News analysis

Speculation on Umno bosses' hospital visits to Anwar Ibrahim

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Political circles are abuzz that something is brewing behind the scenes after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak visited jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is recovering from surgery in hospital.

It was a picture that shook up many people's Friday (Nov 17) evening.

The photograph of Datuk Seri Najib seated by the bedside of Anwar was on fire on social media.

Some even thought that it was fake news but it was very real. The Prime Minister and his wife caught everyone by surprise when they dropped by to see Anwar who is recovering from a shoulder operation.

The last time the two men were this up close was back in June 2013 during the swearing-in of the then newly-elected MPs. At that time, Anwar, having failed to unseat Mr Najib through the ballot box, had been trying to lure cross-overs to form a government. But politicians are such good actors and the two men put on their game face as they posed for pictures with the Dewan Rakyat Speaker and walked together to the banquet hall for lunch.

It was no different this time around except that Mr Najib was the only one grinning from ear-to-ear in the photograph.

Anwar managed a half-smile but Malaysia's most special prisoner must have been quite flattered to receive the special guests.

It must also have been rather awkward for Anwar because he had said so many vile things about Mr Najib and his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor on the ceramah (political speech) stage.

And can you imagine what the conversation must have been like as two of the country's greatest political animals tried their darnest not to touch on anything political?

"People out there must be so confused over the alignments of the political elites. It is groundbreaking, whichever way you look at it," said political risk analyst Amir Fareed Rahim.

Politics in this country has become so polarised and toxic since 2008 and it is important that politicians be able to put aside their political differences during moments like this.

That is what mature and first world politics should be like.

The Anwar family has tried to portray the hospital visit as personal rather than political, hence the statement issued by Anwar's son Muhamad Ihsan on Friday thanking Mr Najib and his wife for their courtesy and also acknowledging the hospital for their care and treatment.

But Malaysians are so prone to conspiracy theories and by late Friday evening, speculation had begun that something was cooking behind the scenes.

"It means that the negotiation door is open," said a Selangor politician from Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

Some of those on the PKR side claimed that they cannot discount the possibility of "a unity government" after the general election, pointing to the intriguing tweets between Mr Najib and Selangor Menteri Besar Azmin Ali a few weeks ago. Datuk Seri Azmin is deputy president of PKR.

Even Dr Azmi Omar, an expert on ruling party Umno, suspects that there is "something going on because you never know with Anwar".

Anwar was formely deputy prime minister and a rising star in Umno, before he was sacked from the party and his government post in 1998 by former premier Mahathir Mohamad.

The speculation is unlikely to go away anytime soon especially after Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi followed in his boss' footsteps to call on Anwar yesterday. Accompanied by his wife, the Deputy Prime Minister and Anwar were almost holding hands as they posed for a photograph.

"I'm not surprised that people are speculating. During the floods, Kak Wan (Anwar's wife, Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail) joined the PM when he went around the flooded areas in Permatang Pauh. We didn't mind, we see her as our older sister and the wife of our former good friend," said Penang Umno chief Datuk Seri Zainal Abidin Osman.

The Telegram chat group of the powerful Umno division chiefs was just as surprised but these party leaders kept it positive and described their big boss as "berjiwa besar" or big-hearted. They also wished a speedy recovery to "our old friend" (Anwar), which was a far cry from some of the choice terms they had used on him previously.


But, said the above PKR politician, the one most rattled would be Tun Mahathir. The former premier knows Anwar all too well and they do not trust each other even though they are now on the same side.

Mr Najib is no longer going by the old playbook. The student has come up with his own playbook which the old master is not so familiar with.

To compound matters, the euphoria over Dr Mahathir ganging up with Pakatan Harapan, the opposition pact, is starting to dissipate. It was a big coup for Pakatan to have him on board but the novelty has worn off and he is now more of a liability than an asset.

He comes with too much baggage and the last few months have shown that he is still haunted by the ghosts of scandals under his watch such as government crackdowns in the Memali incident and Operation Lalang, and massive foreign exchange losses at the central bank, to name a few. These were liabilities that ruling coalition Barisan Nasional had to carry on his behalf but which Dr Mahathir has carried over to the other side.

The silence on the part of Pakatan leaders during the 30th anniversary of Operation Lalang was quite damning and it demonstrated how they have been compromised by Dr Mahathir and forfeited the moral high ground.

Anwar looked vulnerable on the hospital bed, but he will recover to fight another day.

But Dr Mahathir is not in a good place. Time is against him and although his party looks good at the top, it is disorganised on the ground.

This helps explain why the man they have been trying to topple is smiling so broadly these days.