Najib learns that all you need is fear
LIKE the adage that it takes a thief to catch a thief, it often takes an unprincipled politician to defeat a rival with the same qualities. Certainly, any politician who wants to succeed must be able to instill fear and be unafraid to bury friends and foes alike.
The famous Italian political strategist Niccolo Machiavelli said that while it’s nice to be both loved and feared, since the two don’t come together often it’s better to be feared than loved.
Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, both towering regional leaders over the past half-century, openly espoused approval of Machiavelli’s philosophy.
That is why both stayed in power so long, despite often virulent condemnation from rivals at home and liberal governments in the West.
Lee died last year, but Mahathir, at the ripe young age of 91, is still using Machiavellian tactics to try to unseat his successor and former acolyte, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Unfortunately for the master, his pupil, who is 63 and has been PM since 2009, learned those tactics so well himself that he has managed to remain in office despite overwhelming odds.
This is truly overwhelming, for Najib not only performed poorly in the last general election, but he also stands accused of corruption on a scale that defies belief, and the accusations against him look pretty rock-solid.
The latest came on July 20, when a lawsuit was filed by the United States Justice Department to seize over US$1 billion in assets allegedly stolen from the state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).
Najib founded and, until May, was chair of 1MDB. However, with his stepson and another young buck effectively running the fund under his guidance, it soon ran up losses of around $11 billion.
Most of that was Malaysian taxpayers’ money and it was used to buy artworks and fancy real estate, make a movie, and generally allow its youthful directors to lead the life of Riley.
But America’s Justice Department probe is no small beans. It could lead to Najib’s cohorts and even the Malaysian government being unable to conduct financial transactions with the US, one of its largest trading partners.
And Washington is not alone in going after 1MDB, as auditors in Singapore, Switzerland and the UK, among others, are also going over the books and taking action.
On July 21, Singaporean authorities vetoed real estate deals worth $178 million and seized bank accounts allegedly linked to nefarious 1MDB transactions.
Singapore also booted out Switzerland’s BSI Bank over its ties to 1MDB money-laundering, and legal action has been instigated against the bank’s parent company for lack of internal oversight.
As well, the probe into 1MDB has revealed that $681 million was paid into Najib’s personal bank account and recent reports even suggest that more than $1 billion may have been channelled directly to him.
Yet by using classic Machiavellian tactics, the PM has not only survived, but with an election not due until 2018, he looks more entrenched than ever.
By hobbling the anti-corruption commission and the judiciary, repressing media coverage, and sacking dissenting officials and party members, he has not become loved, but he has become feared – feared and respected by the only people who matter to his survival: the senior members of Malaysia’s dominant political party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which he heads.
As long as Najib can count on their support, he is safe. The opposition can say he has made Malaysia a “global laughing stock”, and the courts in New York and Singapore can do as they wish, but he will remain prime minister.
He knows, and all his UMNO party members know, that China will quietly cover 1MDB’s debts in return for Malaysia taking a softer line regarding the contentious South China Sea sovereignty disputes.
As well, Najib can rely on the loyalty of most other UMNO leaders, partly because his wealth has enabled him to co-opt them, and most importantly because their own political survival depends on the party holding together.
Right now, the nation’s majority Malay community feels threatened and is pulling in the wagons.
With Malaysia’s Chinese and Indians feeling antsy, secular and fundamentalist Muslims getting aroused, and 1MDB fuelling condemnation from outside, they know it is not a time to change the commanderin-chief.
A threat to him is a threat to them and to their privileged position as the country’s dominant race and paramount power base.
That is why, even after Mahathir broke with Najib, the man he had shoehorned into the premiership, and even after Deputy PM Muhyiddin Yassin broke with his boss, Najib did not flinch.
Besides, the UMNO’s foot soldiers have bracketed these turncoats with the pesky investigative reporters on The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and the oily financial auditors in New York, Singapore and Zurich.
They believe the goal of these outside forces is to bring down their leader and thus to bring down the UMNO, and crucially to bring down the Malays.
That will not be allowed to happen. Nothing, ever, must threaten Malay supremacy in Malaysia. And the attacks on Najib, no matter how venal he has been, have the potential to do just that.
So they will be repelled. Najib will survive. And with him at the helm, the UMNO-led ruling coalition will win the next election, which may well be called early, given the disarray in the opposition ranks.
Afterward, Mahathir and Muhyiddin will be crushed and 1MDB will be forgotten. Najib will beam in triumph. And down in his Florentine tomb, Niccolo Machiavelli will wear a big smile.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak flourishes a blue cloth during an event in Kuala Lumpur on July 21.