For Na­jib, too much is never enough

The Myanmar Times - - News - ROGER MIT­TON roger­mit­ton@gmail.com

EAR­LIER this week, there was a re­peat show­ing on tele­vi­sion of the 2002 movie About a Boy, in which there is a brief ref­er­ence to The Mous­tache Brothers in Man­dalay. Like many co­me­di­ans, the brothers used satire to poke fun at fig­ures in au­thor­ity, which in those days meant Myan­mar’s rul­ing gen­er­als.

In most so­ci­eties, gov­ern­ment lead­ers are rea­son­ably well-grounded and able to take a joke and laugh along with the au­di­ence.

Not Myan­mar’s dic­ta­tors back then; they put two of The Mous­tache Brothers in jail for sev­eral years.

For, although they strut­ted and pos­tured with their medals and guns, the gen­er­als were weak men, so de­void of back­bone they could be re­duced to jelly by a sim­ple joke.

To­day, there are oth­ers in the re­gion who are equally thin-skinned and spine­less. One is Malaysia’s Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak.

On Novem­ber 26, his forces de­tained the car­toon­ist Zulk­i­fli An­war Ul­haque, known as Zu­nar, and ac­cused him of mak­ing nuclear bombs and hav­ing sex with orang­utans.

No, sorry, it was for some­thing far more ab­surd: he was charged with sedi­tion, in other words con­spir­ing to bring down the state – oh, and he will also be in­ves­ti­gated for “in­ten­tion­ally hu­mil­i­at­ing a per­son.”

That per­son is Na­jib: the poor lit­tle rich-boy prime min­is­ter, whose of­fi­cials had ear­lier ar­rested Maria Chin Ab­dul­lah, a hu­man rights ac­tivist and leader of the Ber­sih (“Clean”) move­ment for free and fair elec­tions.

Both Chin and Zu­nar have now been re­leased, but the PM’s ac­tions re­it­er­ated that no strong crit­i­cism, and cer­tainly no jokes or car­toons, about him or his poli­cies, will be tol­er­ated.

Na­jib knows that satiric jibes, par­tic­u­larly about his wealth and his avari­cious wife, if al­lowed free rein, will erode his sup­port in his own party, the United Malays Na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion (UMNO).

That is why, when there is so much chat­ter about the cabi­net choices of Amer­ica’s pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump, it is worth look­ing at their Malaysian coun­ter­parts, for they are the men who keep Na­jib in power.

As­ton­ish­ingly, Na­jib’s cabi­net has 35 mem­bers. In con­trast, Trump’s is likely to be less than half that size.

Many of Na­jib’s min­is­ters were cho­sen for fidelity, not com­pe­tence. They pro­vide ver­bal and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port and en­sure the al­le­giance of the party’s con­stituency heads across the coun­try.

The re­ally piv­otal men - and they are all men, all Malay and all Mus­lim helm key min­istries and have top posts in UMNO, the lat­ter be­ing more crit­i­cal than their min­is­te­rial po­si­tions.

Thus, Home Min­is­ter and Deputy PM Zahid Hamidi, and De­fence Min­is­ter Hisham­mud­din “Hisham” Hus­sein, who are No. 2 and 3 in the party af­ter Na­jib, are the PM’s most im­por­tant lieu­tenants. If they de­fect, Na­jib would be left in a very tricky po­si­tion. He has al­ready lost one DPM, Muhyid­din Yassin, who split over a scan­dal in­volv­ing huge losses at the state in­vest­ment fund 1MDB, which Na­jib headed.

How­ever, it is un­likely to hap­pen again, since Zahid and Hisham have be­come clones of their boss, em­u­lat­ing his lack of any guid­ing phi­los­o­phy aside from sur­vival and self-ag­gran­dis­e­ment.

Ad­mit­tedly all three are savvy strate­gists, gen­er­ous net­work­ers and fer­vent Malay na­tion­al­ists, but they have also of­ten proved to be fickle turn­coats, de­void of shame and deeply ma­te­ri­al­is­tic.

Their wealth and prop­erty ac­qui­si­tions, no­tably of Na­jib and his wife Ros­mah, are the stuff of leg­ends. The ex­pres­sion “too much ain’t enough” could have been coined for them.

Zahid and Hisham have not quite reached the PM’s level of rich­ness and no­to­ri­ety, but they are get­ting there.

That said, two other traits may de­rail all three. The first is their in­tol­er­ance of crit­i­cism, whether jokey or not. And the other is their ques­tion­able ad­her­ence to Is­lamic val­ues, which in Malaysia can be fa­tal.

In­deed, it is rou­tine for UMNO politi­cians to ac­cuse op­po­si­tion Malays of be­ing unIs­lamic be­cause they al­legedly co­op­er­ate too much with the Chi­nese and In­dian com­mu­ni­ties and ab­sorb their val­ues.

Thus, they are of­ten al­leged to be wom­an­is­ers or to drink al­co­hol or eat pork – all for­bid­den un­der Is­lam; yet such threats are rarely made against rul­ing party lead­ers.

If ever they are made, the in­dis­cre­tions of UMNO men are in­vari­ably buried within the in­side pages of the state-con­trolled me­dia or sim­ply ig­nored. How­ever, in re­cent times, given the scale of the scan­dals that have plagued the Na­jib years, from mur­der ac­cu­sa­tions to multi-bil­lion dol­lar cor­rup­tion cases, it has be­come im­pos­si­ble to keep them hid­den.

And they have gen­er­ated an im­pres­sion of the pot call­ing the ket­tle black when Na­jib’s men try to ac­cuse the op­po­si­tion of be­ing unIs­lamic.

As those who at­tend pri­vate din­ners and par­ties hosted by UMNO lead­ers know full well, the booze flows freely and the chicks, while not free, are plen­ti­ful and cer­tainly don’t wear head­scarves. If he and his men are not care­ful, it is this deca­dent, “rich and fa­mous” life­style that may not only pro­vide fod­der for the car­toon­ists, but may bring down Na­jib and his team and usher in younger, cleaner lead­ers.

Of course, Na­jib’s cabi­net acolytes, as well as his le­gions of di­vi­sion heads and se­nior fig­ures in the ju­di­ciary, na­tional bank, po­lice and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices, will seek to en­sure this does not hap­pen.

All are be­holden to him through a vast pa­tron­age net­work, which is why, although he may ap­pear to have too much lu­cre for any mor­tal man to com­pre­hend, it is never enough.

Mean­while, if any­one – op­po­si­tion MP or jour­nal­ist, hu­man rights ac­tivist or co­me­dian – dares to say oth­er­wise and hu­mil­i­ate Na­jib, they had bet­ter pre­pare to be smacked down. Very very harshly.

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