The mother of all battles is shaping up in Malaysian politics as beleaguered Prime Minister Najib Razak pulled out all the stops to defend himself in the face of a reconfiguring opposition.
Putting his dominant party, Umno, on a war footing at its recently concluded annual general assembly, Datuk Seri Najib resorted to the Islamic doctrine of wala - or loyalty to the leader - as he manoeuvred to rally support and ready Umno for a general election.
The enabler was his No. 2, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who started the ball rolling by pledging his own loyalty to Mr Najib, who has been under siege since the outbreak of the scandal involving state development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) last year.
Umno for the first time had to ward off an uprising against a sitting president led by a former prime minister and party president. In a single-minded drive to push Mr Najib out, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is leading a "people's movement" to "Save Malaysia". Having resigned from Umno in protest against Mr Najib, Dr Mahathir has joined the opposition, even reconciling with his former ally-turned-nemesis Anwar Ibrahim to revive their once powerful political partnership.
NAJIB'S SURVIVAL STRATEGY
Dr Mahathir is now demonised as a traitor who would even sleep with the enemy, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), to destroy Umno, the Malay party he once led. The trigger that launched him on this warpath is 1MDB which has implicated Mr Najib despite his denial of wrongdoing. The scandal has energised the divided opposition as well as Mr Najib's critics, culminating in the departure from Umno of Dr Mahathir and three other leaders, including deputy prime minister and Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin. All three have formed a new party, PPBM, also known for short as Bersatu.
This new party has just joined the Anwar-inspired Pakatan Harapan, formerly known as Pakatan Rakyat. This could strengthen the opposition coalition out to topple Mr Najib, along with Umno and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
It is this prospect of a reconstituted opposition coalition led in spirit and form by the two formidable former foes - Dr Mahathir and Anwar - that caused Datuk Seri Zahid to predict an epic clash. "We have to work triple-hard than previous elections because the mother of all battles will be in this coming elections," he told The Malay Mail in an interview.
Another Umno leader, the chief minister of Johor state Khaled Nordin, has described the coming general election as a "battle for survival".
The current political tension soon spilled over when police reports were made of a letter, dismissed by Umno as a "hoax", which purported that Mr Najib had been asked to step down by Mr Zahid.
With his back to the wall, Mr Najib's strategy for survival has transformed him from a gentlemanly politician to an almost unrecognisable political animal. At the outbreak of the 1MDB scandal, he swiftly removed key senior officials who were not on his side, including the attorney-general, before sacking his chief critic, the deputy premier Muhyiddin.
1MDB has now grown into an international scandal as several governments launched probes where the financial fiasco affected their jurisdictions, yet at the Umno general assembly over the weekend, 1MDB was hardly an issue as the entire party's attention was deflected towards the impending general election.
Mr Najib the Malay nationalist then extended his campaign by burnishing his credentials as an Islamic leader, latching on to the latest humanitarian crisis on the Rohingya in Myanmar, which came at an opportune time for him.
Usually cautious when making his moves and choosing his words, he was a different persona at the Rohingya solidarity rally the next day.
He did the unprecedented in Asean: He brushed aside a warning by Myanmar not to interfere in the country's internal affairs. Upset that his foreign minister was turned away by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi when he sought bilateral talks on the issue, Mr Najib declared a limit to the Asean principle of non-interference when it came to human rights abuses. He even ticked off Ms Suu Kyi for not living up to her name as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, while urging Indonesian President Joko Widodo to mobilise a larger rally in support of the Rohingya. "Enough is enough!" he said. "They want me to close my eyes? Shut my mouth? I will not keep quiet. We will defend them (the Rohingya)!"
Billed as the Muslim Ummah Solidarity Rally for the Rohingya, it was clearly not just to show solidarity with the persecuted Rohingya, thousands of whom have taken refuge in Malaysia. It was also to showcase solidarity between Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the Islamist opposition which Mr Najib has been trying hard to woo. Indeed, this was a showcase moment - of him on stage together with PAS leader Hadi Awang.
In coming together to support the Rohingya, Umno and PAS have signalled their converging political interests. While this does not necessarily mean they will end up as formal allies in the coming elections, it does raise the prospect of an electoral pact. The more Umno can win PAS over, the less the chances of the Pakatan Harapan opposition getting stronger.
Meanwhile, Asean will now have to contain the political fallout on the diplomatic and regional fronts on the Rohingya issue.
THE MOOD OUTSIDE UMNO
Mr Najib is clearly overflowing with confidence. Umno leaders claimed the party had turned the corner and was now solidly behind him. While this may be so, it is too early to say if Umno is completely out of the woods, going by publicly aired sentiments. One came from a recent press conference by an Umno Youth leader who quit the party after he was suspended for allegedly trying to "sabotage Najib" by attempting to provide Dr Mahathir with a speaking platform.
It was not so much the Youth leader's resignation but what he said. Many more were standing behind him, he said, while claiming there would be "busloads" who would leave Umno in "managed waves". This would build up to the general election that is widely expected to be quickened to next year, before the fractured opposition can consolidate.
On a broader note, while Umno may still be the dominant Malay party, it is no longer regarded as the sole representative of the Malay community's political aspirations.
Outside Umno - indeed outside the Malay community - the mood may be in stark contrast. A recent article by a former senior civil servant and now a think-tank senior, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, was telling. He warned of a "serious disconnect" between Umno leaders and the wider Malaysian public.
Mr Ramon wondered whether the Umno leaders' confidence and happiness was "shared by all Malays and bumiputeras and especially, most Malaysians, including non-Malays and non-Muslims". "Prime Minister Najib Razak and Umno leaders are generally confident of the future, but are Malaysians happy too?"
He listed five sources of discontent - inflation, corruption, unemployment, human rights, and deteriorating safety and security. The chairman of the Asli Centre for Public Policy Studies said: "Malaysia's public confidence by any measure is now low and declining… This is causing much loss of public confidence and unhappiness, which all political leaders must address expeditiously, before it's too late for the 14th general election."
•Yang Razali Kassim is senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary. SEA View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.