A crazy week in Malaysia politics

On the evening before the explosive Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was hosting a buka puasa function for the media fraternity in Shah Alam.

The venue was the sprawling complex of the Karangkraf Media Group that publishes the Malay daily Sinar Harian. It even has its own mosque.

The Kelantan-born Karangkraf chairman and CEO Datuk Hussamuddin Yaacub is a naturally energetic and bubbly person but his adrenaline was on overdrive as he waited for the Prime Minister to arrive.

Najib, in contrast, was a picture of calm - all smiles, rosy-cheeked, slimmed-down and dressed in a milky green baju Melayu. He was in a relaxed mood and it looked like all was well in the world around him.

In hindsight, that evening was the calm before the storm.

And what a storm it has been.

Despite a number of discrepancies, the WSJ report has opened a can of worms - billion ringgit transactions, private bank accounts and allegations of impropriety. To borrow a street term, it seemed like the s*** had hit the fan.

Najib's team has scrambled to answer some of the questions raised and to do damage control.

His lawyers have given the United States-based publication 14 days to respond, failing which they intend to "exhaust all legal avenues and remedies".

A special taskforce comprising four of the biggest names in government has been set up to investigate the allegations. Najib has stressed that the truth will prevail in the investigations.

At the same time, there has been an overload of speculation, rumours and misinformation.

A pro-opposition news portal wrongly claimed that the accounts frozen by a high-powered taskforce set up to look into the 1MDB-related funds belonged to Najib.

There was even a WhatsApp message going around and claiming that convicted murderer Sirul Azhar would be giving an interview in Australia to name the murderer of the dead Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu. It was a hoax.

The son of the former AmBank executive Hussain Ahmad Najadi, who was shot dead two years ago, also jumped on the bandwagon, telling the notorious Sarawak Report that his father died for reporting corruption in the bank.

Sarawak Report released a 2009 picture of Najib and his family posing with PetroSaudi owner Prince Saudi and the infamous Jho Low. The purpose was to illustrate the 1MDB deal with PetroSaudi.

The Umno bloggers retaliated with a picture of Sarawak Report founder Clare Rewcastle Brown and Datuk Khairuddin Hassan in what looked like a London hotel. Their aim was to link the Sarawak Report with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad because Khairuddin is seen as an operative of the former Premier.

There was evidently a fierce psywar coming from both sides to own the public opinion space.

But the one that took the cake was DAP leader Lim Kit Siang calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry to be set up and headed by Dr Mahathir.

Lim is getting famous for his bizarre ideas. Dr Mahathir wants Najib out, he has been hounding Najib non-stop on the 1MDB issue and now Lim wants Dr Mahathir to head an RCI on Najib and 1MDB.

Lim, famous for accusing the government of running kangaroo courts, is basically suggesting that the accuser become the prosecutor as well as judge and executioner.

IGP Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar had his hands full refuting some of the nonsense on social media. He looked like he could not decide whether to laugh or cry when someone asked whether it was true that he was going to arrest Dr Mahathir.

It was as if the circus had come to town.

The storm is not over yet and the issue is still making front-page headlines in all the newspapers.

"Everything is moving so fast. Umno is not in turmoil but there is a lot of confusion among our members especially about why Tun Mahathir has gone so far," said Umno orator and Kok Lanas assemblyman Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad.

There is no denying that Najib is under pressure. It is no longer a secret that there are now allegations that Umno deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is on the same page as Dr Mahathir and that he is hungry to take over from Najib.

Utusan Malaysia carried a big picture of him in the role of imam for maghrib prayers after breaking fast with the media earlier this week. It was a very powerful image, and he was sending a strong message to his party.

Muhyiddin has one little problem though - the Umno ground does not seem to be moving with him despite several endorsements from Dr Mahathir. The reason could also be that Umno members do not appreciate Dr Mahathir forcing his will on the party again.

But who knows, things may change in the months to come.

Najib is politically wounded and there is talk that some Umno leaders want him to go on leave. But, on the whole, the party is still with him.

"It's the Malay culture, there is sympathy for what Najib is going through. Many of us don't like it that the attack is coming from outside the country," said Kapar Umno chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah.

Najib received a much needed boost from his Cabinet on Wednesday.

Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said that after listening to the Prime Minister's explanation, the Cabinet wants the law to take its course and wait for the outcome of the investigations into the 1MDB funds.

The implication is that the Cabinet is standing by Najib and will not pressure him to step down.

The ministers joined Najib after the Cabinet meeting as he officiated the induction of young interns joining the offices of Cabinet ministers. It was what journalists would call a "photo-op" (photo oppor­tunity) and the fraternal scene was clearly not accidental.

Innocent until proven guilty

The Cabinet backing, said a political insider, is necessary and expected.

"At that level, they have to go on facts. The Cabinet cannot make decisions based on what appears in a news report or on sentiments. This is not like the Umno supreme council which can decided based on political interests or sentiments. The investigation is ongoing, they have to presume innocence until and unless proven otherwise," said the insider.

Najib's survival as Prime Minister is dependent on the outcome of the investigations.

The high-powered taskforce comprising the head of the police force, Bank Negara, Attorney-General's Office and MACC has moved to centrestage and a lot is expected of them.

They will have to ask the relevant questions like where the money in the accounts being investigated came from, whose money was it and where did the money go? These are thorny questions and the taskforce has to provide some answers.

Najib's personal image, said the above political insider, is at a critical level, and his standing as a leader may not be the same again.

This is not an overnight thing. It has been building up over the last few years - stories, true and untrue about his wife and their lifestyle. They could have nipped it in the bud but they did not do enough, and the stories just grew more outlandish and exaggerated.

Najib has become too easy a target of smear attacks, and there will come a time when his party feels they are fighting too many fires set off around him.

The Barisan Nasional side seems frozen, unsure how to react to what is happening.

Pakatan Rakyat or whatever remains of it, is not doing much better.

"Instead of jumping the gun and demanding that Najib resign, the opposition could have been more professional and suggest the scope of the investigation to help the public understand it better.

"They would have been seen as a coalition serious about taking over instead of just out to play politics and score political points. There are too many half-past-six politicians on both sides," said the above insider.

The 1MDB issue is full of cautionary tales for ambitious politicians out there. Politicians in the age of social media will be judged on what they do, what they do not do as well as what their wives and children get up to. It is an era without secrets.

As many in Umno have pointed out, the Brutus from within is always more deadly than the enemy outside. The maximum damage always comes from attacks by those inside.

Dr Mahathir, said Alwi, opened the door to the attacks.

History will see him playing a pivotal role in the rise and fall of his successors. He is like the striker in a football match but he may have kicked the ball into his own net again.

"Tun Mahathir wanted to evict the owner of the house but now everything is catching fire," said Alwi.

Najib's survival and reputation is in the balance and it is crucial for the taskforce to quickly finish its investigation and reach a conclusion.

The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.