In Malaysia's widening political crisis, Najib Razak's fight is only just beginning
Yang Razali Kassim says while the prime minister may well survive the political infighting triggered by a damaging fund scandal, his party is unlikely to escape the fallout
The night after Muhyiddin Yassin was sacked as Malaysia's deputy prime minister, his wife was gripped by rumours that her husband was about to be arrested. Muhyiddin then called his successor, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, to seek confirmation. When Zahid called back at 2am, Muhyiddin asked: "So is your first job as the new deputy prime minister to catch an old one?" Recounting his post-sacking experience to a gathering of party supporters in his home state, Johor, Muhyiddin said: "He [Zahid] told me not to believe rumours, saying, 'You can sleep peacefully tonight'."
Indeed, Muhyiddin strikes a cool composure. Despite losing his government post, he pledged his loyalty to the party. But he let it be known that he was still the elected deputy president of Umno - the main party in the country's ruling coalition - second only to Prime Minister Najib Razak, who sacked him late last month for being openly critical on the scandal involving 1MDB, a state investment fund advised by Najib.
Triggered by media allegations of 1MDB funds going into Najib's personal account, which Najib contests, the controversy has become the epicentre of Malaysia's latest political earthquake.
As the crisis gets more convoluted, two significant developments have emerged. The first is the growing split within Umno, with reports of a possible revolt by Muhyiddin loyalists. Three days after the bombshell sacking, there was a second shift - the admission of an Umno political fund.
Top Umno leaders gradually conceded there is a party trust account held in Najib's personal account, but Umno's party constitution allows this; and finally, the funds are not from 1MDB but are "political donations". The anti-corruption commission, with uncharacteristic speed, declared that the 2.6 billion ringgit (HK$5.1 billion) Najib received was a political donation from a secret person in the Middle East.
The political fund narrative, not surprisingly, opened up a new hornet's nest. It was immediately criticised by the opposition as a tactic to deflect attention from the 1MDB issue. Najib's fiercest critic, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, however, disclosed that, in his time, there was no such thing as a personal account for party funds, but trust accounts held by three trustees. Mahathir said if the donations had funded Umno's campaigns in the 2013 general election, the huge amount could have been in breach of election rules on limits of political funding. If true, there could also be other implications on the legitimacy of the 2013 elections.
The new controversy over political funding appears to have given Najib some time as he manoeuvres to buttress his position and possibly even crush his critics. True enough, a warrant of arrest has been obtained for journalist Clare Rewcastle-Brown, the founder of the website Sarawak Report, which triggered the 1MDB exposé.
The high-powered special task force set up in the aftermath has now been disbanded. To add to the convolution, police have arrested investigators from the anti-corruption team, provoking accusations of questionable police interventions. Indicative of what is to come, a commentary in the mainstream New Straits Times hinted at more changes afoot, "including changes in key Umno positions at the party headquarters and state liaison chiefs".
Further, it said, some "top-level reshuffle involving key government entities and government-linked companies is also being planned". Going by this commentary, Najib's next move appears to be a counter-offensive painting himself the victim of an international "conspiracy" out to "criminalise" him.
While Najib appears to have strengthened his hand for now, the political crisis has only just begun. Even if Najib survives this, it is hard to imagine how he would emerge unscathed.
The big question is whether the ruling coalition can retain power in the next general election. Malaysian politics is entering yet another explosive and unpredictable phase.
Yang Razali Kassim is senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore