By Murray Hunter
On Line Opinion
26 October 2015
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib is facing accusations of fraud with the 1MDB fiasco, and the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaaribuu, while the economy is going into a ‘nosedive’.
After six and a half years in office, Premier Najib presides over a nation with contracting growth, rising inflation, growing unemployment, a Ringgit at a 20 year low against the US Dollar, significant capital flight, a massive debt problem, disappearing sources of income, and low consumer confidence.
Although some of these problems are the result of global factors such as declining oil and gas prices, low commodity prices, and sluggish growth of major trading partners, Malaysia’s problems also greatly exist today as the result of policy failures. Extremist policies have also led to social and ethnic tensions within the country. In addition, the depreciation of the Ringgit and introduction of the GST have put undue hardships on the people.
Malaysia is going through a very intense period of political infighting at the highest echelons of power within the dominant party within the Barisan Nasional (BN), UMNO. Premier Najib recently sacked his Deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, and other ministers and officials in desperation to maintain his grip on power, while the former PM Dr. Mahathir is leading a vanguard of senior UMNO stalwarts to remove Najib from office.
Within corporate Malaysia, there is now a deep realization about how fast Malaysia is falling behind the rest of the world. Many believe that the Prime Minister has not grappled with the real problems facing the nation. This thinking according to sources goes right to the board rooms of companies like Sime Darby and Petronas, some of the premier financial institutions of the land, as well as a number of Royal Households.
However there is a large split in thinking about how to solve the problem, as the Mahathir forces are still viewed with great suspicion by many sections of royalty. Thus any possibility of him being an immediate interim prime minister would never be considered. There is also a general disdain for the weak and incompetent opposition in the country, which instead of showing leadership has allowed infighting to surface publicly and dissolve the Pakatan Rakyat.
Consequently, there is no planned takeover of power, coup, of method to remove Najib from office in existence. The prevailing view is one of being stunned and a feeling of impotence, as Premier Najib has managed to centralize most power in the country around the Prime Minister’s position.
The immediate task at hand for Premier Najib was to deliver a national budget. There has been massive revenue shrinkage due to falling oil revenue and a corresponding reduction of dividends paid by Petronas to government consolidated revenue. The unpopular GST will not make up the projected short falls over the coming years, which will increase the budget deficit, if government spending is not drastically reduced. This would be politically unpalatable, particularly at a time when Najib is so unpopular. Najib also has to contend with growing unemployment and will be pressured to maintain infrastructure spending, so lucrative contracts can continue to be given out to his supporters.
The flip side for Najib is that with the falling Ringgit, and rising debt, ratings agencies will be looking for fiscal responsibility in the budget. A fiscally irresponsible budget could increase capital flight which is already a major problem for Malaysia’s balance of payments.
Najib has tried to do all this. He has chosen the path to spur the economy through nine infrastructure projects, of which a high proportion are in rural areas, Sabah and Sarawak. In addition, a lot of ‘sweeteners’ have been added into the budget, which are no doubt aimed at shoring up his popular base. From this point of view, it could be construed as an election budget, giving Najib the option to call a snap election, if necessary. At the same time a number of reforms for the civil service have been announced as well as a projection of a lower budget deficit of 3.2% of GDP, down from 6.7% the year before, in an attempt to win support of ratings agencies.
It’s a budget that BN members of Parliament would find it difficult to vote against, due to the large numbers of specific programs benefitting their individual electorates.
The weak opposition has become Premier Najib’s great strength. PAS President Aman Hadi’s push for HUDUD laws eventually broke up the opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat. In addition Hadi’s indecisiveness on whether PAS would support any no confidence motion against Najib in parliament this week was seen by many in the opposition as treacherous.
The handling of the no confidence motion showed complete incompetence. The fact that DAP MP Hee Loy Sia filed a motion of no confidence before PKR leader Wan Azizah, has led to questions in the local media about whether the new alliance Pakatan Harapan actually wants to remove Najib from office. The opposition seemed to be more interested in who would make the motion of no confidence, rather than actually making this symbolic move in parliament, which would have failed anyway, due to lack of numbers of support the motion.
Others felt that the whole matter of a no confidence motion was just a waste of time, as there is no chance of and mass defection of Barisan MPs. UMNO backbenchers have shown no sign of wavering, as have Sabah and Sarawak MPs, along with Gerakan and MCA members.
There is also worry about the opposition’s policy proposals to solve the financial crisis. The opposition proposal to put 1MDB into administration in Wan Azizah’s budget speech would only lead to an asset fire sale. In addition, blocking TNB from taking over 1MDB assets is just sabotaging any initiatives to reduce debt.
There is no end game in sight.
It is rumoured that Najib’s mother and at least one brother has asked him to make a deal with Dr. Mahathir on safe passage out of Malaysia and immunity from prosecution. However, upon Najib’s wife, Rosnah’s insistence, he is taking up the fight to survive with a new and ruthless political secretary in charge. Such a deal anyhow would provide Najib with no guarantee, as Dr. Mahathir has no legal or political standing to make such a deal.
No doubt, Najib will pass through this session of parliament with the partisan speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia, and the UMNO AGM in December. In theory Najib can continue right up to 2018 as party president and prime minister. However, the pressure of a quickly deteriorating economy and a poor budget reception could change that timing, particularly is any other unforeseen event arises over the next few months.
The advantage to Najib is the extremely poorly coordinated opposition that has shown itself to be in disarray with the PAS/Parti Amanah Negara (PAN) split. Ironically, Dr. Mahathir looks and appears to be the only effective opposition leader in Malaysia today. Yet the Mahathir forces themselves are also impotent (something he admitted himself) against the Najib forces which control the powerful PM’s office, ministers, UMNO, and police.
Overall, Mahathir has been disappointing in his handling of Najib, which has only in reality showed up his impotence in standing up to his old protégé. He has failed to show the strength he once had as a leader and politician.
Muhyiddin and Tunku Razaleigh have primarily been on the side-lines, unwilling to take any lead.
Najib’s best action would be to go for an immediate snap election after the budget and catch the opposition ‘off guard’, and weaken them further. By placing his people in winnable seats, Najib could further his strength within UMNO and government, and even weaken the Mahathir forces mortally.
The recent poll stating the unpopularity of UMNO and its leader with the Malay electorate was urban biased, thus such a result would be expected. The general election is won or lost in the heartland, not the urban areas, so UMNO can still win.
However, there would be very little incentive to do this as parliament still has two years to run until an election is needed. Nevertheless, it could be tempting to wipe out PKR, PAS, and Harapan Baru all at once, as PAS is likely to stand candidates against PKR and DAP leading to three-cornered contests. The opposition also has a major credibility gap with the Malaysian public.
A new parliament after an election would most probably be dominated by UMNO and DAP, which is set to make massive gains.
Najib’s best and only option open to him at the moment is to stay in power to protect himself, and the interests of his family’s businesses, controlled by his brothers Nazir, Ahmad Johari, Mohamed Nizam, and Mohamed Nazin Razak. These business interests include a number of high profile corporate assets, entangled with a number of close associates including Tan Kay Hock, Shahril Shamsuddin, Mohamed Azman Yahya, Rohana Mahmood, Azman Mokhtar, Mohd. Nadzmi Mohd. Salleh, and others, who could stand to lose many of their assets should Najib no longer be prime minister.
Najib seems very hesitant to go the election track and may rely on police repression to maintain his grip on power for the time being. Najib’s new DPM Zaid is like a ‘pitball’ and his new political secretary Muhd Khairun Aseh Che Mat has shown himself to be a ruthless political operator. Attacks on dissenters and the arrests of those trying to expose Najib, like Khairuddin and Matthius Chang under the anti-terror SOSMA laws, shows what Malaysia may be install for in the near future.
This would leave the leadership crisis in stalemate, where Najib can choose his own time to step down, while the economy continues to deteriorate into the foreseeable future.
To this point in time, primarily due to the lack of incentive to unite, Najib’s detractors are powerless to make any decisive constitutional moves against him.
No one is able to convince to UMNO/BN politicians, except for the Najib forces, who are keeping a tight rein on them. So any move by former senior UMNO leaders to push for an interim government through the parliament and constitution is not a possibility.
Najib, who was once Dr. Mahathir’s protégé has proven himself to be more skilful and cunning than the master.
Yet the biggest tragedy for Malaysia is that the Najib regime has no vision for Malaysia, and thus the longer he stays, the more damage that will be done.
There is also little hope in any post-Najib era as well. The opposition is only coming out with ad hoc policy measures, which may even make worse some of the problems, and the Mahathir forces are totally silent about what they would do.