Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak has survived a massive embezzlement scandal, opposition street protests and challenges from within his ruling United Malays National Organization party. Photo: Reuters / Olivia Harris

In 2015, when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was first implicated in the alleged misappropriation of US$681 million from a state development fund he created and oversaw into his personal bank accounts, it seemed initially his days as national leader were numbered.

As the scandal widened with allegations made by global investigators that billions of dollars may have been embezzled from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund (1MDB), his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) showed signs of a potential split over whether to back the embattled premier or move to purge him as party leader.

The political opposition, galvanized by the yellow-clad Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, known locally as Bersih, took to the streets of the national capital last November to call for Najib’s ouster over the corruption allegations. At Najib’s nadir, independent opinion polls last October showed his approval ratings had dipped below 30%.

Najib has maintained his innocence amid all the allegations, including widespread speculation he is “Malaysian Official No. 1″ in a US Department of Justice lawsuit filed last July to seize more than US$1 billion in supposed ill-gotten assets. But as that case slowly proceeds in US courts, Najib has restored his political fortunes at home through a campaign of suppression and savvy politicking. 

A construction worker talks on the phone in front of a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, February 3, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Olivia Harris

In one of his first countermoves, Najib sacked then Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail who was investigating the embezzlement allegations and subsequent reporting shows was preparing charges against the premier. Najib also canned his deputy premier, Muhyiddin Yassin, who was poised to take the premiership after Abdul Ghani’s charges were to be announced. 

His Najib appointed replacement, incumbent Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali, last year absolved the premier of any wrongdoing, claiming the funds found in Najib’s account were a gift from a Saudi prince. Najib’s government has since cracked down hard on media outlets that have published revelations around the case, now breaking mainly overseas, not domestically. 

As Najib regains his political footing and the country looks ahead to new elections, analysts and opponents have started referring to him as the “Teflon prime minister”, reference to his uncanny ability to slip free of various political controversies that have hounded his nearly eight years in power.   

That staying power, according to James Chin, a Malaysia expert at Australia’s University of Tasmania, has as much to do with the premier’s discretionary power over government agencies, appointments and contracts, which he contends Najib and previous premiers have exercised “like a feudal king.” Chin has noted in his research that UMNO’s hierarchy mostly backs Najib, for fear of overturning the political gravy train and the instability his removal could cause.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak (centre) raises the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) flag during the annual assembly at the Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 10, 2015. Photo: Reuters / Olivia Harris

Those who have opposed Najib from within, including his ex-deputy Muhyiddin and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who quit UMNO last year, have so far been either outmaneuvered or sidelined. Political analysts say Najib’s standing could still be tested if the UMNO-led Barisan National (BN) coalition seems poised to perform poorly at the next general election, which must be held by August 2018.

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition, led by former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, tilted the balance when it won 47% of the popular vote in 2008. At the 2013 general election, the BN coalition, founded in 1974 by Najib’s father, former premier Tun Abdul Razak, lost the popular vote for the first time in its history, though it still took a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament due to aggressive gerrymandering.

The opposition’s upward trajectory, however, has since lost steam, due in large part to the jailing of Anwar in 2015 on what many saw as politicized charges. One political observer estimates the now badly splintered opposition may be at its lowest ebb in a decade. Other analysts say Najib would likely benefit from calling an early election, though there are no indications yet a snap poll is on the cards.

Last June, UMNO comfortably won two important by-elections, including in the Selangor state it lost in 2008. The win was achieved by BN’s support for an opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) bill earlier in the year to expand the use of Sharia courts in the conservative northern state of Kelantan. Other members of the PR coalition, including the multi-ethnic Democratic Action Party (DAP), the opposition’s largest party, opposed the bill.

The once unified PR has since split over religion, with DAP recently forming a new coalition, known as the Pakatan Harapan (PH), while the pro-Muslim PAS created the new Gagasan Sejahtera (GS) consisting of several Islamist parties. PAS also suffered from an intra-party schism before last year’s by-elections that saw hundreds of its members quit to form the new National Trust Party, or Amanah Negara. 

A number of other new parties have emerged on the political scene in recent months. The most noteworthy is the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM), led by former UMNO stalwarts Mahathir and Muhyiddin, both sharp critics of Najib. The plethora of new opposition parties, however, has so far failed to coalesce into a unified anti-BN bloc, due mainly to conflicting personalities and policies.

Former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohammad arrives to speak at a rally to pro-democracy group Bersih during a 1MDB protest calling for Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to resign in Kuala Lumpur on November 19, 2016. Picture: Reuters / Edgar Su

A number of Malay-specific parties, including the PPBM and Amanah Negara, are advancing nativist platforms that have been accused of stirring up anti-Chinese sentiment among the country’s Malay Muslim majority, representing around 60% of the population. The fact that the PPBM and Amanah have joined the PH coalition puts them at odds with the multi-racial ideology of the DAP and People’s Justice Party (PKR).   

Indeed, a number of politicians and members have quit the DAP in recent months, sparking an internal debate about the party’s future direction and election chances. In February, one lawmaker and three assemblymen from Malacca resigned after accusing DAP leader Lim Kit Siang of overlooking the party’s core principles by engaging Mahathir.

Opposition parties are now grappling with whether to unite behind the 91-year-old Mahathir, who ruled the country with an iron fist for over 22 years and is thought to be the only politician not in prison with the stature and popularity to go head-to-head with Najib. As the opposition struggles to unite behind one leader and vision, Najib arguably has the inside track on extending his rule.

Opposition parties are now grappling with whether to unite behind the 91-year-old Mahathir, who ruled the country with an iron fist for over 22 years and is thought to be the only politician not in prison with the stature and popularity to go head-to-head with Najib.

Najib has recently leveraged improved relations with China to win over Sino-Malaysian voters, while at the same time warning the Malay-Muslim majority that their privileged place in society, protected by UMNO’s pro-majority policies, would be jeopardized if the BN lost power. “If Malays understand what I’m saying and the consequences, they will hold on to UMNO,” Najib said in a stump speech in November, “For it is the only party that can preserve the future of their children.”

Even if the opposition was strong, united and popular Najib will be hard to bump from office. After six consecutive decades in power, the UMNO-led coalition has gerrymandered the parliamentary seating system in a way that only a monumental opposition electoral victory would secure a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament. While PR won 50.8% of the popular vote in 2013 it took only 40% of parliamentary seats.

A new delineation of parliamentary and state assembly constituencies, which critics say would further favor BN, is now being debated by the Election Commission. According to preliminary estimates of the proposed changes, the opposition would need to win nearly 60% of the popular vote to take control of parliament. Despite stinging scandals and fractious politics, Najib’s position looks secure.

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