Najib’s demise could be UMNO’s gain in Malaysia
Will a purge at the top and a more active youth movement remake the country's long-ruling party into a viable opposition?
For years, political analysts spoke of Khairy Jamaluddin as a future prime minister of Malaysia. That possibility now appears much closer, and much more distant, after the United Malays National Organization (Umno) lost in resounding fashion at historic elections last week.
Khairy, the party’s youth wing chief, as well as the former Youth and Sports Minister, has been Umno’s most vocal politician since the historic May 9 election, which ended the party’s six-decade control of the country.
He has since already called for his party to reform, reflect and move forward. The question is whether others party grandees who are now also vying for the top job will listen.
On Saturday, outgoing Prime Minister Najib Razak announced his resignation as the president of the Unmo, as well as chairman Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, opening up a leadership race.
At last week’s general election, the Pakatan Harapan alliance won 122 seats in the country’s lower house. The BN coalition, which went into the election with a 133-seat majority, took only 79 seats in a strong popular rebuke.
Last week’s defeat was the final ignominy for the BN coalition after a decade of waning support. In 2008, it lost its two-thirds majority in parliament. Five years later, it lost the popular vote though still won a majority of seats in parliament.
In a May 11 statement, Khairy spoke of UMNO’s need to “return to becoming a party for the masses, and one that safeguards the pride and dignity of the Malays while not forsaking other races.”
The statement also said that “we must conduct changes that were unthinkable before this [election],” while adding that what is necessary now is “absolute honesty, extraordinary courage and bitter sacrifice.”
That extraordinary sacrifice could be Najib. After the election defeat, the former prime minister of nine years apologized for “any shortcomings and mistakes” he had made in office.
However, he stopped short of mentioning his alleged involvement in the so-called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, in which as much as US$4.5 billion was allegedly misappropriated from a state investment fund he founded.
Najib has claimed that the US$681 million deposited into his bank account was a donation from a Saudi royal, not money siphoned from the state-fund. Voters, who have watched the case unfold for years, apparently weren’t convinced.
While Najib was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Malaysian attorney general in 2016, the case is still being investigated by the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
It is driving to seize US$1.7 billion that was reportedly diverted from the state fund to offshore bank accounts and shell companies, including some in America, and used to purchase luxury vehicles and houses, as well as to fund Hollywood films.
Najib’s relatives have been implicated in the scandal, including his stepson, Riza Aziz, according to the US DOJ. Other nations are also investigating the case.
Mahathir’s new administration has said that retrieving funds pilfered from the state fund is one of his government’s top priorities. Markets have appeared to move in response to related developments and whether an aggressive move against Najib and his top deputies could spark instability.
In his campaign manifesto, Mahathir pledged to setup a Royal Commission to renew investigations into the scandal. There are suggestions that this might include reopening an investigation into Najib’s role in the affair.
Najib “would face the consequences” if found guilty of any offenses relating to the scandal, Mahathir has said.
It remains to be seen how a prospective new investigation would overlap with the ongoing American enquiry. While Najib couldn’t have been prosecuted by US authorities as national leader, as a private citizen he can be.
On Saturday, a leaked flight plan showed that Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, were planning to travel by private plane to Indonesia for a brief two-day holiday. Later in the day, Mahathir announced that he had personally ordered a ban on their travel.
“There are a lot [of] complaints against him, all of which have to be investigated,” Mahathir said. “We had to act quickly because we don’t want to be saddled with the problem of extradition from another country,” he added.
Mahathir has now also dismissed the attorney general, Mohamed Apandi Ali, who had cleared Najib of any wrongdoing in his 2016 investigation of the 1MDB case. He is also facing investigation for his role in the alleged cover-up. Who will fill the vacant powerful position has not yet been announced.
Just as important, Mahathir has also ordered the country’s auditor-general to lift restrictions from publicizing details of the 1MDB investigations, which had been restricted under the Official Secrets Act.
On Monday, Abdul Razak Idris, a former director of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s intelligence and investigation unit, lodged a formal complaint alleging that Najib had personally thwarted investigation attempts with the help of civil servants into his role in the 1MDB scandal.
This could be enough to prompt the anti-corruption commission to reopen its investigations into Najib.
Events are moving quickly. Reuters reported on Saturday that police had raided the luxury homes of Najib’s relatives in Kuala Lumpur, reportedly in search of 1MDB related documents that could be smuggled out of the country. But the city police chief immediately denied this, claiming that they were only there to check CCTV footage.
There are also reports that the reputed raid was related to the delivery of dozens of designer handbags to an apartment of Rosmah Mansor, a controversial figure in Malaysian politics due to her perceived extravagance.
She had been widely criticized for being too out-of-touch with the public, especially after once bemoaning the cost of home visits from dressmakers. She is also known for her collection of luxury handbags, which has earned her the moniker, the “Imelda Marcos of Malaysia.”
Mahathir has claimed that he is not out for revenge. But his decision to join the opposition Harapan alliance was clearly motivated by his personal hostility towards Najib, his former protégée. Mahathir served as prime minister between 1981 and 2003 as part of an UMNO government. He left the party in 2016.
As the net tightens around Najib, it remains unclear how Umno’s leaders will respond. Numerous party grandees were quick to heap blame on Najib for losing the election, calling for his resignation just hours after the final result was announced.
There are also suggestions that party leaders would be happy if Najib is brought to trial. Not only could this be used to contend that Najib, not the party, was a corrupting influence, it would also serve as an explicit indication that the party wants a clean break from the past.
Soon after the election results were announced, party members were quick to say discontent was bubbling inside UMNO even before the polls, with some members fearful that Najib was certain to lead the party to defeat.
Now, junior members appear to be in open revolt in some areas of the country against the party’s state branches. A number of UMNO youth-wing leaders led calls for Najib’s resignation before it was announced. They are now demanding that younger politicians take up more important positions in the party.
Some suggest they have Khairy in mind. He is now clearly leading the charge for a reformed UMNO and, importantly, has made tentative suggestions that he is a figure that the defeated party can rally around.
“I call on my comrades who wish to rebuild UMNO from the collapse we have seen today, to stand with me as change must begin immediately,” Khiary said in a Facebook statement.
At less than half the age of Mahathir, who is 92, the 42-year-old Khiary certainly represents a younger generation. He is also a technocratic choice having graduated from Britain’s noted University of Oxford.
Politically, he has shown himself to be a competent player, retaining his Rembau constituency last week by 4,364 votes.
He is also well-respected in the party: he was one of the three party leaders who visited Najib’s home after the election results were announced. And since family matters in Malaysian politics, he is also the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
It will be some weeks before UMNO members reconvene, due to the fasting month of Ramadan, to decide at a party congress who will become its next president and lead it into a new era of opposition.
Questions already swirl around whether UMNO will remain specifically a Malay-centric party or become more multicultural. It must also decide if age and experience, Mahathir’s selling points at the polls, will remain more electorally viable than youth and experimentation.