News analysis

Muhyiddin retains power in Umno for now

Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin meeting the media in front of his house at Damansara Height in Kuala Lumpur on July 28, 2015.
Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin meeting the media in front of his house at Damansara Height in Kuala Lumpur on July 28, 2015.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Prime Minister Najib Razak has weakened but not totally cut off the ability of his former deputy Muhyiddin Yassin to organise political activities by sacking him from the post of deputy prime minister on Tuesday.

This is because Tan Sri Muhyiddin has retained his position in the ruling Umno as deputy president, which gives him a powerful political platform to move around the country to meet the party's 3.4 million members.

The United Malays National Organisation (Umno) yesterday cancelled a much-anticipated meeting of its decision-making supreme council that was to take place tomorrow, heading off a potential showdown between Datuk Seri Najib and Mr Muhyiddin.

Mr Muhyiddin's surprise sacking on Tuesday had stoked wide media speculation that Mr Najib would expel him from Umno at the supreme council meeting to deprive his former No.2 in government of influence in the party. But the council meeting has been cancelled.

The Star and other online media cited a letter to supreme council members by Umno secretary-general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor announcing the cancellation but not giving an explanation.

"Speculation of the council meeting's cancellation blew strongly from last night following a growing voice from the Umno grassroots that is protesting against the ouster of the No.2 in government," said blogger Firdaus Abdullah in his ApaNama blog.

Tourism Minister Nazri Aziz said yesterday that speculation that Mr Muhyiddin would be sacked from his deputy president's post was incorrect.

"Nothing can be done unless Muhyiddin resigns… He cannot be sacked as he was elected by the (party) delegates," Datuk Seri Nazri told The Star Online.

"If he doesn't leave, there is a likelihood that Zahid will go after him," he added, referring to newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

But Mr Nazri did not address the talk by others that Mr Muhyiddin might be expelled totally from the party to deprive him of a political platform in Umno.

Mr Muhyiddin was removed from the government posts of deputy prime minister and education minister two days after raising uncomfortable questions about a financial scandal involving Mr Najib and state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The supreme council groups 60 of Umno's most senior leaders, including Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers.

The council is often seen as more powerful than the Malaysian Cabinet because the country's policies are regularly decided first by the Umno supreme councillors. The Cabinet contains Umno ministers as well as leaders of the other 12 component parties of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

The speculation about Mr Najib expelling Mr Muhyiddin from Umno harks back to the move in 1998 after then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked his deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim on Sept 2.

Tun Dr Mahathir followed this up the next evening by holding an Umno supreme council meeting that agreed to expel Anwar from the party, thus cutting off both his government and party political platforms.

Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of think-tank Ideas, said the cancellation of the supreme council meeting could be a sign that Umno is divided on what to do next with Mr Muhyiddin, who has said that he spoke publicly about 1MDB because many members were asking about the issue privately.

Besides Mr Muhyiddin, Mr Najib also sacked Rural and Regional Development Minister Shafie Apdal, who is one of three Umno vice-presidents.

The meeting's postponement "shows Najib is beginning to realise that the removal of Muhyiddin and Shafie has impact in Umno and he has not figured it out completely", Mr Wan Saiful said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2015, with the headline 'Muhyiddin retains power in Umno for now'. Print Edition | Subscribe