a "political donation" and not from 1MDB.

Last week, the government pushed through Parliament the new National Security Council Bill that critics say added to other security laws that could be used to suppress political dissent.

All these moves are seen as helping him calm the mood in Umno, the party that picks the prime minister of Malaysia and keeps him there.

"He has found some ready ears in Umno by talking about a donation from the Middle East as it is seen as coming from a friendly direction," an aide to a Cabinet minister told The Straits Times. "And strong- arming the opposition with tough laws gives him brownie points, too."

Last year, Mr Najib was shaken by two Malaysia Airlines tragedies.

This year, financial scandals tailed him from the start of the year - beginning with 1MDB. In July the Wall Street Journal reported on the sum discovered in his bank accounts by Malaysian investigators looking into the 1MDB issue.

Mr Najib has his work cut out for him. But while the immediate outlook for the Umno president remains partially cloudy, he is in no danger of being toppled from power, analysts and party leaders say.

"His predecessors have put so much power within the presidency that it has made it very difficult to remove him. As Umno president and Prime Minister, he can dole out a lot of goodies, he has a lot of buttons to press," political analyst Khoo Kay Peng, who runs his own consultancy, told The Straits Times on the Premier's latent strength.

There are, however, clear signs that the Umno president is not quite in full control of his 3.5 million-strong party.

Instead of facing his critics head-on, Mr Najib is often seen as putting up obstacles to silence them.

His government suspended The Edge media group for three months till October after it kept raising questions about 1MDB; it brought charges against former minister Zaid Ibrahim for a speech calling for Mr Najib's ouster; and Mr Najib sacked Tan Sri Muhyiddin, 68, as deputy prime minister in July for going on about 1MDB and the giant donation.

Mr Najib is also breaking with decades of Umno tradition by gagging Mr Muhyiddin at the assembly this week.


Former Umno deputy president Tun Musa Hitam, 81, said last week that when he quit in a huff as deputy prime minister to Tun Mahathir, he was still allowed to address the 1986 assembly. "Even though there was a fight between the two key people, I performed that function," he told The Malaysian Insider.

Kedah Umno divisional leader Ramli Yunus told The Straits Times: "I don't know why they are afraid of Muhyiddin when they keep saying he has no support. In this Internet age, you have rebut the issues raised, otherwise people will laugh at you."

Despite these criticisms, all is not lost for the Umno president. If Mr Najib manages to present a united front by the end of the assembly on Saturday, he would be in a stronger position to deal with his next target - poor public perception of his administration.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline 'Najib beefs up position ahead of Umno meeting'. Subscribe