What's driving Najib's 'Bossku' grassroots campaign?

There has been quite a bit of self-denial coming from Pakatan Harapan leaders in recent weeks. But one thing they cannot deny is that Najib Razak, the man that Pakatan leaders are trying to send to prison, has made waves wherever he goes.

Najib and his Bossku tagline have gained amazing momentum on social media.

His Facebook postings on his Langkawi visit have drawn likes touching six digits. A picture of him eating nasi lemak bungkus with some locals at a warung in Langkawi received a mind-boggling 104,000 likes, and they keep pouring in.

It was quite daring of Najib to head for Langkawi last Friday. (The island is part of Kedah, the home state of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.)

He caused ripples from the moment he landed at the airport - people there could hardly believe their eyes.

And business almost came to a standstill when he visited the pasar malam in Kuah, the island's town centre, looking for apam balik.

But his apam balik posting on Facebook was also a dig at his detractors - some Pakatan leaders had lodged reports, asking the police to monitor Najib's presence in Langkawi. The pictures of people taking selfies with him at the Kuah pasar malam came with the comment: "Anyone knows where the counter is to apply for a permit to take selfies?"

Former Malaysian premier Najib Razak (centre) caused ripples with his Langkawi visit. The island is part of Kedah, the home state of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. A picture of Najib eating nasi lemak bungkus with locals received 104,000 likes, and
Former Malaysian premier Najib Razak (centre) caused ripples with his Langkawi visit. The island is part of Kedah, the home state of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. A picture of Najib eating nasi lemak bungkus with locals received 104,000 likes, and they keep pouring in. PHOTO: NAJIB RAZAK/FACEBOOK

The man once seen as a "bangsawan" or aristocrat is finally hitting the right notes.

He put up at a modest motel along Pantai Cenang. He jumped into the front passenger seat of a taxi, whereas in the old days, he would have automatically settled in the back seat.

The taxi picture came with another poke at Pakatan: "So, who's going to make another police report? I'm just looking for the best laksa in town."

Najib's social media gimmick featuring him on a motorcycle with the slogan "Malu Apa Bossku" (Why does my boss have to be ashamed?") turned out to be a big selling point for the Barisan Nasional, resonating well with poorer young Malay voters. BN won the by-election.

Many thought the Bossku phenomenon would fizzle out after the Cameron Highlands election campaign last month. (Najib's social media gimmick featuring him on a motorcycle with the slogan "Malu Apa Bossku" (Why does my boss have to be ashamed?") turned out to be a big selling point for the Barisan Nasional, resonating well with poorer young Malay voters. BN won the by-election).

But it has not slowed down, not even after the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) slapped him with three new charges of money-laundering two days after the by-election.

Former Jelutong MP Jeff Ooi, a forerunner in the use of social media, has been watching the Najib game play.

"He has time on his hands, and he is playing the disrupter role. He has an audience in the Malay heartland where Pakatan is weak, and he is trying to lock up the Malay ground for Umno. He has little to lose. If he fails, he takes the blame, if he succeeds, his party shares the credit," said Mr Ooi.

Najib has also emerged as a key opposition voice, tapping the growing Malay discontent about the government.

"Najib is now a polar attraction to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. One is asking Malays to abandon Umno, the other is telling them to stay with Umno," said former Umno MP Tawfik Ismail.

At the same time, he said, Najib is trying to regain his image, to show he is down but not out. He added: "Pakatan came in with so many promises and he whittled it down, one by one, from the shrinking ringgit to the national debt. He also has a better grasp of issues than the current crop of Umno leaders. He sees the big picture."

According to political commentator Khaw Veon Szu, many are seeing another side of the former prime minister. "I don't think people miss him, it's just that he has captured the imagination of those who find that life has become tougher than before.

"They can see he has many flaws. But he also understands their problems and he has become their voice."

It is possible that Najib's growing social media fan base likes the way he pokes and nudges the ruling coalition. He uses contemporary language, and it is possible that he has eclipsed even Mr Khairy Jamaluddin among the Gen X and Y.

His attack style is unlike the harsh tactics of the former Opposition. He does not use crude language and he is not into the technicalities favoured by DAP's Tony Pua or what the Malays regard as the "Cina apek" style of Lim Kit Siang. He has a civil yet stinging way of taking on his opponents.

A new and fascinating form of political warfare is going on in social media between Najib and Pakatan leaders.

It is something Dr Mahathir is unable to match. He has too much on his plate and he is too old to master the new art of warfare.

The Prime Minister still depends on the traditional media of print and online portals whose audience has been outclassed by the power of social media.

But will the Bossku trend come to an end when Najib's court case begins in April?

"A lot of incriminating evidence will be aired, the media will play it up and the trial will be watched globally," said Khaw.

Dr Mahathir is probably hoping that the trial will stop the Bossku phenomenon in its tracks.

THE STAR /ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2019, with the headline 'What's driving Najib's 'Bossku' grassroots campaign?'. Print Edition | Subscribe