BY JOCELINE TAN
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has had a tough year with issues big and small affecting his public image, but he continues to get full support from Umno.
THERE has been much buzz over the Umno gathering taking place today between Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and the party’s division chiefs. Even the foreign media has been pestering Cheras Umno chief Datuk Seri Syed Ali Alhabshee for his views on the meeting.
“I told them, don’t be stupid, none of us are going to ask Najib to step down. We want to tell him that he has our support,” he said.
But the division leaders also want a clearer explanation on the burning issue of the day: 1MDB.
“We need him to distinguish between the rubbish and the facts so that we can explain to the Umno members,” said Syed Ali.
The Cheras strongman is not only a fierce defender of the Umno president, he has also been very vocal about it.
His defence of Najib is a stark contrast to his stand during Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s time. Syed Ali was so vociferous about asking Abdullah to take responsibility and resign after the 2008 general election that Abdullah summoned him to his Putrajaya residence.
Abdullah had asked him point blank: “So you want me to leave?”That set off a torrent of words from Syed Ali, who was so loud and blunt that Abdullah’s political secretary literally ran out of the room.
Call it double standard, blind loyalty or whatever, but Syed Ali is standing by Najib.
“First of all, we have confidence in him. Second, we don’t want problems in the party,” he said.
The meeting involves 191 division chiefs, many of whom go back some way with Najib. They are also known as the “Telegram group”, so named because they are part of the Telegram instant messaging chat group used by the division chiefs.
The last one was in November before the Umno general assembly and this meeting, said another Najib loyalist, Datuk Sharkar Shamsuddin, is also to hear what Najib has to say before the Umno branch meetings start in a week’s time.
1MDB’s multi-billion investment troubles is the most serious crisis that Najib, who is also 1MDB chairman, has faced since becoming Prime Minister. The magnitude of the investments is mind-boggling and has been a hot topic of conversation among the business community and intelligentsia.
Then there were all those stories about Penang-born Low Jho Teck or Jho Low, his alleged role in the investment fund and his friendship with Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz.
A sensationalised article in the New York Times took things to a new level. The article was built around Low’s flamboyant personality and flashy lifestyle. Few could distinguish between what was true and what was exaggerated in the article, but the public was ready and eager to believe the worst of him.
It did not help that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was at the forefront in demanding answers.
The article also touched a raw nerve among Najib’s brothers, who took exception to a quote that Najib’s wealth came from “legacy family assets”. The four brothers are proud of their father’s reputation as Malaysia’s second Prime Minister and caused a stir when they issued their own statement to quash the claim.
Najib has since righted the picture. He reiterated that their father was an upright and frugal man who led a simple life till his last days in office.
Blood is thicker than water. His response has soothed feelings and a family member, when contacted, said: “Relations are good, they were never not good.”
Reports in recent days suggest that a debt repayment plan, in which most of the assets will be sold, is underway. After briefing the Cabinet on Wednesday, Najib said he had asked the Auditor-General to independently verify 1MDB’s accounts. It will then go before the Public Accounts Committee, which includes opposition MPs.
He also stressed that the law will be enforced without exception if any wrongdoing is proven.
“It is still going to be a rocky road but it’s the right step forward. He is telling us that he is ready to be scrutinised and will bite the bullet. There will be no cover-up. It’s an important message,” said Kapar division chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah.
There will be more questions to answer. Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has already expressed concern that government funds should not be used in any bailout.
The foreign publications are predicting that Najib is on borrowed time. Malaysia would have had more than six leaders in its 58 years of independent history if it was that easy to remove a Prime Minister.
Dr Mahathir had to put up with even more calls for him to go amid his administration’s share of financial troubles and bailouts, one of which involved his son. Then he retired in a blaze of glory after 22 years in power.
In Malaysia, there are basically two ways to remove a Prime Minister. One is by defeating his coalition in a general election, which has yet to happen in Malaysia. The other way is to defeat him in a party election.
Umno prefers to ask them to go gracefully and this has happened twice – Tunku Abdul Rahman resigned after the May 13 riots and Abdullah was pressured to go after the 2008 general election.
The opposition knows their attacks will not topple Najib. Their aim is to fertilise the ground for the next general election.
The Umno meeting today will show that Najib’s standing in Umno is still stable. The division leaders control the Umno grassroots and Najib will be up there for as long as the division leaders are with him.
Najib also scored a significant point in the last year of storms. Few can survive an attack by Dr Mahathir, but Najib managed to hold the party to his side even as the indomitable Dr Mahathir raged against him. The older man dented Najib but could not bring him down the way he did Abdullah.
“Don’t forget that he also has strong allies in the supreme council. That is the immediate level. All three vice-presidents are the president’s men,” said Pengerang division chief Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said.
Azalina will be the rose among the thorns at today’s meeting as she is the only woman division chief in Umno.
“For many division leaders, it’s basically about taking care of our constituency. The leadership supports us at that level and we support him in return,” she said.
Najib is trying to repair his public image and has cranked up his schedule. He has been spotted taking a ride on the LRT from PWTC to Masjid Jamek. He visited the MRT construction site in downtown Kuala Lumpur a few days ago. He was also seen having a meal with his two children at IOI City Mall and buying pastries at Mid Valley Megamall.
There have been too many controversies involving his family, from their recent holiday in the United States to the First Lady’s remarks about the cost of her hairdressing.
In the era of the Internet, everything done and spoken by top leaders and their families becomes public property – their lifestyle, the friends they keep, how they dress, their handbags and jewellery and, well, even their hair. That is the reality of being in political office in the age of social media.
“What it means is people who are in public office have to accept that they need to manage their private life. People are watching all the time. It is not only about doing the right thing, but to be seen as doing the right thing,” said a Malay corporate figure.
Najib came into the job as one of the most experienced leaders ever. His challenge now is to manage public perception, especially about his family.
Dr Mahathir managed it quite well for most of his career. His wife was a medical doctor but she played the demure and supportive politician’s wife to near perfection.
The spotlight may soon swing briefly from 1MDB to love and marriage. Two society weddings are about to take place within days of each other. They involve the daughters of Najib and his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
It is not known whether the dates were planned or coincidental but their daughters do coincidentally share similar names.