As the coronavirus situation deteriorates in Malaysia, brickbats are coming thick and fast for Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin – not just from the official opposition, but from ostensibly friendly forces as well.

Former prime minister Najib Razak – voted out of office in 2018 and facing jail time for convictions linking him to the multibillion-dollar 1MDB financial scandal – has emerged as a complainer-in-chief of sorts against the current administration.

A third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic that stretches back to September has snowballed at a startling pace in recent weeks, with consecutive days of record new cases – including a tally of 9,020 on Saturday. The figure dropped to 6,999 and 6,824 on Sunday and Monday respectively ahead of the two-week “total lockdown” that begins on Tuesday.

The government announced the measure – which shuts most businesses and bans dining in as well as social gatherings during the lockdown period – amid signs that the health care system was close to being overwhelmed.

Opposition leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Guan Eng have assailed Muhyiddin for the authorities’ seemingly haphazard manner of announcing fresh restrictions.

The toughest jabs, however, have come from Najib, whose United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is a key cog of the ruling administration.

In his latest salvo on Monday, he suggested the government was taking the side of multinational companies as it allowed certain manufacturing sectors to continue operating during the 14-day lockdown. He claimed the government was allowing this on the basis that it was in the interest of keeping global economic supply chains intact.

“Who will uphold justice for millions of ordinary citizens and small traders who will make sacrifices during this full lockdown while large companies owned by MNCs [multinational corporations] and wealthy corporations continue making profits without disruption?” he asked.

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“The Movement Control Order was already half-baked, don’t let the total lockdown become a tiga suku [three-quarters] lockdown,” he wrote on Facebook, referring to the restrictions that were in place before the government announced the tougher measures on Friday.

Political analysts said such commentary had by and large struck a chord with citizens increasingly despondent over the country’s fraught politics, amid a perception that Muhyiddin’s administration lacks the competence to see Malaysia out of the current crisis.

His Perikatan Nasional alliance came to power in March last year after a complicated power struggle that displaced the then ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Muhyiddin – who orchestrated the self-coup that handed him power – this January obtained royal assent for an eight-month state of national emergency that grants him powers to govern by fiat.

Parliament is suspended, and despite pleas from the opposition for the legislature to sit – MPs have largely been vaccinated – the government has insisted that the status quo will remain until at least August.

Political observer Pauline Leong told This Week in Asia a common perception was that Najib, prime minister from 2009 until 2018, was functioning better as “opposition” compared with his time in power.

James Chin, a Malaysia watcher at Australia’s University of Tasmania, said the former premier was accurately echoing resentment on the ground. However, Chin opined that the objective of the criticism was to signal that Najib, not Muhyiddin, was the more capable crisis-time leader in the government camp.

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This effort would also help him boost his standing within Umno, which according to observers is split between several camps, one of which backs Najib and the current party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

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“I think the longer Najib is out there, and the bigger the mess the government makes on [lockdown-related policies], it will make him look better and better,” Chin said.

“There’s also a view that within Umno, they really don’t have talent – and at the end of the day, if you look at all the current Umno leadership, he is still the most talented among the key leaders.”

Umno currently supplies 38 MPs to Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition, more than the 31 MPs from the prime minister’s Bersatu party in the 222-seat parliament.

Zahid, like Najib, is on trial for corruption charges.

Both could be ineligible for the next national election – expected to be called after the pandemic abates – if they are not exonerated from their current legal woes.

National University of Malaysia political science professor Muhamad Nadzri Mohamed Noor said the perception of Najib’s status as an effective conduit for public sentiment had been made easier by the “vacuum” left by Pakatan Harapan.

The opposition alliance – once led by two-time prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was ousted in Muhyiddin’s coup – has endured setbacks including the elder statesman’s departure from its ranks.

Within the alliance, led by veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim, instability has been precipitated by defections to the current prime minister’s camp.

Nadzri suggested Najib’s effective communication skills combined with his “authoritarian” leadership chops were coming handy in portraying him as an alternative to Muhyiddin.

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For his part, Muhyiddin has thus far avoided publicly volleying back against Najib, though the Umno man has been on the receiving end of veiled barbs from government lieutenants such as finance minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz.

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In a May 23 interview with state media, Muhyiddin said critics were free to point fingers at the government for the current state of affairs, but ultimately a “whole of society” approach was required to deal with the health crisis.

“They can blame the government. They can scold the prime minister. I accept. [Call me] ‘stupid prime minister’, it’s OK. I can say it on television,” he said. “I know how difficult it is to manage. “But this is our joint responsibility. The approach is not whole of government but whole of society. The entire society must come together, only then we can flatten the Covid-19 curve.”

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As for Najib, could his efforts help illuminate political prospects that have been dimmed by his legal woes?

Analysts said the courts would ultimately decide the 67-year-old’s fate, but his current stance might have a bearing on how Muhyiddin – who wields vast executive powers during the state of emergency – perceives him in the coming months.

Najib is appealing a 12-year jail sentence imposed last year in the first of the 1MDB-linked trials he is facing. If he loses the bid at the Court of Appeal, he can still appeal to the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest judicial body.

Politically, what will happen to Najib “will basically be in the hands of Muhyiddin”, said Chin, the Australia-based scholar. “Whether Muhyiddin wants to reach out to rescue him, it is really up to Muhyiddin. This comes back to what sort of deal Muhyiddin is willing to live with [vis-à-vis] Umno.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.



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