Najib beefs up position ahead of Umno meeting

As Prime Minister Najib Razak goes into the five-day Umno assembly starting tomorrow, there are several things going his way after a year of financial scandals that shook his administration.

A total of 5,732 party delegates, including 2,762 for the main assembly, are gathering in Kuala Lumpur for the tightly scripted annual meetings where Datuk Seri Najib will try to unite the party behind him.

The government has managed to cut by a third the huge debt load of state investor 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) after selling off its energy assets to a company from China.

The sting of the attacks by 90-year-old Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has been blunted after the former premier kept repeating the same points like a broken record.

Mr Najib, 62, has kept his main Umno detractor, deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin, on the defensive. And the Premier has maintained that the sum of RM2.6 billion (S$865 million) found in his bank accounts was a "political donation" and not from 1MDB.

Last week, the government pushed through Parliament the new National Security Council Bill that critics say added to other security laws that could be used to suppress political dissent.

All these moves are seen as helping him calm the mood in Umno, the party that picks the prime minister of Malaysia and keeps him there.

"He has found some ready ears in Umno by talking about a donation from the Middle East as it is seen as coming from a friendly direction," an aide to a Cabinet minister told The Straits Times. "And strong- arming the opposition with tough laws gives him brownie points, too."

Last year, Mr Najib was shaken by two Malaysia Airlines tragedies.

This year, financial scandals tailed him from the start of the year - beginning with 1MDB. In July the Wall Street Journal reported on the sum discovered in his bank accounts by Malaysian investigators looking into the 1MDB issue.

Mr Najib has his work cut out for him. But while the immediate outlook for the Umno president remains partially cloudy, he is in no danger of being toppled from power, analysts and party leaders say.

"His predecessors have put so much power within the presidency that it has made it very difficult to remove him. As Umno president and Prime Minister, he can dole out a lot of goodies, he has a lot of buttons to press," political analyst Khoo Kay Peng, who runs his own consultancy, told The Straits Times on the Premier's latent strength.

There are, however, clear signs that the Umno president is not quite in full control of his 3.5 million-strong party.

Instead of facing his critics head-on, Mr Najib is often seen as putting up obstacles to silence them.

His government suspended The Edge media group for three months till October after it kept raising questions about 1MDB; it brought charges against former minister Zaid Ibrahim for a speech calling for Mr Najib's ouster; and Mr Najib sacked Tan Sri Muhyiddin, 68, as deputy prime minister in July for going on about 1MDB and the giant donation.

Mr Najib is also breaking with decades of Umno tradition by gagging Mr Muhyiddin at the assembly this week.

Former Umno deputy president Tun Musa Hitam, 81, said last week that when he quit in a huff as deputy prime minister to Tun Mahathir, he was still allowed to address the 1986 assembly. "Even though there was a fight between the two key people, I performed that function," he told The Malaysian Insider.

Kedah Umno divisional leader Ramli Yunus told The Straits Times: "I don't know why they are afraid of Muhyiddin when they keep saying he has no support. In this Internet age, you have rebut the issues raised, otherwise people will laugh at you."

Despite these criticisms, all is not lost for the Umno president. If Mr Najib manages to present a united front by the end of the assembly on Saturday, he would be in a stronger position to deal with his next target - poor public perception of his administration.

This article was first published on Dec 7, 2015.
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