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Commentary: UMNO’s in no shape to play kingmaker in Malaysia

HOBART: In the past 48 hours, many people inside and outside Malaysia have been perplexed by the politics.

Just as everyone was surprised that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin wanted to declare a State of Emergency, a second political shock came when the King rejected his request.

Although the decision was couched in polite terms, the King’s response sent a strong, unequivocal signal that the politicians should sort out their house without resorting to seeking the palace’s support to bolster their positions, whether via a State of Emergency or endorsement on a list of Members of Parliament backing them.

READ: Commentary: Why Anwar Ibrahim’s longheld dream of becoming Malaysia PM keeps getting thwarted

More bluntly, the King’s effective message was: “Please go away and don’t bother me.”

This led directly to a United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) Supreme Council Meeting on Monday (Oct 26) night where the UMNO president Zahid Hamidi said his party will support the Muhyiddin administration and that the “status quo” will remain.

But this high public drama obfuscates several key, more consequential elements in the critical political developments over the past few days.

THE SPLIT WITHIN UMNO

The first is the odd incidence of the joint letter purportedly signed by former Prime Minister Najib Razak and Zahid to the King to support Anwar Ibrahim for Prime Minister that surfaced last week in news reports.

The UMNO Supreme Council was caught unaware of the letter.

It was even more incredible given that Najib does not hold any official post in UMNO.

If such a letter supporting Anwar was real and truly reflected UMNO’s position, it should have been signed by Zahid alone.

Regardless of the authenticity of the letter, it was enough to cast doubt in people’s minds and seed discord within UMNO. The fact is that Najib’s influence in UMNO has not been dented by the guilty verdict and the other ongoing 1MDB trials.

READ: Commentary: How Najib Razak’s verdict complicates Malaysia’s game of thrones

Many in UMNO still see Najib as the “ideas’ man”. For them, he’s their only strategic thinker and they look up to him, unlike Zahid, who is not seen as a strategic thinker and mostly not seen as a long term UMNO leader. Thus Najib remains the key player in UMNO politics.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak leaves after a meeting at United Malays National Organi

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak leaves after a meeting at United Malays National Organization (UMNO) headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

The letter also shone the spotlight on an issue very close to UMNO’s heart – UMNO wants to be back in the driving seat and has been frustrated by Muhyiddin’s stymieing of their efforts.

When they helped Muhyiddin form the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government earlier this year, they thought Muhyiddin he would eventually cede the leadership spot.

Besides, UMNO, with more seats than Bersatu, and with PAS’ support could easily out-manoeuvre Muhyiddin and Bersatu. Or so they thought.

MACHIAVELLIAN MUHYIDDIN

But it did not turn out that way because Muhyiddin turned out to be more Machiavellian. Bersatu got some of the most important and lucrative positions in the administration.

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Muhyiddin also bypassed UMNO by refusing to appoint a Deputy Prime Minister, which would have had most likely gone to an UMNO politician, opting instead of appointing four senior ministers.

Of the four, three are clearly in Muhyiddin’s camp – Senior Minister for Economy Azmin Ali, who defected to Bersatu in March, Senior Minister for Education and Society and Bersatu Vice-President Radzi Jidin and Senior Minister for Infrastructure Development and Gabungan Parti Sarawak Chief Whip Fadillah Yusuf – with Defence Minister and Vice-President of UMNO Sabri Yaakob the only one from UMNO’s camp.

There are many other instances of UMNO MPs being pushed aside in favour of Bersatu supporters.

The latest one is the appointment of the Sabah chief minister. UMNO wanted the job be given to Bung Moktar Radin, Sabah UMNO’s chief but the job ended up with Hajiji Noor from Bersatu.

But how UMNO gets there has been a point of contention. For some time now, there is a growing faction inside UMNO who are dead against Zahid and Najib. 

READ: Commentary: Sabah’s surprise results – and how Warisan lost big in state elections

READ: Commentary: Sabah state election ignites fresh Game of Thrones jostling in Malaysian politics

Their main gripe against both men is that they have proven incapable of “handling” Muhyiddin, not to mention the fact that both have been mired in corruption charges, impeding their ability to lead and sullying UMNO’s reputation.

Zahid and Najib know they have to work together to further their interests in securing UMNO’s position in the Muhyiddin administration and find some quiet resolution to their corruption charges.

But the genuine reformers in UMNO think UMNO will never recover its reputation as long as Najib and Zahid pulls the levers of power in UMNO.

Many, like Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation Khairy Jamaluddin, think UMNO’s support among rural Malays is intact and what is really needed are reforms in the party to restore the spirit of openness, win back voters and return UMNO to its glory days.

WHAT ABOUT ANWAR?

This is where Anwar comes in. Anwar probably saw up-close the increasing unhappiness in UMNO over their marginalisation within the PN coalition by Muhyiddin and saw a chance to bring some over to his side.

He only needed about a dozen UMNO MPs to defeat the Muhyiddin government. Unlike Muhyiddin, Anwar was in a position to offer a “new deal” if UMNO was to support him. 

It is known that UMNO wants the DPM office and the key economic ministries. Muhyiddin would find it hard to replace the incumbents with UMNO while Anwar can easily make initial appointments in a new government.

READ: Commentary: The great pity that was Malaysia’s short-lived Pakatan Harapan coalition

But Muhyiddin turned out to be the better poker player and appears to have the upper hand, especially after the backlash from Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition over the possibility that Anwar would even be willing to work with Najib and Zahid. Many see this as an ultimate betrayal of Anwar’s “reformasi” pledge.

Malaysia Politics

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim speaks to media after leaving the police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Prominent Democratic Alliance Party (DAP) leader Tony Pua even used the words “go to hell” in a Facebook post to describe the proposed new alliance.

If Anwar accepts, he would effectively be unravelling the PH coalition – of which his PKR party and the DAP made two key pillars.

The core issue now is trust. Can UMNO bank on Anwar more than Muhyiddin?

Anwar does not even have a government in place. Many of UMNO’s core voters in the rural areas may also reject UMNO’s support in helping to create an Anwar administration.

READ: Commentary: Malaysia a kinder and stronger society six months into COVID-19 fight

Many are distrustful over what they see as Anwar’s liberal attitudes given his decades-long alliance with the DAP. These conservative Malays cannot accept DAP in power.

So what is Anwar to do? UMNO’s pull out of support may end Anwar’s fourth attempt to be PM. Unless Anwar can build a coalition to vote down the budget in the next parliamentary sitting, I cannot see a path forward for Anwar to keep his Sep 23 announcement that he has the numbers to get rid of Muhyiddin in these few weeks.

LOGIC OUT OF THE WINDOW

In the meantime, should one take seriously the statement by Zahid that UMNO will support Muhyiddin for now? The short answer is no.

Zahid does not have the complete support of UMNO. At most, Najib and he have the strong support of the most influential faction in UMNO.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi

United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. (File photo: Bernama) 

Anwar will of course keep knocking on UMNO’s various factions, hoping one of them is strong enough to support him, or at the least, try to undermine Zahid’s open pronouncement that UMNO will support Muhyiddin.

If there is a common lesson from the recent political movements, it is that COVID-19 has not stopped the Malay political elites from playing the game of “who controls Putrajaya”.

READ: Commentary: This is not the end of Najib Razak

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Those who think this was resolved in March when became Prime Minister after another political saga, will really need to re-evaluate their assumptions of Malay politics.

Malay politics has never been based on rational actions or what is best for the country. It has always been driven by personal interests and sprinkles of ketuanan Melayu Islam (Malay Islamic Supremacy).

The process is mostly illogical from the system-viewpoint.

Professor James Chin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania and Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.


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