Be Loyal, Najib Tells Party Amid Malaysia Political Tensions

  • Five-day gathering of party chiefs a test of support for Najib
  • Former deputy among those trying to oust him from office

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak warned ruling party members to show loyalty to their leader as he seeks to solidify control after a five-month-long funding scandal.

Najib also used his speech to the United Malays National Organisation annual congress to warn the predominantly ethnic Malay audience to remain steadfast to UMNO or risk the country being governed by a party that is not Islamic. With former leader Mahathir Mohamad and ex-deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin -- two of his bigger detractors -- in the audience, Najib said the majority of the party supports him.

"I have said that amid mounting challenges and whatever tests may come, I must never give up and will stand up to problems and continue to lead UMNO to victory," he told the gathering of more than 2,700 party elites in Kuala Lumpur. "I want to remind everyone of the principle of loyalty to the leadership,” he said. “Islam states that it is compulsory to be loyal to the leader.”

Najib has repeatedly called for unity as he fends off calls from Mahathir and Muhyiddin to step down over revelations that 2.6 billion ringgit ($615 million) appeared in his private accounts before the 2013 general election. He has warned that UMNO can’t afford to give renewed traction to an opposition that splintered this year while its leader went to jail.

Power Base

The gathering of officials from UMNO, a party whose power base is rooted in the ethnic Malay majority, is being closely watched for whether divisional chiefs support Najib. The nearly-200 strong grouping has generally backed him, though that endorsement may fade if Najib is seen as a liability heading into the next election, which must be held by 2018. UMNO, which has ruled since independence in 1957, won the 2013 vote with its slimmest margin yet.

"He’s coming out of this UMNO convention much stronger politically and in some ways UMNO is more united under him," said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. Najib has been able to sideline Muhyiddin and Mahathir at the congress and has controlled all the discussions, he said.

Party Supporters

More than a thousand party supporters who didn’t get access to the main conference hall packed the foyer of UMNO’s headquarters, where a large screen on stage showed Najib’s speech. Supporters cheered in response to Najib’s call for loyalty. A few held up placards with the hashtag #kekalnajib, which translates to Long Live Najib in Malay.

"I can’t just abandon our cause and drop our mission without first settling issues raised," Najib said. "I cannot be a coward or spiritless."

Najib spoke on troubled state investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd., whose advisory board he chairs, saying it is progressing on its rationalization plan and will announce further initiatives to reduce debt.

Muhyiddin, who remains UMNO deputy president after being replaced as deputy prime minister in July, skipped Najib’s opening speech at the congress on Tuesday evening, leaving empty his designated seat on stage. The UMNO deputy typically officiates the opening of the women’s and youth wings at the meeting, but Muhyiddin didn’t do that on Wednesday.

Term Limits

In a speech to supporters Monday night, Muhyiddin called for term limits on UMNO’s presidency, saying "absolute power corrupts." There are no such restrictions now. Najib should step aside as prime minister until investigations into the donations are completed, Muhyiddin said. Najib has said the money in his accounts was political donations from the Middle East, not public funds, and on Thursday said he is "on the side of right" on the donations.

Muhyiddin is being investigated for his Monday comments, with the matter referred to UMNO’s disciplinary board, secretary-general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said Thursday.

Under Article 20 of UMNO’s constitution, members must adhere to its code of ethics, maintain the good name of the party, keep its secrets, and comply with and respect its decisions. Members who violate the rules will be referred to the disciplinary board which may issue a warning, prohibit them from running for party positions or dismiss them from UMNO.

Gentleman Premier

"There are some who have, and are, boring holes in the ship, with the aim of sinking their opponents" and risk hurting the whole system, Najib said. "I am a gentleman," the premier said to applause from the crowd. "We can solve our problems through the proper channels.”

Najib said Thursday the job of a deputy party president is to help the president in his duties. He cited religious scholars saying it’s wrong to try to overthrow the government.

"There shall be no retreat, no surrender," Najib said.

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