Malaysian politics is reaching a tipping point. Umno, which has dominated peninsula politics since before Malayan federation in 1957 is becoming increasingly tarnished.
The long-expected jailing of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, with his wife Rosmah being convicted of corruption and receiving a 10-year jail sentence and RM970 million fine has brought home some stark realities.
The trial of Umno President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is expected to result in a guilty verdict in the not-too-distant future.
He faces 47 charges including criminal breach of trust (CBT), money laundering, and corruption.
Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim, an Umno Supreme Council member and Chairman of Tabung Haji, is due to receive a verdict on corruption and money laundering charges soon, as well.
Shahrir Abdul Samad, the former Felda chairman, is currently on trial for money laundering, and Kinabatangan MP Bung Moktar Radin and his wife have been ordered by the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court to answer corruption charges.
The jailing of Najib and conviction of Rosmah have greatly enhanced Malaysians’ respect for the judiciary.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has also picked up some popularity due to his steadfastness in refusing to interfere in the trials of his Umno comrades.
Perception of Umno may have reached a tipping point
Malays have been told for generations that they must vote for Umno out of gratitude. This has been an implied “social understanding” between Umno and Malay-centric electorates that kept Umno in power from before Merdeka until the 2018 general election, when they lost to Pakatan Harapan.
Mahathir was able to challenge this “social understanding” by portraying Najib as a corrupt leader, and voters should not feel obligated to vote for Umno any longer.
Since the fall of the Pakatan government in February 2020, and its replacement with a Malay-centric coalition then headed by Muhyiddin Yassin, support for Pakatan was decimated, as was seen in both the Melaka and Johor state election results.
Most pundits, including this writer, had written off Pakatan as having any chance of rewinning the government in the coming general election.
Najib, after his 2020 conviction with a stay of sentence execution, played the role of “prime minister in waiting,” yielding great power within Umno with Zahid.
However, this power appears to have primarily evaporated since his physical incarceration, also leaving Zahid in a very weak position.
The rage within some of Umno’s rank and file Zahid was able to generate on the day of Najib’s jailing seems to have mostly disappeared by the day Rosmah received her guilty verdict in the High Court.
Zahid appears to now be on borrowed time. The realities of a potential criminal conviction are setting in fast, while his support base is quickly dispersing.
On the other hand, Ismail Sabri, who was verbally attacked by Zahid’s supporters and had to arrive at the Umno headquarters in an armored convoy, only has to be patient before he is in a position to take control of the organization.
With the Umno brand badly damaged, Ismail Sabri basically has two choices.
The first is to wait until Zahid is convicted, and then go for a takeover of Umno.
One would expect most Umno warlords would fall into line. This would enable Ismail Sabri to announce an immediate reorganization of Umno, regenerating the branding into something acceptable to the Malay electorate. This would be welcomed.
The second option is to distance himself along with his cabinet from Umno and go with a new Malay-centric coalition.
This way, Ismail Sabri can distance himself from the wreckage with a new electoral force.
Both scenarios most probably mean there will be a general election later rather than sooner.
A new chance for the opposition
The opposition forces have been dealt a new set of cards for the coming general election. GE15 is potentially winnable, if they play the right cards.
This is a dramatic change in fate for the opposition, which will prevent them from being decimated as many have predicted in the coming general election.
However, the opposition cannot by any means be complacent. Umno is still a very strong adversary. Umno has to be beaten by hard and smart electioneering. Umno is just not going to lose by themselves.
The greatest danger for the opposition forces is that they are splintered and three- or even four-cornered fights will cost them dearly, allowing Umno and the Barisan Nasional to win.
The opposition’s priority must be focused on creating a candidate line-up that will not waste votes cast for the opposition forces.
The opposition cannot rely on any bonuses from the youth vote. Many have been indoctrinated through the education and other social institutions and want a Malay-centric state. They see a Malay-centric state as something much more important than opposition pledged reforms.
They may be sympathetic towards a new Malay-centric front or a reformed Umno.
Gaining the youth vote will be a massive challenge for the opposition.
Any metamorphosis of Umno will appeal to many. This can easily make Ismail Sabri the winner of GE15, with the support of GPS in Sarawak, and Umno Sabah.
The most likely result with a good opposition performance is that no single grouping will have the numbers to govern. Pakatan will have to look very closely at potential scenarios. The Anwar Ibrahim-Rafizi Ramli relationship will make or break Pakatan. They must find the potentially winning scenario and sell it successfully to the people.
The ideal election would be a reborn Umno versus a recalibrated opposition.
We need to watch these two spaces very closely.
(Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 40 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic and researcher. He was an associate professor at Universiti Malaysia Perlis.)