M. Bakri Musa
Remember Labu and Labi, the two bumbling idiots in P. Ramlee’s 1962 comedy movie of the same title?
Today we have a political version of that duo. With the latest cabinet reshuffle, Labi is gone. Next should be Labu, aka Najib Razak. The leadership of Malaysia is too important to be entrusted to these jokers.
In a twist of irony, this latest exercise eases the process. By firing his deputy, Najib has set an important precedent – decoupling cabinet positions from party leadership. It has been the tradition, and only that as it is unsupported by the constitution, that leaders of the ruling party should also lead the country.
By having someone other than the party’s deputy leader be the Deputy Prime Minister, that sets the stage whereby the Prime Minister too could be someone other than the party’s President. That is the only silver lining to this latest reshuffle. That excepted, Najib’s new cabinet remains a yawner. The elusive “wow” factor still eludes him.
In picking his new ministers Najib is taken in by the glint of pebbles, confusing that for the sparkle of diamonds, or in kampong expression, pasir berkilau disangkakan intan. No surprise there as Najib himself is a pebble. He values loyalty over smarts, pebbles over diamonds. Expect Malaysia to be continually grinded down.
One new minister gushed that she knew of her appointment through the radio! Obviously Najib had not vetted her. Even a housewife is more careful in picking her kangkung.
The new appointees were so eager that they were oblivious of the darkening clouds hovering over their leader, desperate as they are for personal advancement. May they be struck by the same lightning and be drenched in the downpour. Spare Malaysia their personal ethics and pebble-stone quality.
By “promoting” four members of the parliamentary committee investigating 1MDB, Najib tried to sidetrack and emasculate that committee. I would have thought that completing a crucial national investigation would be the committee’s highest priority and patriotic mission, as its chairman had earlier professed and promised. As I said, these characters are pebbles, not diamonds.
If Najib thinks that he would stymie the investigation, he is mistaken. Already the deputy chairman has vowed to continue. Now the committee has more opposition members, including its vice-chairman. Najib may rue his “brilliance!”
Muhyiddin No Hero
Muhyiddin’s protestation over 1MDB was neither forceful nor strategic in content, setting, or timing, despite the hullabaloo it triggered. His mild and belated attempt at being a Hang Jebat after over six years as a compliant sidekick a la Hang Tuah was awkward. It was, to borrow his phrase, “lebih daripada meluat” (beyond nauseating).
Beyond nauseating because it was self-serving. Consider the content. “I told him [Najib] to let go of his post in 1MDB, but he didn’t want to listen!” protested poor Muhyiddin. Imagine had he said, “I could not get an unequivocal denial from the Prime Minister! On the contrary he admitted to having that account!”
In Muhyiddin’s retelling, he is “the first minister to take a stand on 1MDB.” He bragged about being vocal in cabinet and UMNO Supreme Council meetings. Then he complained that he and his cabinet and Supreme Council members had been kept in the dark.
You cannot have it both ways. A cabinet as well as Supreme Council colleague rebuked Muhyiddin, noting that he had chaired some of those meetings.
The setting too was inappropriate. Muhyiddin should have picked a more influential audience as in a formal press conference preferably with foreign correspondents present, not his party’s divisional meeting. He could have then answered the inevitable questions.
As for the timing, imagine if Muhyiddin had also submitted his resignation. His stock would have soared. By letting himself to be sacked, Muhyiddin’s subsequent ranting was seen more as the whining of an ex-wife about her former husband. Worse, it made Najib look strong. Now that took some doing!
Muhyiddin did better in his later press conference. Although it was somewhat chaotic, nonetheless he exuded great confidence, a portrait not of a man who had been fired rather one who had had a great burden lifted off his broad shoulders. One wonders what is that great burden!
He would have appeared more in command had he dispensed with the prop of his wife beside him and the throngs of hangers-on behind. You do not have to major in theater to appreciate these subtleties of effective stage presentation.
Going by Muhyiddin’s account, it was Najib who was weak. Muhyiddin had to prod Najib as he could not utter the words to fire Muhyiddin to his face. Najib merely nodded. There was no “you are fired” Donald Trump-style. If Najib could not handle his deputy one-on-one, I wonder how he would fare with world leaders.
Muhyiddin should have given his press conference first instead of that speech at the divisional meeting. The latter was more a sly maneuver to “suck up” to Mahathir.
Mahathir was instrumental in Najib and Abdullah becoming Prime Ministers. Muhyiddin was trying to ingratiate himself to Mahathir in the hope of becoming his third dud pick.
Malaysians should not let that happen. Yes, Mahathir successfully undid his first mistake and is now desperate to undo his second, with no sign of success in sight. If Mahathir again prevails, Malaysians should be grateful but not let him have this third pick. Malaysia has had enough of his mistakes.
Muhyiddin is no hero. This is the Minister of Education who claimed that our schools and universities are the best. He could not be more wrong if he thinks the current outpouring of support he gets in the social media is an endorsement of his performance. Those are more expressions of citizens’ disgust with Najib, a variation of the enemy-of-your-enemy-is-my-friend dynamics.
Getting Labu Out
With Labi out, getting rid of Labu should now be easier. With 1MDB short of cash, bribing and influencing potential rebellious politicians would be that much more difficult. Nonetheless there are still other tools of persuasion, as Najib demonstrated with his latest cabinet reshuffle.
Those too, like cash, are finite. There are just not enough cabinet slots or lucrative GLC directorships to accommodate all UMNO MPs and the many more avaricious local warlords, not counting those MPs from Barisan’s other component parties. Those from Sarawak and Sabah are “fixed deposits” only if their “inducements” keep flowing.
Muhyiddin is from Johore, where UMNO began. Without inducements it would be difficult for him to keep his supporters there and elsewhere in tow. He is also no Tenkgu Razaleigh or Anwar Ibrahim. The chance of another Semangat 46 or Keadilan emerging to challenge UMNO and Najib is slim.
Muhyiddin’s firing, cabinet reshuffle, “promotions” of parliamentary investigating committee members, “retirement” of Attorney-General Gani Patail, and the spectacular arrests of supposed “leakers” are all deliberate distractions. There would be no “leakers” had no crime been committed. They are arresting the good guys while the bad ones are running free.
The central question remains. Did Najib Razak siphon funds into his personal account?
Having failed in their attempts at denials, Najib’s pebble boys and girls are desperate for novel spins, the latest being “political donations” and “trust accounts.” I shudder to think that foreigners are buying our elections. What would these pebble-brains think of next? Najib had a royal flush in Vegas?
Ignore these new distractions. The greatest challenge remains to get the truth on 1MDB out and the culprits brought to justice. That should be the duty and priority, ahead of personal interests and loyalty to individuals or party.