Commentary 2016/49, 22 August 2016
On 5 August 2016, Metro TV (Indonesia) aired its interview with Malaysian Prime Minister (PM) Najib Razak. The interview reaffirmed Najib’s resilience in Malaysian politics. Contrary to the wishes of his critics, not least former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Najib is likely to remain PM of Malaysia, and as UMNO President, steer the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition into the next General Election (GE), due in 2018. Najib’s political resilience, especially his confidence is indicated by a number of factors.
First, Najib has repudiated calls to quit over 1MDB. On Metro TV, Najib lamented the politicisation of a “business issue.” Najib felt that the people of Malaysia should be the ones to decide the future of his leadership. He added that the landslide victory in the Sarawak state elections and improved majorities in two by-elections were indicative of Malaysians giving him an “even stronger mandate.”
Second, Najib has shown that he is unfazed by Mahathir’s unrelenting hostility. On Metro TV, he opined that Mahathir is “obsessed about control” and has a track record of removing leaders who do not obey or listen to him. He argued that his responsibility was not to Mahathir but to the people of Malaysia. Recently, he called Mahathir’s attempt to bring down UMNO as disloyal, intolerable and even unIslamic. Najib was not going to resign simply because he was instructed or pressured by Mahathir to do so.
Third, Najib retains overwhelming support within UMNO. Back in March 2016, around 147 UMNO division chiefs – comprising more than three-quarters of the total 191 divisions – declared their support for Najib as President of UMNO, and concurrently, Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Fourth, Najib has been fearless in removing those from his Cabinet who have been openly critical of him. They were subsequently either expelled or suspended from UMNO. In the recent Cabinet reshuffle in June 2016, Najib seemed to have assembled a team that is loyal to him, thereby solidifying his political position as head of both the UMNO party and the government of Malaysia.
Lastly, working in Najib’s favour is the disharmony within the Pakatan Harapan (successor to the now-defunct Pakatan Rakyat) opposition coalition along with the emergence of new parties which do not enjoy the same grassroots dominance as UMNO. One such newly-formed party is the Malay-centric Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, fronted by Najib’s former deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin and Mahathir.
The year 2017 will mark celebrations for Malaysia’s 60th year of independence and thereby bring with it the feel-good factor. This, together with the momentum generated from winning a state election and two by-elections, may well incline Najib to call for an earlier GE, possibly in the second half of 2017.
Dr Mustafa Izzuddin is Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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