Why It Matters

Will Najib's strategy work?


Umno's last annual congress before a crucial general election appears to have ticked all the right boxes - stamping out infighting, touting the achievements of the government and belittling the opposition.

Yet, elephants abounded in the room.

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal was practically taboo at the general assembly. Even more glaringly, the party that lays claim to be the champion of Malay interests sidestepped the corruption allegations against pro-Malay institutions such as Felda and Mara, which have bled billions under the Najib Razak administration.

Unhappiness over the rising cost of living - largely blamed on the goods and services tax the government introduced in 2015 - was swept under the carpet, reasoned away as being in God's hands.

The feel-good message of solidarity was evident, with Prime Minister Najib declaring that the top three posts in the party were "settled, a done deal".

Claims that his administration trumped that of his predecessor-turned-nemesis Mahathir Mohamad were well received by all 2,700 party delegates, who each went home with a musang king durian sapling.

But now comes the tough task of selling that "feel-good" message to voters.

It is difficult to say how Umno's tearing down of its former, long-serving leader's legacy is going to play out in an election, which Datuk Seri Najib has reminded would have to be held by June.

Between now and the election, comparisons will be made between 1MDB and the RM31.5 billion in foreign exchange losses an official commission recently concluded occurred during Tun Dr Mahathir's tenure, the mega rail projects being pursued and the Petronas Twin Towers built in the former premier's day, and the billions handed to Malay contractors against his current alliance with the supposedly anti-Malay Democratic Action Party.

For Mr Najib, it seems attack may be the best form of defence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'Will Najib's strategy work?'. Subscribe