Malaysia: Najib’s crackdown on dissent isn’t going all his own way
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Malaysia: Najib’s crackdown on dissent isn’t going all his own way

SINCE the beginning of 2016, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been eliminating dissent across the nation. Early in the new year, the Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar announced that police will heavily scrutinize social media. Over the last couple of weeks the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission blocked Asia Sentinel, which has been critical of the Najib regime, and the blogging platform Medium for its republishing of a Sarawak Report article.

Earlier this week, the Malaysian Attorney-General Mohamed Apandi Ali, after receiving the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Report into 1MDB financial scandal, declared that Prime Minister Najib was cleared of any offences or misdoings. One senior minister in the PM’s Department, Azalina Othman, said that the attorney-general’s powers are absolute and he has the power to stop any future legal proceedings on the matter, should they arise in the future. Thus, as far as the government is concerned, the matter is closed.

Next, the Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem met with the Election Commission and scheduled the coming Sarawak State election for April this year. Then Wanita PKR chief Zuraida Kamaruddin was barred from entering Sarawak by the Sarawak Immigration Department.

Hints about how the Najib camp is feeling are reflected in the statements they are making to the public. For example, just recently DPM Zahid Hamidi had announced that he personally met with the donor of the US$700 million  and was satisfied with the legitimacy of the donation. However, this week it was revealed that the actual donor was Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. King Abdullah passed away in January 2015, so it would have been impossible for DPM Zahid to meet with him. These statements appear inconsistent, even stupid, but they show the strong confidence and even arrogance towards the Malaysian public.

Najib has quashed and supressed most dissent within his own party UMNO and the current opposition, with Anwar Ibrahim in jail, is in total disarray, with PAS splitting into two. The Sedition Act is being used heavily to charge anybody who makes any public criticism of the government.

Then, early last week, the Najib camp turned back towards his critic and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and started the move to oust his son Mukhriz Mahathir from the position of Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of Kedah. It began with 14 UMNO divisional heads, led by Kedah UMNO deputy chairman Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah, holding a press conference stating that they had all lost confidence in Mukhriz Mahathir as leader.

However, soon after the press conference, some leaders came forward saying they didn’t support the move, and public demonstrations erupted in Alor Setar in support of Mukhriz. The opposition even claimed they would support Mukhriz in the DUN (state parliament).

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Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir. Pic: AP.

A Supreme Council meeting of UMNO was organized for Friday, where Mukhriz was asked to leave the meeting. There had been an expectation that his dismissal was imminent, however at a press conference immediately after the meeting Najib announced that Mukhriz would stay on as chief minister.

This is the first time since the 1MDB scandal arose that the Najib strategy came unstuck. Everybody had assumed that his meeting with the Abdul Halim, the Sultan of Kedah, would result in the PM getting his way.

One can speculate the Sultan of Kedah may not have agreed to a change of chief minister. As there were probably only three people in the meeting, the Sultan’s personal assistant being the third, we can only presume the statutory declarations that Najib may have used as proof of a lack of confidence in Mukhriz did not satisfy the Sultan. So Mukhriz remains as leader of the house at the Sultan’s pleasure.

Notably, his setback for Najib is not coming from a Mahathir ally, as it is well known that Mahathir and the Sultan over the years have not always seen eye to eye. The Kedah Sultan is one of the most diligent in Malaysia, working from an office from 8am to 5pm each day. He is a person who can’t be bought and has a line of independent thinking.

The events in Kedah this week show that there is at least one remaining force within the Malaysian political system to keep excess in check, and it is working.

Najib doesn’t need to face an election until 2018. However, and the result of the Sarawak state election will be a good indicator as to whether an early election is on the cards. An election can solve two problems for Najib. First, Najib has the power to select all the candidates, so through an election, he can greatly increase his powerbase within UMNO. Second, an early election, before the economy worsens and more information about scandals arise through the foreign media, which he can’t control, may be a good move. The opposition is in such disarray that even with the 1MDB issue, Najib can still win.

Najib may have to face UMNO elections before the general election and this would not be an easy one to win this time round with the Muhyiddin camp gaining strength. The attempt to oust Mukhriz this week will only strengthen the resolve of opposition within UMNO, and could even lead to a large split if Najib continues cracking down on members of his own party.

Another option would be to enact his powers under the National Security Council. However if Najib actually tried to do this, the consequences cannot be foreseen. This could stretch the tethers of power too far for Najib to get away with.

The most likely option is to continue stumbling along without any long term plan, but take each opportunity as it comes.

This will be a very interesting year in Malaysian politics.