KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysia's opposition party, Umno, is beset with infighting caused by the November meeting of its former vice-president, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, with a Pakatan Harapan (PH) leader that raised suspicions of a looming mass defection.
Mr Hishammuddin was slated to face Umno's disciplinary board last week for holding the meeting with PH member and Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali at the latter's house, reportedly bringing along with him 21 other Umno MPs for the clandestine dinner.
But the disciplinary board's meeting was postponed without explanation, causing the board's chief, Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali, a former attorney-general, to quit his post in anger.
Mr Apandi said he will not be made a "lackey" in the party's political games, hinting that Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had interfered to stop the disciplinary board from meeting Mr Hishammuddin.
"I did not order the postponement, there is something wrong here," said Mr Apandi, the Malay Mail reported last Thursday.
"I am not willing to be made a kuda tunggangan (lackey). My dignity is greater than the position."
Datuk Lokman Adam, a member of Umno's policymaking Supreme Council, jumped in to say that he was "very disappointed" with the postponement of the disciplinary board's meeting.
"To me, Hishammuddin is a traitor to the party who should not be left untouched.
"There shouldn't be anyone who should be protecting Hishammuddin," said Mr Lokman, a close associate of former prime minister Najib Razak, in a video posted on his Facebook page.
Mr Lokman accused Mr Zahid and Umno secretary-general Annuar Musa of trying to sweep the case under the carpet by pretending that there was no truth in the planned mass defections led by Mr Hishammuddin.
Mr Lokman said he expects Mr Hishammuddin and other Umno MPs to jump to PH sometime between this month and March.
The infighting forms part of a larger picture in which Umno, now a weakened opposition party after leading the Malaysian government for 61 years until it lost in the 2018 general election, is fighting to retain its lawmakers.
Umno won 54 parliamentary seats in the general election, but has lost 16 MPs - or 30 per cent - due to defections.
Most ran to PH's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, led by Umno's former president Mahathir Mohamad, who is now Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, Mr Zahid's weak leadership and the rebound in popularity of former premier Najib are causing headaches in Umno.
Both men face a long list of criminal cases in separate courts, from corruption to abuse of power and money laundering.
Mr Zahid is also pushing the party into a formal alliance with long-time nemesis Parti Islam SeMalaysia. But the Muafakat Nasional (National Consensus) is not supported by everyone in Umno.
There are also tensions in Umno between a faction led by Mr Hishammuddin, who prefers to see Tun Dr Mahathir continuing as Prime Minister, and another led by Zahid, who wants to see PH's Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim take over as Malaysia's premier.
Tan Sri Annuar, responding to Mr Lokman's claim of interference in the disciplinary board, said that this was untrue.
"It is untrue that there was interference in the process or proceedings of the disciplinary board," Mr Annuar said in a statement last Saturday.
The mess does not end there.
Kelantan Umno Youth chief Noor Hariri Mohamed Noor and Johor Umno Youth chief Mohd Hairi Md Shah have called for Mr Lokman's sacking over his attacks on top party leaders.
Umno veteran leader Shahidan Kassim was quoted as saying by FreeMalaysiaToday news site yesterday: "Lokman must remember that Umno does not belong to his father. It belongs to all Malays.
"And if there are issues, everyone must follow the rules and regulations of the party."