Why It Matters

All eyes on Umno meeting

Construction workers setup a billboard at the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Dec 7, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has managed to maintain his grip on Umno so far despite being buffeted by two major scandals - the RM2.6 billion (S$865 million) "political donation" and troubles at debt-laden state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

He could count on several blessings. The opposition is in disarray, Umno has no stomach to go through another civil war like the one that ousted Tun Abdullah Badawi, the economy is steady despite price slides in key export products of petroleum and palm oil, and the general election is some three years away.

But as the annual assembly of the United Malays National Organisation begins today, the rebels against its party president have a very public platform to utilise. All the leaders are gathered in one place, as are 1,453 journalists who are registered to attend. If past assemblies are a guide, attacks against any leader could come from any direction.

Handle them well, and the 3.5-million-strong party - minus the rebels - will continue to back PM Najib. The members, after all, still need time to assess the potential of the deputy prime minister of four months, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

Sure, the country's biggest political party has lost its shine among many Malaysians after decades of scandals and ossified leadership.

But there is nothing to say that it cannot rebound, as witnessed in the years following the 1987 fight between Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, and after the 1998 Mahathir-Anwar Ibrahim battle.

Will Datuk Seri Najib be the leader to set the Malay nationalist party on a rebound? All eyes will be on what his deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin - who will sit beside him in the meeting hall - has hidden up his baju's sleeves. And whether Mr Najib himself has prepared some secret silat moves.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'All eyes on Umno meeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe