Desperate Najib Razak resorts to Fear Tactics

December 4, 2016

Desperate  Najib Razak resorts to Fear Tactics— Emboldened and defiant Malaysians will fight on

by Bridget Welsh

This week’s UMNO meeting reflects rising paranoia. So far he has managed to hold on to power, but not without incurring serious costs. Growing authoritarianism, widening political polarisation, deepening ethnic tensions and discredited immoral leadership have damaged Malaysia’s social and political fabric. Najib’s mismanagement is also evident in the economy’s contraction and the depreciating currency. That thousands braved threats of arrest and thuggery to attend the Bersih 5 rally shows that many Malaysians are willing to fight on and will  fight on and will not be cowed. –Bridget Welsh

Image result for Najib at 2016 UMNO General Assembly

This week Najib Tun Razak is beating the Malay chauvinist drum at his party’s annual general assembly (AGM). Meetings of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) have regularly followed this mode, but the use of racism and paranoia have taken on greater intensity in the face of its leader’s eroding political legitimacy.

For the past two years, Malaysia’s Prime Minister has been beleaguered by the 1MDB scandal that has involved not only nearly $700 million going into Najib’s personal account but also raised issues of criminal money laundering, embezzlement and economic mismanagement involving over $3.5 billion. The case is being investigated and prosecuted in over six jurisdictions, most notably by the US Department of Justice.  The scandal featured centre stage in last month’s Bersih 5 rally in which thousands went to the streets to protest corruption, economic mismanagement and systematic inequalities in the electoral process.

Despite public discontent, Najib has adeptly used a variety of tactics to stay in power, which is crucial if he is to avoid international prosecution. The most obvious of these involves a crackdown on political opponents. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed in 2015. Since then more than 10 opposition politicians have faced a variety of charges from sedition to challenges to ‘parliamentary democracy’. Last month whistleblower and parliamentarian, Rafizi Ramli, was convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act for releasing evidence associated with 1MDB. This week’s UMNO meeting has called for continued no-holds barred attacks on the opposition.

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The crackdown on dissent has also targeted civil society. On the eve of the 19 November Bersih 5 rally, its chairperson, Maria Chin Abdullah, was arrested. She was held in solitary confinement and charged as a ‘terrorist’ under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act. This follows a litany of attacks on other activists, cartoonists and artists, as well as ordinary citizens for ‘insulting’ posts on Facebook and WhatsApp. In 2015 there were 91 cases for ‘sedition’ alone. Human Rights Watch has detailed these in an October 2016 report.

The media has also been in the firing line. In 2015 the harassment of publishers led to the closure of The Malaysian Insider. Last month the online portal Malaysiakini was raided, and its editor Steven Gan was charged for simply publishing a video. This comes on the back of the Communication and Media Act being tightened in March. ‘Protection’ from insults has extended beyond Najib to those seen to be protecting him. The aim is to silence criticism of Malaysia’s most unpopular prime minister.

To complement these attacks, Najib’s government has deepened its use of racial chauvinism. From the 2013 elections onwards, it has depicted opposition to it as ‘Chinese’ and reinforced the view that Najib’s UMNO party, is the only viable protector of the Malays. This politicised framing lacks any grounding in reality as over 40 per cent of Malays voted for the opposition in 2013 and the most recent Bersih rally showcased the breadth of multi-ethnic opposition to Najib, especially among young Malays. Nevertheless, Najib’s strategy has increased ethnic tensions along political lines. His ratcheted war-like rhetoric at the UMNO meeting points to a willingness to tear the society apart for his own political survival.

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Scare tactics have extended to thuggery, most evident in the crass use of violence and intimidation by the UMNO-linked ‘red shirts’. Some of these political vigilantes – many of them allegedly paid to participate in hooliganism – have also been arrested but have clearly received favourable treatment. Despite official denials, the widespread perception is that thuggery is being promoted by the government.

Najib’s machinations also involve political manoeuvring. He has forged an alliance with conservative Islamist zealots. His government has allowed Wahhabi Islam to extend its extremist and intolerant tentacles through the unchecked and increasingly locally- and internationally-funded religious bureaucracy, with particular support from Najib’s close ally and 1MDB partner Saudi Arabia. Lacking moral authority of his own, Najib has chosen to ally himself with the discredited Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), led by Hadi Awang and his designer suit-wearing appointees. Perceptions of corruption and discriminatory land grabbing from indigenous people have corroded PAS’s public support, as Hadi has introduced a bill that hypocritically strengthens the punishment of ordinary Muslims for immoral activity. This bill, known as RUU 355, will open up opportunities for abuse by authorities in a government where the rule of law is not fairly practised and fuel ethnic tensions. It is no coincidence that bill was reactivated after the Bersih 5 rally.

Image result for Mahathir Mohamad and Bersih 5.0

Most of Najib’s politicking has focused on maintaining the support of his own party. He has repeatedly paid off UMNO leaders for their ‘loyalty’ through patronage while also purging UMNO of its leading critics. Former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad resigned from the party earlier this year due to his opposition to Najib, while the party voted to expel former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, another prominent critic of the Prime Minister. Najib appointed the grassroots party-stalwart Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as his deputy, aiming in the short-term to deflect party challenges. He is seen to be holding off on the appointment of his favoured cousin, Hishammudin Hussein. But even within UMNO dissatisfaction remains high due to the realisation that Najib is an electoral liability and UMNO could lose. This is despite the attacks, divisions and lack of clear alternative leadership from the opposition.  The public shows of loyalty through dictator-like salutes of the leader at the UMNO AGM hide real unease among members and growing discontent between UMNO elites and the grassroots.

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It is therefore little wonder that Najib has increasingly relied on the levers of power to stay in office. His government has broadened gerrymandering and malapportionment in the 2015-2016 electoral redelineation exercise, conducting it without transparency and repeatedly dismissing the record number of challenges. He has also increased populist measures to buy support among Malaysia’s poorest citizens, a pattern that was replicated in the May 2016 Sarawak state elections. These measures have been introduced despite serious strain on operating budgets for government departments and widespread cuts to education and public services.

To compensate for the lack of funds and rising debt, Najib has turned to his new geostrategic ally – China – for money. Not only did China bail out Najib over 1MDB, but he also returned from a visit to Beijing at the beginning of last month bearing some $34 billion worth of deals, funds perceived to help greasing the patronage wheels ahead of the next elections to be scheduled before the end of 2018.

China has a vested interest in keeping a weak, dependent, autocratic leader in power. Little attention is being paid to the potential loss of Malaysian territory to the Chinese, to the unfavourable terms of these arrangements and their limited positive impact on Malaysia’s economy. Guarding against the possibility of electoral defeat, Najib has also established the new National Security Council, which came into effect in August and allows the prime minister to dictatorially declare a state of emergency through a body made up of his own appointees. At the same time, Najib has created a new special defence force and increased his personal protection.

While the Prime Minister has tried to use fear against his people, the person who has been the most afraid is Najib himself. This week’s UMNO meeting reflects rising paranoia. So far he has managed to hold on to power, but not without incurring serious costs. Growing authoritarianism, widening political polarisation, deepening ethnic tensions and discredited immoral leadership have damaged Malaysia’s social and political fabric. Najib’s mismanagement is also evident in the economy’s contraction and the depreciating currency. That thousands braved threats of arrest and thuggery to attend the Bersih 5 rally shows that many Malaysians are willing to fight on and will not be cowed. The test ahead will be the point when Najib’s fear campaign backfires more widely, and more Malaysians realize that the only thing they have to fear is Najib himself.

This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and debate.

Dr, Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate of the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University. She specializes in Southeast Asian politics, with particular focus on Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore. She has edited/written numerous books including, Reflections: The Mahathir Years, Legacy of Engagement in Southeast Asia, Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years, Democracy Takeoff? The B.J. Habibie Period, Awakening: The Abdullah Badawi Years (a Malay edition Bangkit was published in 2014) and The End of UMNO? Essays on Malaysia’s Dominant Party.  She is the Asian Barometer Survey Southeast Asia core lead, and is currently directing the survey project in Malaysia and Myanmar.


3 thoughts on “Desperate Najib Razak resorts to Fear Tactics

  1. Demonising the innocent is considered brilliant in modern cynical politics. All it really show is that most elite including intellectuals are opportunists without substantive contribution, it’s a condemnation of intellectuals and pretenders of change rather than real creators, pioneers and leaders.

    If they stack the system against, then it’s time to attack the flank of the system. Why don’t they go for the gut – political Islam has failed and Najib is brilliant for getting Hadi’s PAS to reveal their true nature and failure. It’s time to rip the floor off which they stand and stand to be counted. Why? Because like Salmon Rushdie case, it’s a death sentence and the are in the end selfish and cowards.

  2. The voting focus for the coming GE should be centered on (fairly) good leaders and good candidates. Electing political parties or coalition should be given lower priority. There are decent good people in all parties including UMNO. Given this trajectory preference, what will emerge is a sizable rag-tag numbers of able and good MPs, who can take the initiative to form a coalition government of their own on a minimum agreeable programe (like, for example, requiring public declaration of assets of MPs and Ministers, tweaking SOMSA(?) to invoking it only in dealing with terrorists and terrorism (and not against local politicians for their political activities), getting rid of NSC (?) which empowers the PM to declare emergency superseding the power of the Agong enshrined in the Constitution, confiscating the ill-gotten and unaccounted wealth of suspect current leaders, prosecuting those leaders and their minions for their abuse of power in wanton prosecution and incarceration of their political opponents etc.

    My preference for those who should and should not be elected as MPs at the next GE:

    UMNO: The entire leadership should go with the possible exception of Khairy Jamaluddin (If he is seen to be going along with Najib, it may be for strategic reasons)

    MCA: They are comprador leeches. Should be wiped out from Malaysian politics.

    MIC: Run by self-serving leaders. Should be given a hammering

    Gerakan: Never “Gera” politically and wasting everybody’s time. Should be wiped out

    DAP: A party to be backed at all costs. Never fall for UMNO propaganda that it is a Chinese chauvinistic party. Both Lim Kit Siang and his son, Lim Guan Eng had paid a heavy price (more than any other current opposition figures, except for Anwar) for standing up to UMNO. Lim Jr, in particular, has shown vision and administrative ability as CM in running Penang.

    PAS: Difficult to fathom this Party. It is amiable to co-operating and working with Opposition provided its core Islamic agenda is not compromised as was the case during spiritual leader Nik Aziz’s time time. Its leader, Hadi Awang is a spiritual scholar. He has much to contribute to the cause of Islam and he needs to be elected as an MP to make his contributions in parliament.

    PKS: There is an excellent cream of young leaders here, all of whom deserve to be re-elected as MPs. The problem may come from Anwar. What if Najib strikes a secret deal with him with an offer (with adequate perks) for him to return to UMNO or to get PKS into BN?

    Bersatu: Mercurial Mahathir is the man of the hour. Only under his helm there can be any chance of unseating Najib. He is a valuable asset to the opposition whether he himself (wants to) to get elected as an MP or not.

    Non-Party individuals:
    Zaid Ibrahim – an impulsive politician who can undo all the good things he has done and can do by too quick a decision. His outstanding contribution as Law Minister in 2004 was when he restored the pension and perks, as well as pay compensations to the then Lord President of the Supreme Court Tun Salleh Abas and his colleagues, who were summarily dismissed by Dr Mahathir in 1988. He was also the first Minister who resigned from the Cabinet on a matter of principle.

    Dato Din Marican – a demon to feeble, corrupt and racist leaders. A liberal democrat, articulate, people-centered with depth of knowledge, he is the type of man, Parliament and country needs. It is my (forlorn?) hope that the opposition parties roll out the red carpet for him and for him to do the national service.

    There can be other outstanding individuals readers can think of, deserving to be put into parliament.

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