Can Malaysia’s prime minister survive?

It is one thing for the Prime Minister of Malaysia and President of UMNO to pick off his rivals within or without UMNO one at a time. But it is altogether a different ball game when the Rakyat, the opposition parties and significant segments of UMNO are united in scalping the Prime Minister.

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It is one thing for the Prime Minister of Malaysia and President of UMNO to pick off his rivals within or without UMNO one at a time. But it is altogether a different ball game when the Rakyat, the opposition parties and significant segments of UMNO are united in scalping the Prime Minister.

The President of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is always the Prime Minister of Malaysia. It is UMNO that decides who becomes the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Leadership crisis in UMNO always have serious implications to national leadership and Malaysia.

The leadership crisis within UMNO occurs almost every decade. The outcomes of these leadership crisis are balanced as the context is important in determining the survival of the incumbent.

The first leadership crisis happened almost as soon as UMNO was established. Leaders from UMNO’s Islamic Department left in 1951 to form the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party of Tanah Melayu, now known as the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS. Then, this group argued for the centralisation of Islamic affairs, something that the then leaders of UMNO were not prepared to do. The incumbent was not challenged directly and survived. 

The third leadership crisis was the “palace coup” within UMNO. A poor showing by UMNO in the 1969 elections lead to a pogrom against Malaysian Chinese as segments of the Malay community vented their anger at the Malaysian Chinese minority in selected locations. The numbers are disputed but at least some 6,000 Chinese homes and business were destroyed and 184 were killed. Tun Abdul Razak (the father of the current prime minister) took over as prime minister replacing the liberal Tunku Abdul Rahman. A new “more assertive” Malay leadership group replaced the old “more accommodating” one. This “new leadership” included Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Musa Hitam and Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, launched the New Economic Policy (NEP) – an extensive affirmative action policy which covered all aspects of the Malaysian economy and society – aimed at reducing socioeconomic disparity between the ethnic Chinese minority and the Malay majority on the Peninsula as well as the indigenous communities of Sabah and Sarawak collectively termed Bumiputera (“sons of the soil”). The incumbent was forcefully removed. 

The fourth leadership crisis came about when a rival faction – led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Musa Hitam – almost succeeded in toppling then incumbent President of UMNO and Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad in the 1987 party elections. Mahathir Mohamad then purged the leadership of the government and party of his challengers which included more than half the cabinet members (including Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia’s fifth prime minister. Anwar Ibrahim, Najib Razak and Muhyiddin Yassin sided with Mahathir). In the post party election tussle, the High Court declared UMNO to be an “unlawful society” following irregularities in the party elections that Dr Mahathir had just won narrowly. Dr Mahathir then founded a new party called UMNO Baru (New UMNO) with all the institutional resources of the old UMNO. The purged members would form a new political party called Semangat 46 in 1989.  In 1990, at the 8th general election, for the first time in Malaysian history, two formal opposition coalitions would be formed to take on the BN. Members of Semangat 46 disbanded in 1996 to return to UMNO. But the idea of opposition parties collaborating with dissidents from the ruling party and receiving strong support from the electorate was now a reality. The incumbent was challenged directly and survived. 

In 1998, Dr Mahathir had his deputy, and heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim put on trial for sodomy and corruption creating the fifth leadership crisis. This action, together with other social, economic and political development would polarise Malaysian society further between supporters of UMNO and supporters of Anwar Ibrahim. It would also give birth to the Reformasi movement that would catalyse the engagement of large swaths of Malaysians in politics for the first time.  Although short lived, once again, opposition parties would collaborate through Barisan Alternatif. This collaboration between civil society, opposition parties, dissidents from UMNO and ordinary Malaysians would lay the groundwork for UMNO’s greatest challenge a decade later. The incumbent pre-empted a direct challenge and survived.

Dr Mahathir resigned on 31 October 2003. There were growing signs that UMNO – let alone vast segments of Malays and Malaysians – were not happy with Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He accepted this signal and paved the way for his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to take took over, thus averting a leadership crisis and revitalising UMNO’s fortunes. The incumbent averted a direct challenge by resigning.

Prime Minister Badawi performed well in the 2004 election. UMNO alone had 109 out of 219 parliamentary, just one seat shy of being able to govern in their own right. Badawi’s popularity and UMNO’s and the ruling coalition’s might did not go towards greater societal outcomes, as perceived by Malaysians. Instead corruption at the highest levels, rising religious and racial tensions, and other issues (such as crime, rising cost of living, etc.) began to erode Badawi’s support from the electorate. Also, after the 2004 elections, Anwar Ibrahim’s conviction for sodomy was surprisingly overturned in attempts to mend fences. However, upon his release from prison, Anwar launched a political campaign that saw the opposition coalition registering its best ever performance. At one point, he claimed that he had the numbers to form government in 2008. After Badawi’s dismal showing at GE12, he accepted the signals coming from UMNO and society. The incumbent averted a direct challenge by resigning.

UMNO’s current and sixth major leadership crisis – where Prime Minister Najib Razak has sacked his Deputy Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin – is likely to be its last.

A key issue appears to be the inability of Prime Minister Najib Razak to “listen, hear, read or see” the signals.

Despite spending more than MYR58 billion (US$15 billion) , with the support of an electoral system designed to keep the ruling party in power against an opposition that various administrations have hounded since independence, and against an opposition leader that UMNO had sought to destroy for more than decade, 51% of the electorate voted against Prime Minister Najib Razak. He was unable to listen, hear, read or see this signal coming from the Rakyat.

More importantly, he is also unable to listen, hear, read or see the signals coming from within UMNO. This could be fatal. Powerful segments within UMNO are genuinely concerned that Prime Minister Najib is condemning UMNO to oblivion.

The alleged scandals linked to the current UMNO President and Malaysia’s current Prime Minister are simply too many and too large to ignore. That may be the primary reason why the Prime Minister is unwilling to go.

The doors within UMNO also appear to be closing for a direct challenge against the incumbent. This means the challenge will be taken outside the UMNO general assembly. This could be potentially disastrous for Malaysia.

What will the incumbent do?

Watch this space. The best is yet to come.

This article first appeared in Forbes.

Author: Greg Lopez

I write about Malaysia, Singapore, Southeast Asia and Australia’s policy towards the ASEAN region. I am also lecturer with Murdoch University’s Executive Education Centre, fellow at its Asia Research Centre, and a a member of its Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability. I am also a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University. Trained as an economist at the University of Malaya and the Australian National University, I have worked and researched the region extensively focusing on its economic and political reforms.

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