Author: Amrita Malhi, ANU
As 2016 draws to a close, Najib Razak remains Malaysia’s prime minister. This is despite two years of scandal, scrutiny and speculation over funds missing from state development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), including US$800 million that is believed to have passed through his personal bank accounts.
Najib quickly shut down Malaysian investigations into 1MDB in 2015. Yet external agencies and media sources have since tracked what they believe is an international chain of transactions enabling billions to allegedly be siphoned out of the fund, through foreign banks, funds, shell companies and the prime minister’s personal contacts.
The Wall Street Journal believes that 1MDB funds were used by Najib’s ruling party United Malays National Organisation (UNMO) to campaign in the 2013 general election — a contest in which UMNO’s popular vote collapsed to an all-time low. The 2013 result tested UMNO’s credibility as well as public trust in the electoral process. In 2015, the Malaysian authorities imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges after he accused Najib of having stolen the election.
With one prominent accuser sidelined, Najib is now preparing the party for the next election, which he might call at any time in 2017. During UMNO’s recent general assembly one of the key messages delivered was that only total loyalty to Najib will deliver an UMNO victory. But according to former prime minister and now opposition figure Mahathir Mohamad, any such victory will be bought with ‘tons of money’ — money he alleges will continue to be sourced from 1MDB’s missing funds.
Najib has worked hard since the scandal first broke to neutralise all domestic disloyalty to him, both inside and outside UMNO. Najib purged Mahathir and his allies from UMNO earlier this year when they criticised the party’s electoral performance and international reputation.
Najib and his allies have also increased their attacks on the opposition parties with which Mahathir has since aligned himself. They assert that the alliance is dominated by the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP), whom they present as hostile to and even at ‘war’ with Islam and Muslims. UMNO further accuses Malay Muslims who work with the DAP of being ‘liberal extremists’ — pushing values that clash with those purportedly held by the majority, represented by UMNO.
Najib has also been expanding his arsenal of legislative instruments that enable crackdowns on such alleged extremists. This includes the National Security Council Act, which came into effect in August. The Act permits Najib to personally designate a ‘security area’ in which he can deploy the National Security Operations Force that he established in October. This legislation also allows for the use of lethal force without judicial oversight. The other instrument is the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2015, which allows for indefinite detention without trial.
These new instruments now operate in addition to the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act of 2012, under which Najib’s government recently detained Maria Chin Abdullah — the head of electoral reform movement Bersih — for 10 days. The authorities have also recently used the Official Secrets Act to silence their critics. Under this Act Rafizi Ramli of the opposition People’s Justice Party has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for releasing information sourced from a 1MDB investigation shut down in 2015. The sentence could be sufficient to disqualify him from holding political office.
Meanwhile Bersih and other monitoring organisations have criticised the government’s latest exercise in re-delineating electoral boundaries — an exercise they warn will further favour UMNO and rural, Malay Muslim voters. To scale up UMNO’s efforts to appeal to these voters, the party has launched slick new advertisements via its social media channels showing the benefits of government welfare schemes.
On top of this, new street tactics are now being deployed by UMNO figures including Jamal Yunos — a party division chief who leads a group known as the Red Shirts. The Red Shirts have recently marched and performed martial arts displays in opposition to Bersih, ostensibly to show that they will protect both Islam and democracy from the movement and its rallies.
With so many resources available to him, it would appear that Najib has the next election — and with it, his position as party president and prime minister — securely in the bag.
Yet Najib’s constant railing against Mahathir, and exhortations that UMNO members must remain vigilant against internal enemies, undercuts this impression — and effectively confirms the continued presence inside UMNO of dissatisfied party members. Should the opposition parties develop a competitive message before the election is called, such members could defect to the new Bersatu party recently formed by Mahathir — or at least this is what UMNO appears to be afraid of.
To hedge against this possibility, UMNO has been making public overtures to the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) for an electoral alliance. UMNO has offered to support a Private Member’s Bill tabled by PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang that seeks to increase the severity of sentences passed by Malaysia’s Syariah Courts. Observers fear that this legislation may be paving the way for hudud sentencing, including amputation of limbs and stoning, which PAS is also known to favour.
Najib’s investment in racial and religious bloc tactics, along with ample new tools that could be used to stifle political competition, are signs that the coming election’s course remains unpredictable.
Amrita Malhi is a Visiting Fellow at the Coral Bell School for Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2016 in review and the year ahead.