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Will Najib’s call for unity be enough to reverse scepticism?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s opening address at the Umno (United Malays National Organisation) General Assembly yesterday was closely watched, as this annual gathering of the ruling party was widely expected to be the last before the next general election.

Will Najib’s call for unity be enough to reverse scepticism?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak attacked his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad (centre) in his speech, calling him a ‘traitor’ for colluding with ‘enemies’. PHOTO: REUTERS

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s opening address at the Umno (United Malays National Organisation) General Assembly yesterday was closely watched, as this annual gathering of the ruling party was widely expected to be the last before the next general election.

The theme of Mr Najib’s speech this year was no different from last year’s.

The title of his speech was “Umno, the Mover of National Transformation”, and yet Mr Najib spent much of the time attacking his mentor-turned-nemesis, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Ironically, Dr Mahathir’s portrait was hung at the side of the auditorium, alongside the portraits of past Umno presidents. The question remains as to whether Mr Najib’s call for unity and loyalty in his speech resonates with the party grassroots.

Can Umno cope with Dr Mahathir’s attack on the party?

Mr Najib began his address by praising senior party leaders.

He said that Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein are ready to step into the void caused by the departures of former Umno deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin and vice-president Shafie Apdal last year. Then, he singled out the contributions of the leaders of the three Umno wings — Women, Youth, and Young Women.

Mr Najib then took swipes at Dr Mahathir, reminding the delegates that he was the 91-year-old statesman’s staunch supporter when the party faced several crises under Dr Mahathir’s leadership from 1981 to 2003.

Mr Najib called his former mentor a “traitor” to Umno for colluding with the party’s enemies, namely the opposition Democratic Action Party, Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

The Premier was also upset that Dr Mahathir joined the recent Bersih rally organised by activist groups mainly to pressure Mr Najib to step down from office over the 1MDB (1 Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal.

The focus on Dr Mahathir throughout the speech signals the Premier’s worry over developments at the Umno grassroots. The number of Umno members quitting the party to join Dr Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia remains unknown, but one should never underestimate the former prime minister’s influence in the rural Malay heartland.

Umno is also worried about whether former leader Mr Shafie is able to weaken the party in Sabah, a critical vote bank. In his speech, Mr Najib sought to convince delegates that the party membership remains stable.

He singled out Sabah Umno as having the highest membership of 561,617 among all the states. He also praised a branch in Terengganu for having the highest number of new members.

As he did in last year’s speech, Mr Najib played the race card by warning the Malays that, if Umno falls, the DAP will govern Malaysia.

The rise of the secular party, Mr Najib claims, will weaken Islamic institutions. He declared: “Will we not be worried, upset and angered, like being poisoned and shot by a blowgun, when Islamic teachings and practices are marginalised by the DAP?”

He also warned that the DAP will question the existence of Islamic institutions such as the Pilgrims Fund Board and the Department of Islamic Development.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Najib burnished his Islamic credentials by interspersing his speech with quotes from religious scholars. He also justified his call for party unity by way of historical episodes during the time of the Prophet, through the concept of “pledge of loyalty” (bai’ah).

Commenting briefly on the Syariah Bill tabled in Parliament by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) president Abdul Hadi Awang, Mr Najib maintained that it is a private member’s Bill, which the government will support.

He warned non-Muslim leaders not to politicise the issue, as the law will not affect them. Signalling that PAS is edging closer to Umno, Mr Najib praised the Islamist party for not participating in the recent Bersih rally aimed at toppling him.

Whether the speech can rally support towards Umno can only be answered after the next election. However, bread-and-butter concerns and the economy are issues that could decide the party’s fate, not Islam or loyalty to its leader. Although Mr Najib remains upbeat about the country’s economic growth and debt status, he must prevent the ringgit from sliding further. It is now trading near its lowest point since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.

Moreover, the effectiveness of the Goods and Services tax (GST) and the controversy surrounding the 1MDB investigations remain a sore point for many Malaysians, and these cannot be brushed aside as Mr Najib did in his speech.

As it stands, Mr Najib’s speech may not be enough to rally the party through the next election. He will need some time to convince Malaysians that the party can carry the country forward amid global economic uncertainties. Besides, if there is going to be another assembly before the election, Mr Najib may also invest some time to speak about leadership renewal in the party after the departure of Umno’s top guns.

To hear the Prime Minister repeatedly speaking about unity and loyalty may send the wrong message that the leader is acting alone and does not command any support from his subordinates.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Norshahril Saat is fellow with ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He researches on Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore politics.

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