For Najib, too much is never enough
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.