Malaysia’s Political Outlook 2014: Key Challenges Facing Najib

December 26, 2013

RSIS No. 236/2013 dated 26 December 2013

Malaysia’s Political Outlook 2014: Key Challenges Facing Najib

by Yang Razali Kassim


Prime Minister Najib Razak’s top-most concern in the new year is not just UMNO’s dominance but also its very survival. Signals from the recent party general assembly point to a three-pronged strategy to achieve this aim.


Rosmah and NajibMALAYSIAN PRIME Minister Najib Razak approaches 2014 with one big worry on his mind: how to win – decisively – the next general election (GE) that has to be called by 2018. The last one seven months ago on May 5 saw his ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition making its worst showing since 1969: despite winning the majority of seats, BN lost the popular vote to the opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim.

As the new year begins, the big signal from Najib is that “1Malaysia” will probably have to be set aside as an electoral strategy. This is significant as it could mean that his vision of a unified, cohesive and inclusive plural society that was much touted in the 2013 GE – is as good as cast to the backburner.

Najib’s conservative swing

At the recent general assembly of UMNO, the anchor party of the multi-racial BN coalition, 1Malaysia was hardly mentioned in Najib’s keynote speech. Yet when resolutions were debated, one delegate sought to kill the whole idea, calling for 1Malaysia to be replaced by “1Melayu” – or 1Malay, referring to the majority community that UMNO represents.

Najib did not respond in defence of 1Malaysia. Instead his entire rhetoric during the assembly was primarily about advancing the Malay and Muslim agenda – signifying a major refocusing on this core constituency as UMNO gears up early for the 14th GE.

Unchallenged as president in party elections prior to the assembly, Najib has one TDMeye on his own political survival. The still influential former Prime Mnister Mahathir Mohamad has been uneasy about the BN’s worst showing at the May 5 polls and may want to ease Najib out, just as he did to Najib’s predecessor Abdullah Badawi. As his popularity dips due to some economic belt-tightening policies expected in the new year, Najib’s swing to appease the UMNO conservatives is not surprising.

Party hardliners are convinced that the multi-ethnic BN’s political survival rests increasingly with UMNO, whose survival in turn rests on the Malay constituency, which is synonymously Muslim. While 1Malaysia was designed to embrace all the races, its failure to attract the non-Malays, especially the ethnic Chinese, at the last

GE has weakened Najib’s hand.

The conservative faction’s argument is this: Forget about winning over the non-Malay vote and focus on expanding the Malay/Muslim ground. UMNO is strong enough to stand on its own; while the BN coalition won 133 seats overall in GE13, UMNO alone, as its anchor, won the most seats with 88 – even more than any of the opposition parties, whose combined tally of 89 seats was just one more than UMNO’s. In other words, it is UMNO that will remain the backbone of the political system. Thus Malay political power will be pivotal to the country – from political stability and security to economic progress and development.

UMNO’s three-pronged strategy towards GE14

This conservative logic formed the bedrock of the “back to basics” strategy that was spelt out by Najib, whose speech was themed “Fortifying the Future”. Going forward, UMNO will pursue three strategic thrusts – or what Najib called the “three messages from the assembly”: The first is a turn towards Islamic Shariah; the second is a stronger Malay and bumiputra agenda, for which, he said, UMNO need not be apologetic; and the third a “transformed UMNO” as a “party of the 21st century”. It is significant that UMNO as the “party of the future” will become not just more Malay, but Islamist at the same time.

Becoming more Islamist for a Malay-nationalist party like UMNO is an equally significant shift. Ideologically-driven Islamist parties actually find ethno-nationalism objectionable. UMNO clearly is positioning itself as the primary political vehicle for the Malay and Muslim constituency, thus raising the prospects of an all-out contest for power with the opposition Islamist PAS, even as UMNO – paradoxically – woos PAS for unity talks.

Umno's embelmUMNO’s drift towards a more Islamist identity was marked by a highly controversial drive to pitch itself as the defender of Sunni Islam in the face of what it paints as the growing threat of Shiism in the country. The federal constitution would be reworded to define the official religion as “Islam Sunnah Wal Jamaah” or Sunni Islam, not simply Islam. That this move is partly politically-motivated is seen in the immediate targeting of the PAS deputy leader as a closet Shia and therefore a threat.

The second thrust of a greater push for the Malay and bumiputra agenda is clearly aimed at solidifying the Peninsular-East Malaysia axis around the Malay core. Najib conceded the crucial role of the “fixed deposit” states of Sabah and Sarawak in BN’s ultimate win in the last GE. As many see it, if not for these two states, there would have been a change of government in Malaysia. With Najib’s renewed emphasis on the Malay and bumiputra agenda, the New Economic Policy that officially ended in 1990 but was unofficially continued, has finally been resurrected in all but name. CEOs of all government-linked companies have been given KPIs to realise this goal on pain of seeing their contracts not renewed.

To complete the three-pronged strategy, UMNO will go all out to win the young voters. In the next GE, some six million new voters will be casting for the first time. The majority are likely to be anti-establishment and anti-UMNO. They could make a difference whether there will finally be a change of government or not in GE14. No wonder Najib made it clear: UMNO must win over the young voters and master the social media with which the young are savvy.


UMNO’s eagerness to recover its eroded political ground has seen it responding in unexpected ways, with implications yet to be fully fathomed. Its readiness to march to its own drumbeat is a warning to friend and foe alike that the rules of the game will be set by UMNO alone.

To its ethnic-based political allies in BN, which are facing their own internal crises, the message is that the BN power-sharing system will be on UMNO’s terms. To the opposition, the message is clear: whoever controls the Malay and Muslim ground will control power – and it is not going to be the opposition, which is not homogenous ethnically and ideologically.

UMNO is desperate to win. Going forward, all communities will be forced to ponder what this means for them and the country.

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

24 thoughts on “Malaysia’s Political Outlook 2014: Key Challenges Facing Najib

  1. In many ways Yang Razali Kassim is quite right in his analysis on the concerns of UMNO & Najib in respects of the issues facing them and their likely responses. After all, the Chinese (& quite substantial Indian) votes had been virtually & fully exhausted as nearly all of them were thrown to back the PR, especially the DAP, in the last GE13. Any hope of their return into the BN folds will be very slim though not entirely impossible. So, in the coming GE14 the Chinese will practically possess no more reserve votes to effect any meaningful political balancing act. This only means the Chinese have made themselves politically irrelevant for the coming GE14, at least to the UMNO strategists. If they do come back to their better senses later, their votes can only change in one way and perhaps a better future will be in store for the MCA in the GE14. But the MCA has been in many constituencies dependent on Malay votes. In the meantime UMNO must concentrate on weaning the Malay votes both in the urban and rural areas.

  2. We are a small economy and small country. When the big boyz cough, we will be blown. According to war cycle, sometimes in 2014 might see a war but that is Russia by Putin’s ambition. How that will spin thin world in a new direction, no one knows but war is directly related to power for economy and economy is about resources and resources ties with debt. No money how to fight so borrow and that is sovereign debt matters. …………so when Russia cough, do we get blown?

  3. With the unending Malay-bashing going on a frenzy by those spiteful and frustrated groups, will make it easier for Najib and UMNO to meet their objectives.
    Sdr Johari,

    There is no Malay bashing, unless you think UMNO represents the Malays.UMNO does represent all Malays. It certainly does not represent me.Criticisms against UMNO are centered on governance, corruption, economic mismanagement, education policy, and religious intolerance. If UMNO wants to remain relevant as the anchor party in the Barisan Nasional coalition, it should not be purely “Malay-centric”. It must have a Malaysia focused agenda.

    As a nation we are lagging behind our ASEAN partners. Vietnam is fast catching up with us; Thailand is already ahead while Indonesia is rising as a major player in Asia. Malaysia must be able to compete in ASEAN and a globalised world. There is no point talking about blue ocean strategy when our basics are not there. Go back to Governance 101.–Din Merican

  4. If this is true, d fight betw uninitiated chinese n malays will be more intense while d big guns frm both races continue t work together getting contracts f themselves t make themselves rich. Umno intensifies its help towards d malays, d chinese become more angry n sabotage umno plans. The National Unity Council has several busy years ahead!

  5. Dato, my New Year wish.Allah permit, is to see Pakatan Rakyat getting stronger and stronger and in the same time see the dismantling of UMNO in particular and BN in general.
    As a Sabahan it is sad to see that my fellow Sabahans see it fit to put in power a lunatic party called UMNO.
    Happy New year to U and beloved family and to all Malaysians especially PR supporters.

  6. UMNO-bashing, justified or otherwise, is expected as it has been the anchor political party in power since Merdeka and there is no political party in power anywhere, even for a short duration, is perfect & free of faults – the clients of a political party are diverse in composition & desires and not all of them will be satisfied & uncritical for all times. UMNO is not an exception.

    As UMNO represents the majority of the “Constitutional Malays” of various racial ethnicity with the “Mamak” in the main calling the shots during the last 3 decades or so, UMNO-bashing tends to be perceived as tantamount to, mistakenly or otherwise, “Malay-bashing”.

    UMNO strategists seem to like this perception and will do their utmost to encourage the public to believe in it – and who can blame them to pursue this strategic approach? Probably, and secretly, they are laughing their guts out and intentionally adding fuel to the fire of UMNO-bashing to instill grave concerns amongst the “Malays” that their interests are being threatened and eroded.

    The political opposition knows this well and they are not the naive, benign or innocent party as they too believe that in the political arena “all is fair in love and war”. The Opposition will take every opportunity to hasten the GE14 prematurely – and their windows of opportunities could take many forms and come & be used in all manner.

    Discerning and objective commentators surely should not miss this going-on & be lulled in the struggles with their emotions.
    Thanks Bro for this commentary. Happy New Year and keep writing.–Din Merican

  7. There is one missing piece of the strategy – CHEATING – the re-delineation exercise and other electoral fraud to them is a necessary insurance.

    On paper the strategy makes sense for our Tea Party but the problem is Najib is not suited for such a strategy – with him at the helm of such a strategy, the chances for mess-up is quite significant. There is a limit to such a path before it boomerangs. Negative politics is not bottomless.

    You already see a mess-up happening with the “Allah” issue – it may appear it secures the vote of the right but you can bet that the best and brightest of MALAYS don’t see it the same way and don’t want to be any part of it – all it takes is for the numbers to show up and the same group that supports him for this will be first in line to lynch him.

  8. So much analysis and dissecting of the words spoken by Najib, UMNO functionaries, BN et al. I think it is a waste of time to read too much into what is said by bolehland luminaries.

    They often just mouth off what comes into their vacant minds, use fancy jargon (“Fortifying the Future” – donno whether it meant the country’s future or Soi Lek’s need for Viagra). Then they sit back and see the media and blog sphere go viral and enjoy their 2-minutes worth of orgasms. After that it will be another word, another phrase, another mantra to set the masses minds aflame. While behind their backs the looting and plundering goes on.

    I’ll bet my rapidly declining Ringgit that the GE14 is least on their minds. It’s where the next billion ringgit raid needs to be made and, for their wives, outdoing each other on the best shopping spree.

    And when GE14 comes around, believe me, the end result will be the same. Only the means will have changed. Whether it will be gerrymandering, extra infusions of BRIMs, or demonising the opposition, or putting Anwar behind bars, or ,heaven forbid, raising the specter of the Islamic masses being under imminent threat from the pork-defiled others. Just name your favorite jiggery-pokery.

    Then the masses will once again feel shortchanged, raise their eyes longingly to GE15 and cry “ini kali lah”.

  9. John toiled all day to reach the hill top. Jack slept all day at the bottom stop. We have allowed Singapore to get ahead of us. May be that will wake us up.

  10. a well written and appropriate article and a wake up call to the opposition and its supporters. Najib has the same aura as a leader from a country like Afganistan or Zimbabwe. why not bring back Mahathir if he can promise us to clean up the government?
    in all these talks by our political leaders in umno-b I don’t see any programme for betterment of the nation and society. the electioneering has already begun, the next four years will see the perfecting of election fraud and strengthening of racial polarisation.
    today ‘The Sun’ frontpaged a call by Mahathir to Najib administration to rethink the price hikes, so how long is Jibs going to last??
    why do they really think the public is that stupid, because the majority is malay muslim, oops… sorry aliefalfa, I meant ‘constitutinal malay muslim’?
    and yes it is a good strategy ; ”UMNO must concentrate on weaning the Malay votes both in the urban and rural areas.” wunderbar!

    why all this talk about Viagra why not Cialis which is supposed to be safer? or is umno-bn a shareholder in Viagra company? land of endless possibilities, no doubt!

  11. Alie the cat,
    Wow! Trading very carefully in the middle while throwing potshots on those who are not in line with the establishment. One wonder if you are one of UMNO strategists. Come on, admit it la. If not, you would have spewed out alternatives

    Guys & Gals,
    This cat here has mentioned that UMNO has been the anchor in Malaysian politicians for years. Of course, it should be Malaya because UMNO was literally gunned down by PAP in Singapore & barred entry permit into Sarawak. Thanks to none other than the so called multiracial PBB led by yet another minority melanau in Sarawak called Taib. It’s always shown that UMNO is no invincible because every now & then UMNO had its close call. We should ask the cat…….Is UMNO now the same UMNO established in 1946 by Onn Jaafar?
    To me, UMNO is the PROBLEM to all Malaysia woes. The best way to deal with it is to obliterate it. Let us use thw wooden nail & stabbed it into UMNO’s heart. Let it die. How we should do it? By continuing supporting the truly secular political parties, free from racial rabies. Hisham Rais has down the way. We should add more woods

  12. Typical behaviour of Third World kleptocracies as their political support shrinks and shrinks.

    At the regime’s end, it will be down to clan members and immediate family members, as in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar Khadafy’s Libya.
    Brother A holds this portfolio, Son-in-Law B holds that portfolio and Cousin C holds yet another portfolio.

  13. Professor Fred Halliday on Khadafy’s Libya before its demise:

    “Libya is far from the most brutal regime in the world, or even the region: it has less blood on its hands than (for example) Sudan, Iraq, and Syria. But al-Jamahiriyah remains a grotesque entity. In its way it resembles a protection-racket run by a family group and its associates who wrested control of a state and its people by force and then ruled for forty years with no attempt to secure popular legitimation.

    The outside world may be compelled by considerations of security, energy and investment to deal with this state. But there is no reason to indulge the fantasies that are constantly promoted about its political and social character, within the country and abroad. Al-Jamahiriyah is not a “state of the masses”: it is a state of robbers, in formal terms a kleptocracy. The Libyan people have for far too long been denied the right to choose their own leaders and political system – and to benefit from their country’s wealth via oil-and-gas deals of the kind the west is now so keen to promote. The sooner the form of rule they endure is consigned to the past, the better.”

  14. Uncle Din
    Malays are forgetful. Come 2018- new BRIM handouts, new promises, scare mongering and what have you BN will win hands down. With bigger majority- as PKR partners will be at each others throat.

  15. Outlook for 2014? What outlook? So long as UMNO Baru is run by extremists, so long as BN clings fiercely to power, the future of this country is grim, at best.
    What can we expect from a premier who seems to indulge in nothing more than sex. After he defended abs praised his second wife over her controversial overseas trips, Najub told the UMNO assembly, ‘Malam Ini Mungkin Ada Bayaran’! And later he told the sex-starved MCA leadership at their assembly to take Political Viagra! Sex, sex, and just sex, how can we move forward? We might as well turn Malaysia into the sex capital of the world.

  16. Until there is a change of govt. and an independent Audit Commission created to fully look into the books of the current administration, nobody knows the country’s real financial situation…….you cannot create an effective budget to urgently and properly deal with its immmediate and long term problems.

    Future generations will be made to pay for the present generation gross excesses, mismanagement and selfishness………there will be permanent and long term pain.

    At the moment, no news is good news until the next GE.

  17. Look at his background and you will see the similarity between him and Kim Jung Un. One became Chairman and the other MB before 30 and both with no prior experience. They were there simply due to family lineage. Ignorant people of both countries start to shower them with praises base on empty propaganda.
    CYC, please be fair. Najib is not the son of a dictator. Tun Razak was a very good Prime Minister of Malaysia. Furthermore, Malaysia is not a hermit kingdom.–Din Merican

  18. Beginning from 1994 President Mugabe threw money at every problem faced by Zimbabwe. Finally unable to contain the freedom fighters who were promoted to war veterans he doubled their already generous pension which was equal to the salary of middle ranking member of the elite Civil Service. But no one had a clue how it was going to be funded. Print baby print became the national monetary cry. The rest is history. The future of that country was written in 1994. It took them only ten years to reach bottom from which they have no hope of getting out.

  19. Yeah.., UMNOb treats symptoms but not the disease.

    Octo was a terrible physician – even though he was expensive, and looked down on his ‘patients’ whom he considered ‘lembu’. But his successors are even worse – mere bomohs, pawangs with a sprinkling of itinerant snake oil merchant-consultants. Practising negative politics have never succeeded in the long run, but yes, they are manifestly premature ejaculators – a condition most difficult to treat until the advent of SSRIs. Go read it up.

    Now what ‘disease’ might we be talking about? Actually, it’s more properly designated as a ‘Syndrome’. For that – they need to ‘protect’ PutridJaya with all their might. How right they are. For that’s actually what i would call a gilded prison. They can’t possibly turn the urban Malays, with their hoary Rent-Seeking Apartheid and exclusiveness doctrine. The poor and marginalized will always be there – but the ignorant are getting fewer..

  20. Din,
    It’s a yes & No. Razak is definitely autocratic. Heck, LKY is also autocratic. However, LKY & to a certain extent Razak got things done. Unlike those so called shenigans in singapore saying that PAP has gerrymandered to secure absolute majority. The fact that it’s not. But I can’t say much confidence about Razak’s era or even Tunku’s era. I can only say that rule of law much better in Razak & Tunku era than Madhater’s era. At least islamisation has not gotten worse under Madhater’s rule though my matey ktemoc would be tempted to stab a steely knife into Anwar over the Islamisation thingy especially in Sabah

  21. Again, we as small economy trying to think big. When the Dow which is making a parabolic move now, any parabolic move will break hard and that will trigger the world. The Shanghai SE went rocketing in 2007 and got slammed hard that it went from 62xx to now about 22xx. Yet the Yuan is climbing. How these two US and CNY will see saw all fiats we dun know. The Yen is printing fast now. Rates going low to stimulate borrowing. 2014 will be catastrophic and we ???? May Gold bless Msia when the cascading happens.

  22. Three days before the New Year Eve’s anti-price hike rally and we just read Sarawak Report say that Rosmah’s son bought a RM110.0 million apartment in Central Park, New York. Ini Kali Lah…

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