Can the prime minister weather a full-blown wealth-fund scandal and a fractious party?
Malaysia’s deputy prime ministers have rarely had it easy. To play the role of the utterly loyal number two while hinting at one’s potential as a future number one requires extreme political adroitness.
Most have failed and faded into ignominy as also-rans. Others are now fierce critics of the government.
So when Muhyiddin Yassin was booted out of the cabinet on Tuesday for his attacks on his embattled boss, Prime Minister Najib Razak – who is fighting allegations that he took money from the 1MDB state wealth fund – it seemed like history repeating itself.
An already polarised country is being thrown into deeper turmoil with the capital Kuala Lumpur swirling with ominous rumours of arrests and more sackings, including that of well-respected central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz, all because she is investigating the 1MDB scandal.
Charge sheets allegedly showing that Najib was about to be prosecuted for corruption surfaced on Thursday. Public prosecutors have denied their existence.
The government has also had to come out to say it is not planning to arrest Muhyiddin. Meanwhile, civic groups are planning to launch street protests.
Above all, many Malaysians are still in shock at the ruthlessness of the sacking. To some, it was un-Malay, alluding to the gentle, softer manners of the majority race.
Muhyiddin also told the media that he learned about his firing an hour before it was announced. When asked if he was about to be sacked, his boss merely nodded, Muhyiddin said while mimicking Najib’s gesture, to derisive laughter.
It was only two days earlier that Muhyiddin had voiced his strongest criticism yet of the 1MDB scandal that has ensnared Najib, who is chairman of the fund. The deputy prime minister said he, too, did not know the answers to so many questions about the debt-laden fund and The Wall Street Journal report that US$700 million from the fund had been funnelled into Najib’s personal accounts.
His statements were mild compared with the salvos unleashed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. But the sacking came swiftly. Sources told the South China Morning Post that Muhyiddin’s camp did not see it coming.
Muhyiddin is now the second deputy prime minister in the history of Malaysian politics to be sacked from the cabinet. Anwar Ibrahim, dismissed in 1998 after disagreeing with Mahathir’s handling of the Asian financial crisis, is in jail over a sodomy conviction.
Muhyiddin remains deputy president of the Malay-centric Umno, the largest party in the ruling coalition. He has said he does not intend to rock the boat. But nobody expects calm waters ahead.
The two men came together in a marriage of convenience. One is from a pedigreed political family; the other rose through the ranks steadily at the state level in Johor, the birthplace of Umno.
Najib is the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister and secured the top job by waiting patiently in the wings as deputy prime minister for several years, and even after the ruling coalition’s massive losses in the 2008 election. He took over from PM Abdullah Badawi only a year later.
Muhyiddin, who was the chief minister of Johor for nearly a decade until 1995, had appeared as if he was in no hurry to assert himself.
But the 1MDB scandal proved too hard to resist taking on. Along with Muhyiddin, Najib sacked other ministers who had also been vocal about 1MDB. Attorney general Gani Patail, who was involved in the investigation into the wealth fund controversy, was also fired.
Since the firings, a leaked, undated video has emerged online, showing Muhyiddin, in a private conversation, reporting that Najib had told him that he did take the US$700 million.
Najib has denied taking any money for “personal gain”, rejecting the accusations as malicious lies to force him out of office.
With the sackings, he has shown he is bent on staying on until the next election, due by 2018. But can he last that long and will Umno stay united?
The Malay ground in Malaysia is in strife. Umno has lost favour with vast sections of the urban Malay middle class that has abandoned it in droves since the 2008 election, when the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority in parliament.
But broad swathes are also disillusioned with the opposition alternatives of Anwar’s party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the Partai Islam Se Malaysia (PAS). PAS is now being torn apart, with defectors rumoured to be setting up a new political party in the coming months.
In the past, when two deputy prime ministers left the cabinet, the ensuing infighting left Umno in shreds.
In 1986, after quitting as deputy to Mahathir, Musa Hitam joined forces with another Mahathir nemesis, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, to challenge the top leadership post of Umno. Both lost, but the bruising battle split the party for several years, into Semangat 46, or “Spirit of 46”, harking to the founding year of Umno, and Umno Baru, a newly constituted party.
In 1998, when Anwar was sacked, he launched the Reformasi protests against his former boss. Umno again split as defecting members joined Anwar to form PKR.
But Umno may not suffer such a fate this time. Like many Asian countries, Malaysian democracy is rife with the politics of patronage. And Najib has ensured the loyalty of the Umno rank-and-file: at a party meeting in March, more than 160 out of 191 division chiefs pledged their endorsement of him.
Sources told the Post that Najib also has the support of most members of the supreme council, the highest leadership body in the party and, barring other more damaging evidence, can ride out the storm until the party elections next year.
For Umno unity to come undone, some mighty machinations and even more money would be needed to establish a whole new source of patronage.
Few expect Najib to survive the current crisis, but for now, it would appear he has done enough to pacify the different “warlords” who control the different sections of the grass roots.
When this reporter interviewed him in 2009 soon after he took office, I asked Najib how he would deal with them. He waved aside the question and quipped: “Don’t forget, I am the biggest warlord.”
With the sackings, he has ensured his opponents will not forget.