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The Straits Times: Ex M’sian PM Najib under siege, but still a force

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Former Malaysian prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak speaking to the press outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court on July 28, 2020. - Reuters

SINGAPORE, Aug 2 (The Straits Times/ANN): When the Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance suffered its first-ever election defeat in 2018 under the stewardship of Najib Razak, it seemed his political career was all but over.

Assailed by claims of rampant corruption, lavish spending and authoritarian rule during his nine years as Malaysia’s prime minister, he was seen as out of touch and a liability to his Umno party.

But thanks to a hugely successful rebranding exercise, Najib, 67, with his popular “Bossku” (my boss) persona and witty social media postings, emerged uncowed by that failure, with fresh grassroots support.

Despite stepping down from the helm of BN and Umno, he became a vocal opposition MP, with a visible presence at several by-election campaigns that Umno and BN went on to win.

Even the dozens of graft charges stacked up against him relating to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal did not seem to diminish his influence.

That was until last week, when he was sentenced to 12 years in jail for illegally receiving RM42 million (S$13.5 million) of funds belonging to SRC International, a former subsidiary of 1MDB.

He has filed an appeal, and remains a free man until the appeal is completed. But unless the guilty verdict is overturned, Najib cannot contest any election.

With the appeal process expected to take at least a year, he will not be able to defend his long-held parliamentary seat in Pekan if a widely expected snap election is called.

He also faces another four criminal trials linked to 1MDB, covering 35 charges. The first guilty verdict is not an auspicious start.

Najib’s response to the judge’s ruling last Tuesday was rather muted.

Impeccably dressed and looking exhausted, he said he had never asked for the RM42 million, and strangely listed Malaysia’s economic and legislative achievements during his administration as reasons for a more lenient sentence.

“This is not the end of the world,” he said later, during a press conference outside the court.

It may not mark the end of his career, but could a potential timeout relegate this 10-term parliamentarian to a background role in Malaysian politics?

The pundits are divided.

Sunway University professor and political scientist Wong Chin Huat is of the view that Najib has a long road ahead in restoring his political credibility. “If Najib cannot eventually clear all his charges with the federal court, he would be politically dead,” he said.

He believes the former premier can return to power if there is a change in government that puts Umno at the helm. The current Perikatan Nasional government, which includes Umno, is led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

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Najib (centre) speaking to journalist before leaving the Kuala Lumpur High Court complex in Kuala Lumpur. The court has sentenced Najib to serve 12 years in prison after finding him guilty in the first of several corruption trials linked to the multibillion-dollar looting of a state investment fund that brought down his government two years ago. – AP

“Najib’s best bet is a change of government so that Umno can be in the driving seat to change the Attorney-General,” he said.

Meanwhile, Najib’s considerable coterie of party supporters have no doubt he will remain on the front line. Johor Umno deputy chief Nur Jazlan Mohamed told The Sunday Times: “He cannot play a forward role in Parliament (if he can’t contest elections), but he can still use his substantial influence in the party to help restore Umno into a leading role in the government.”

A former deputy minister during Najib’s administration, Datuk Nur Jazlan believes Najib still has a role to play in helping Umno dislodge Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s Bersatu as the leading government party.

“For the moment he should help shore up Umno grassroots who support him to stay on course and deliver votes for Umno,” he said.

Najib was earmarked for a career in politics very early in his life.

He is the eldest son of Malaysia’s much-respected second premier, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, and has inherited the title of nobleman at the Pahang royal court, making him one of the most powerful individuals in the country’s third-largest state after the Pahang monarch.

His father was instrumental in setting up the multiracial BN coalition in 1973, as well as the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) – a scheme to help the rural poor become smallholders.

The Felda community, comprising mostly rural Malays, numbers around 1.2 million now, and many of the Felda settlements were secure vote banks for both Umno and Najib until the 2018 election.

Najib was only 23 years old when he was elected MP for Pekan in 1976, taking over his father’s seat when the senior died.

In 1982, at the age of 29, Najib became Menteri Besar of Pahang, his home state. He remains the youngest politician ever to have assumed the post of state chief in Malaysia.

The only blight in Najib’s upward trajectory before his premiership was during the 1999 polls, when there was an electoral backlash against Umno following then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s infamous sacking of then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

After having won the Pekan seat with comfortable five-figure majorities since 1976, Najib scraped through with a razor-thin 241-vote majority in 1999.

However, in the four elections since, his majorities have not dipped below 20,000 votes.

Last week’s conviction may prove one of the toughest challenges of Najib’s silver-spooned political career, but his tenacity may yet prevail.

Hours after the verdict, he posted a sarcastic “thank you for your support” message at Umno colleague and rising star Khairy Jamaluddin, who had asked the party to “move on” from Najib.

To counter criticism that the hundreds who crowded the High Court compound last Tuesday to support him were not practising social distancing, Najib dug out photos of opposition leaders Mahathir and Anwar huddled with their own supporters, and asked why there were double standards in enforcing coronavirus rules.

BowerGroup Asia director Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani said he expects Najib to remain very much in the public eye.

He told The Sunday Times: “Najib is very popular in Pahang and is still influential in Umno. With the appeal process to go beyond the next election, I expect Najib to actively campaign for Umno in order to remain visible.” – The Straits Times/Asian News Network

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