News analysis

Malaysian PM emerges with firm grip on party

When Prime Minister Najib Razak brought the curtain down on Umno's annual meeting yesterday, there must have been sighs of relief among the party's leadership.

Despite earlier concerns that some party rebels were planning to disrupt the proceedings, there were no surprise attacks from those unhappy with his answers to the twin funding scandals that have rocked the party.

Datuk Seri Najib started his winding-up speech by saying: "Everything has gone well and smoothly, thanks to you the delegates."

Although put on the defensive by the scandals and attacks led by deputy Umno president Muhyiddin Yassin, Mr Najib has shown that he continues to have a firm grip on the 69-year-old party.

Still, analysts and party members say, the question remains open on whether he does have full control of the party - Umno or United Malays National Organisation - as the rebels led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin remain unrepentant.

Many delegates praised Mr Najib for offering an olive branch to his critics to return to the Umno fold.

"Although he must have been personally hurt by the attacks, he was magnanimous as he wanted Umno united again," a delegate to the five-day congress, Mr Azniee Abdullah from Kuala Lumpur, told The Sunday Times.

Mr Najib's critics have been pressing him on the identity of the person who had deposited US$680 million (S$960 million) in his bank accounts, and to resolve the massive debt problems faced by state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that he founded.

Apart from Mr Muhyiddin, the party rebels included Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, who is one of three Umno vice-presidents, and Mr Najib's mentor-turned-harsh critic Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Mr Najib's unorthodox strategy of abandoning decades of tradition in how the party held its annual congress this year worked, party leaders and their aides say.

He managed to gag Mr Muhyiddin, preventing him from addressing the delegates.

And the party closely screened those delegates allowed to take to the rostrum to discuss issues.

This was because there had been rumours that anti-Najib protesters would unfurl banners, delegates would be wearing black instead of the Umno colours of red-and-white, and that the chief would be heckled from the floor.

"There was a scramble and many meetings were held on how to ensure that we wouldn't end up fighting in full view of everyone," said an aide to an Umno supreme council member.

Overall, the assembly was attended by a total of 5,732 official delegates and easily 10,000 other members who thronged the event at the Putra World Trade Centre, where the party's headquarters is located.

So, what next for Mr Najib?

With a steady Umno behind him, he is in a comfortable holding pattern.

Party delegates were quite accepting of the Malaysian Prime Minister's explanations on both the donation and 1MDB issues, said Associate Professor Samsu Adabi Mamat, a political scientist at the National University of Malaysia, who conducted a sample survey of more than a dozen delegates.

"I can see that Umno members could accept that the issues of 1MDB and the donation are about perception," Prof Samsu said. They were also convinced about the existence of a super-rich donor from the Middle East, he added.

The next step is for Mr Najib to further cut 1MDB's debts, as he had promised, and to continue probing accusations that some of its funds had been siphoned away.

Another matter helping Mr Najib is that the attacks from former prime minister, Dr Mahathir, and by the Muhyiddin-Shafie combo are beginning to sound repetitive.

Analysts expect that although the internal criticisms will continue, more party members are likely to turn off the rebel broadcast channels and turn back into loyal Umno stormtroopers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'Malaysian PM emerges with firm grip on party'. Print Edition | Subscribe