Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak is facing a major pushback from within his party Umno and right-wing Malay groups against the reform agenda he introduced after coming to power five years ago, as his party's general assembly begins today.
The backlash from within his party stems mainly from worry of a further erosion of votes from the Malays, the backbone of supporters for Umno. The ruling coalition Barisan Nasional, led by Umno, had a poor showing in last year's general election. It lost the popular vote though it managed to hang on to power with help from rural Malay voters.
Right-wing Malay groups are unhappy with the reforms that they believe chip away special rights of the Malays.
Datuk Seri Najib is expected to face a rough time at this year's general assembly, although he emerged unscathed at last year's party conference which took place just months after the elections.
Since then, he has lost the support of former premier Mahathir Mohamad - who is still influential within Umno. An Umno survey also showed that at least 85 per cent of the party's divisions want Mr Najib, among other things, to renege on a pledge to do away with laws that critics say are abused by the government to give itself nearly unfettered powers to imprison those deemed to insult or challenge the Malays.
On top of this, various groups are calling for an end to "counter-productive" economic programmes under Mr Najib's New Economic Model (NEM).
The NEM calls for gradual reductions of quotas in all areas of the economy - from equity to permits and scholarships that favour Malays and natives from Sabah and Sarawak (collectively known as bumiputeras).
Mr Najib has responded to such demands by creating new agencies to look into Malay interests, and to help the Malays instead of rolling back his liberalising of quotas.
The groups calling for an end to the economic reforms include the 67 non-governmental organisations that last Sunday backed a memorandum calling for these reforms to be scrapped and the Sedition Act strengthened further to protect special Malay rights from being questioned. Mr Najib has vowed to repeal the Sedition Act.
"It would be like wanting a wasp to sit quietly in its nest by shoving a stick into it," former chief justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad said of the proposed repeal of the Sedition Act.
He was speaking at Sunday's National Unity Convention, which was chaired by Datuk Azih Muda, president of the powerful civil service union Cuepacs, a vote bank of over 11 per cent of the electorate.
"Time is running out for Umno" before Malays abandon the party - that was the warning at the convention by Mr Ibrahim Ali, president of Perkasa, a big Malay non-governmental organisation whose patron is Tun Dr Mahathir.
Dr Mahathir, in a move reminiscent of how he pushed his successor Abdullah Badawi from power in 2009, withdrew his backing for Mr Najib in August and has since consistently attacked the latter's economic and political policies.
"Many policies, approaches and actions taken by the government under Najib have destroyed inter-racial ties, the economy and the country's finances," he said.
Mr Najib has steadily modulated his messaging as the Umno general assembly drew close, acknowledging that the Sedition Act involves matters "close to the hearts" of Malays and opened the door to maintaining the law with some amendments.
But his hawkish deputy Muhyiddin Yassin has repeatedly talked up tightening of the law, agreeing with right-wingers that Umno is at a "critical" stage and could lose power in the next elections.
While some believe that Mr Najib would settle for a compromise replacement law for the Sedition Act, others say the pressure on him is so great that any reform moves will need to be delayed.
"The leadership is concerned that with the rising cost of living, the floodgates of criticism will open without the Sedition Act," Mr Ibrahim Suffian, who heads the think-tank Merdeka Centre, told The Straits Times.
"Najib should be using this couple of years to fix things before the next elections, but the question is whether he can get the grassroots to understand what he has to do, or let them derail him."
This article was first published on Nov 25, 2014.
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