The plot to topple Malaysia’s prime minister

As scandal swirls around Malaysia’s beleaguered prime minister Najib Razak, GREG LOPEZ assesses Najib’s prospects of remaining in power.

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On 2 July 2015, the Wall Street Journal alleged that US$700 million from the state development fund 1 Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB) had gone into a personal bank account of Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak.

Najib labelled these reports as political sabotage. His supporters allege this was an attempt to topple a democratically elected leader through dubious means. Najib then went to extreme lengths to silence his detractors, immediately threatening to sue the Wall Street Journal—although his lawyers have yet to take any concrete measures.

On 20 July, the government blocked the Sarawak Report, a blog that had been systematically publishing reports on corruption and abuse of power in Malaysia, and subsequently issued an arrest warrant for its founder and editor Clare Rewcastle-Brown.

On 24 July, the government suspended The Edge Financial Daily and The Edge Weekly, which had been reporting extensively on the 1MDB issue, although Malaysia’s High Court would later revoke the suspension.

On 28 July, Najib sacked his deputy and four other ministers. He then reshuffled his cabinet in an effort to strengthen his control of the government and his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and to undermine the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, which had been vigorously investigating the 1MDB affair.

Najib also sacked Malaysia’s attorney general who, as part of a high-level task force involving the attorney general’s chambers, the Malaysian Central Bank, the Malaysian anti-corruption commission (MACC) and the Royal Malaysian Police, was believed to have been preparing corruption charges against him. Several other senior officers involved in the investigation was then investigated by the police and transferred.

On 3 August, MACC announced that the US$700 million channelled into the Najib’s account came from a donor—not 1MDB.

So, are the prime minister and his supporters correct in stating that this was an attempt to topple a democratically elected prime minister? The story is a little complicated.

Ruling class split

Just as Najib Razak became deputy prime minister, there was already a clear sign—the Altantuya murder—that forces within the ruling elite were moving to topple him. The probability that the professional murderers (two members of Malaysia’s special forces unit)—of an unknown foreigner whose record of entry into Malaysia had been erased, linked to individuals in the highest echelons of power—could be identified signalled a split in Malaysia’s ruling class.

The systematic leaks against Najib, his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, and close associates since then were simply a new development in UMNO in laying the groundwork for removing unpopular leaders. The advent of technology, such as electronic copying devices, blogs and social media, facilitated more in-depth and focused leaks, while splits at the highest levels of the government meant highly confidential information was now being leaked by those trusted with this information and made easily available to the public.

The reliability and veracity of reports from sources such as the Sarawak Report and The Edge, and from many other whistleblowers, were never questioned—only the manner in which the information had been acquired. This was in stark contrast to information from UMNO, which was always dismissed as fraudulent.

A primary reason for Najib’s remaining in office is the powers accorded to him as prime minister and as president of UMNO. Najib is in full control—of his cabinet and the majority of the higher echelons of his party and the Barisan Nasional coalition, of most of the clerical class and senior civil servants, and of most of the monarchy and the elite business class.

Although the majority of Malaysians voted against Najib at the 2013 elections—despite his expending billions of ringgit through direct transfers of money to Malaysians, for example, through the 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M) assistance for households program, and on development projects—he remains in power because the system is designed to keep the ruling party in power. Najib’s popularity among the Malays, the traditional UMNO base, is now at an all-time low.

All attempts by his detractors within UMNO to humiliate him into resignation have so far failed, and this strategy is no longer an option. Attempts to use institutions such as the attorney general’s office, MACC, the Central Bank and parliament to remove him have also failed.

Reputation damaged

No doubt Najib’s opponents will continue to try to destabilise his administration, although it will no longer be efficacious. This means that the reputation of institutions associated with the prime minister, such as the monarchy and Islamic religious bodies—and also Barisan Nasional—will continue to suffer.

Realignment within and between the coalitions that form the government is also taking place. The higher echelons in the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) have cast their lot with Najib, while the majority of moderates in the party, who were removed from the leadership in the party election, have formed a new party.

This development has introduced further complexities within the opposition ranks. Segments of Anwar Ibrahim’s party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), favour continued cooperation with PAS, while others—particularly the Democratic Action Party—want to sever ties with PAS completely. The opposition in general has no qualms about Najib remaining in power, as he is a symbol of all that is wrong with the UMNO, Barisan Nasional,—and Malaysia.

Barisan Nasional itself has no-one to turn too. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed’s 23 year tenure robbed it of capable leaders, leaving only Najib as an acceptable option for the leaders in all 13 parties that comprise BN. Neither Najib’s deputy Zahid Hamidi nor the former deputy Muhyddin Yassin are as widely accepted.

Meanwhile an increasing number of Malaysians are organising themselves. The rising number of strident youth and student groups, ethnocratic and Islamic groups and also secessionists groups, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak, are indicators that a sizeable number of Malaysians are fed up with both sides of the political divide.

The current political and institutional factors in Malaysia will ensure Najib remains in power—at least until the next election, scheduled for 2018. However, the extent to which Najib’s detractors will go to try to remove him before then—and the extent to which Najib will go to remain in power are the important questions.

This post first appeared in the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) blog. 

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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