Wall Street Journal
July 29, 2015
The scandal engulfing Malaysian politics isn’t getting any easier for Prime Minister Najib Razak. On Sunday Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin broke ranks with his boss and urged him to answer questions swirling around state-owned investment fund 1MDB. On Tuesday the Prime Minister sacked Mr. Muhyiddin and also replaced the Attorney General leading an investigation into the fund.
The firestorm began July 3, when the Journal reported that Malaysian-government investigators found evidence that nearly $700 million linked to 1MDB transited through Prime Minister Najib’s personal accounts. Those documents can now be viewed on WSJ.com. The origin and ultimate destination of the money is not clear.
Mr. Najib’s office denied that the report was true and called it “political sabotage.” But that is not enough for Mr. Muhyiddin. On Sunday he warned that grass-roots support for the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is evaporating because its leaders aren’t offering a public explanation for what happened with 1MDB. “We cannot explain properly because even we don’t know the real facts, so who is going to tell us the real facts, it should be the Prime Minister, true or not,” the Star newspaper quoted him saying.
Mr. Muhyiddin remains Deputy President of UMNO, but that could change when the ruling party’s Supreme Council is scheduled to meet on Friday. Mr. Najib’s support among the top ranks appears secure, so he may push his former heir apparent out of the leadership.
That is unlikely to be the end of the power struggle. Mr. Muhyiddin seems to have taken the pulse of the party’s base and calculated that Mr. Najib’s days are numbered. After the cabinet reshuffle, he urged his supporters to remain loyal to the party, which may signal that he is prepared to wait rather than try to depose Mr. Najib in an internal putsch or move to the opposition.
If the 1MDB scandal does bring down Mr. Najib, Mr. Muhyiddin’s public break puts him in a better position to step in as a reformer. But his career up to this point has been typical of an UMNO party boss: He found the right mentors to move up the patronage ladder and in turn gained the loyalty of those he brought up with him. That makes him an unlikely figure to clean house thoroughly.
Meanwhile, Malaysians are busy handicapping Mr. Muhyiddin’s chances of deposing the Prime Minister in the coming weeks. Many speculate that he overestimated the effect that the scandal will have on Malaysian politics. He said Sunday that UMNO would lose a general election if it were held today, but this government still has three years before it must call a poll.
It is also possible that Mr. Muhyiddin has underestimated the backlash building against UMNO’s leaders. Already the party’s support is precarious; in the 2013 election the ruling coalition won a majority of seats but lost the popular vote. 1MDB’s mismanagement of $11 billion in borrowed funds on Mr. Najib’s watch exposes the rot built up over six decades of one-party rule.
Mr. Najib’s brother Nazir Razak mused last year that their father, also a Prime Minister, maintained a modest lifestyle. The understated barb was not lost on Malaysians, who are all too aware of the wealth their leaders amassed in recent decades.
If Mr. Muhyiddin sits back and waits for the leadership of an unreformed UMNO to fall into his lap, he may be disappointed. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Malaysia is approaching a tipping point when its citizens demand a change in the institutions that have held back the country’s political and economic development.