Few countries pay as much attention to their deputy prime ministers as Malaysians do. The number two spot in the government is often fought for with a fervour stronger than for the PM’s post. When not being contested, the person occupying it had better get every part of his act clean, at least in public. The slightest involvement in any controversy will be the road to resignation, or, in the case of Anwar Ibrahim, unceremonious dismissal and arrest.
With that brief introduction to Malaysian politics, it is no surprise that the current deputy prime minister, Najib Abdul Razak (pic), is now in the spotlight, even if the country’s tightly controlled mainstream media are not allowed to reflect this situation. Najib’s name cropped up during what is now considered Malaysia’s most-talked-about trial, comparable only to Anwar Ibrahim’s trials some years ago. Only this time, the prosecution appears to be acting like the defence, especially when the person in the dock is closely connected to the top leadership.
Altantuya Sharibu, a Mongolian lady, was brutally murdered and her body blown up using C4 explosives. Two police officers attached to the country’s elite squad, which forms part of the PM’s and his deputy’s security apparatus, were arrested. But the main suspect is Abdul Razak Baginda – not to be confused with Najib’s father – a political analyst and government negotiator closely connected to Najib, who is a prime ministerial aspirant.
In one of the trial’s sessions, a prosecution witness testified that she had seen a photograph of the deputy prime minister and Abdul Razak Baginda, the defendant, having dinner with Altantuya in France. The prosecutor tried to silence her, as this was bound to create shockwaves, especially after Najib had denied knowing the victim. Anwar, Najib’s former colleague, had earlier challenged the police to investigate Najib’s link with the whole affair. In many of the court proceedings, both prosecution and defence witnesses testified that the Mongolian lady had been waiting for a promised sum of US$500,000 from the accused, who had admitted to an affair with Altantuya. But the unasked question in the mainstream media is why such a large sum was being demanded. Anwar has made no secret his suspicion that this is part of a multi million-dollar kickback following Malaysia’s purchase of Russian-made Sukhoi fighter aircraft, which Altantuya and Razak played a role in securing.
But, as events during Anwar’s own saga a few years ago showed, rumours in Malaysia are not to be dismissed. Nor have denials by Najib that he had anything to do with Altantuya succeeded in preventing speculation, what with Najib being no stranger to juicy controversies in Malaysian coffee-shops.
All these come at a time when prime minister Abdullah Badawi ponders on the next general elections. With many unsettled issues such as the economy, social ills, soaringcrime rates and, of course, the ongoing speculation about the murder trial, Abdullah is content to keep everyone guessing. Some say it is probably the only power he has (that of choosing an election date) amid increasing public perception of a weak prime minister and deteriorating economic and social conditions. However, Abdullah has to worry less about winning the elections than about living up to Mahathir’s successes, to which his four-year-old administration has always been compared.
What is certain is that the elections will be held way before the deadline of April 2009. The initial support shown to Abdullah’s government has waned because of a series of failures; no less important, Anwar’s ban from active politics will end next April. Even then, events in the opposition front, particularly within the party of which Anwar is the de facto leader, suggest that the “Anwar factor”, at least in electoral politics, should not be Abdullah’s preoccupation as much as it was when Anwar announced his intention to return to politics earlier this year.
Although many agree that Anwar will be able to unite the opposition parties, or at least consolidate the People’s Justice Party (PKR), which is led by his wife, his entry has become more like the proverbial bull in a china-shop. The fact that two of his closest aides, among many other old-time party stalwarts, have decided to quit the party because of a “a loss of confidence in Anwar”, shows that all is not well with the Anwar camp. Ezam Mohammed Noor, a key person in the Reformasi movement, as well as instrumental in converting the Reformasi fervour into a political party, left the party citing loss of confidence in Anwar’s leadership. So too has Nallakaruppan, a long-time friend of Anwar’s who risked his life in 1998 by refusing to make a false confession that would have incriminated the then prime-minister-in-waiting. He was threatened with the death penalty for possession of illegal firearms, and was later jailed on a related offence. A few years earlier, many of Anwar’s aides had already deserted him, the most prominent being Chandra Muzaffar.
That does not mean that Anwar’s old colleagues in the government and UMNO have abandoned his party altogether. A few still linger, most of them those whose credibility has waned because of years of service in UMNO during the height of Mahathir’s power. Many more members from different opposition backgrounds now occupy key posts in PKR. But even a political creature like Anwar, whose prime ministerial ambition has yet to abate, will need more than loyalty and principled followers. Principles, as opposed to multi-million dollars’ worth of politicking and networking in the true tradition of UMNO, are not the best way to go about becoming the prime minister in a electoral democracy.
As the country celebrates fifty years of independence this month, its politics, in the meantime, might have just completed a full circle, back to the days when the opposition parties fight their own wars, with UMNO, the party which has won every election since independence, continuing to play the dominant role. PAS will continue to struggle for an Islamic state as a permanent agenda, against the wishes of a small but noisy opposition-minded minority who argue for a ‘secular’ nation. Where does Anwar’s PKR come in? Some cynics say that it will have to find its own niche to woo for more support in the complex racial playground of Malaysian politics.
Coupled with an electoral system that is rife with improprieties, Malaysia’s next general elections victors will be the same old tired faces. And this despite the looming of yet another crisis in UMNO, with another deputy prime minister being in the thick of the action.