Tok Mat’s interview with Asia Times

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UMNO warlords quietly wanted Najib and Zahid to be jailed, but too afraid to say so.

For better or worse, the collapse of democratically elected Pakatan Harapan government after just 22 months came at a time when Malaysia was about to enter a series of political, economic, financial and social uncertainty. Muhyiddin Yassin was on cloud nine when he succeeded in stealing the government through a political coup in the infamous “Sheraton Move” in 2020.

Muhyiddin, whose real name is Mahiaddin, was sworn in as the 8th Prime Minister on March 1, 2020. But he came to power through backdoor deals, working with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), an extremely corrupt political party which lost its power under Najib Razak leadership in the May 2018 General Election. Muhyiddin also worked with the extremist PAS Islamist party.

The power-crazy Muhyiddin did not mind being called the country’s first backdoor prime minister. Becoming the most powerful man had been the pancreatic cancer patient’s dream since decades ago. The shameless man might be the most cunning Malay-Muslim leader who would not think twice about crossing red lines for the sake of power and position. But it came with a price.

The hastily glued Malay-centric Perikatan Nasional coalition government – comprising Bersatu (Muhyiddin’s party), UMNO and PAS – was so fragile it had only a two-seat majority in Parliament. To survive, not only Muhyiddin’s regime had to reward each of the 114 MPs who supported him with minister, deputy minister or chairmanship, but he was also under frequent threats.

Those threats came from the Court Cluster, in reference to several UMNO leaders facing graft charges in court, including former Prime Minister Najib Razak and UMNO president Zahid Hamidi. While both crooks said in public that they would fight their corruption charges in the court, behind the scene, they met PM Muhyiddin and demanded that their criminal charges dropped.

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When those demands were ignored, a group of 15 UMNO MPs, led by Najib and Zahid, staged a rebellion by withdrawing support for the backdoor PM. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. And those who betray their friends will eventually be betrayed. So, after just 17 months in power, traitor Muhyiddin suffered his biggest humiliation as he reluctantly resigned in August 2021.

To make matters worse, Muhyiddin was not a prime minister material from the beginning. His economic mismanagement and Covid-19 mishandling saw his popularity plunged like a rock even among Malays who were initially hooked and charmed by his racist “Malay First” mantra. Manipulating Covid-19 data to stay in power via multiple lockdowns, it caused hardship to the people, who struggled to put food on the table.

It was only after he lost power that Muhyiddin exposed how Najib and Zahid approached him to interfere with the judiciary, a common practice under the previous UMNO government. Make no mistake. Muhyiddin refused to drop charges against his former UMNO colleagues not because he believed in justice. Rather, it was because Najib and Zahid were direct threats to his power.

However, the rebellion by the Najib and Zahid faction has also exposed the internal power struggle within UMNO itself. Ismail Sabri, the vice president of UMNO, had stood behind Muhyiddin instead of supporting his own party’s boss. Not only had Sabri challenged the leadership of Zahid, but also betrayed and breached the discipline and etiquette of his own party.

Instead of facing the disciplinary board over his unforgivable betrayal, the turtle-egg man was elevated as the 9th Prime Minister. In order to stay in power and maintain the status quo, Najib and Zahid chose not to rock the boat, closing both eyes and supported their junior comrade as the new premier. They hoped puppet Ismail could be manipulated and pressured to drop their criminal charges.

Interestingly, the bad blood and distrust are not confined to rivalry between the Najib-Zahid and Ismail Sabri factions. As PM Ismail Sabri defiantly played dumb and dragged his feet over UMNO leadership’s call to dissolve the parliament for an early snap election, Zahid sacked UMNO Supreme Council member Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, an UMNO warlord loyal to the PM, to send a message to Ismail Sabri.

In retaliation, Tajuddin exposed how Najib and Mohamad Hasan plotted to overthrow Zahid as early as May 2020. However, the plan did not materialize after UMNO deputy president Mohamad chickened out after being threatened by Zahid’s men. Tajuddin also revealed 130 out of 181 UMNO divisions wanted party president Zahid to step down.

So, not only there are two factions – the Court Cluster (Najib and Zahid) and Minister Cluster (Ismail Sabri), but even within the Court Cluster, Najib is ready to backstab Zahid with his hidden knife. That’s because the thuggish and arrogant Zahid, as UMNO president, has the power to sign the letters of candidacy for UMNO members wishing to contest in the next election.

And Zahid is abusing that power by threatening members who dare speak against his leadership. It’s this absolute power which is stopping Ismail Sabri from calling an early national poll. Once the parliament is dissolved, Ismail Sabri is powerless and dead meat. There’s nothing to stop Zahid from refusing to sign a letter of candidacy for Ismail Sabri, who is seen as a temporary prime minister.

Without Zahid’s signature, PM Ismail Sabri is game over because he cannot become a prime minister without first winning a parliamentary seat. And why should Zahid sign the letter of candidacy (“surat watikah”) for his junior colleague who had challenged him last year, and will again challenge him for the prime ministership after the next 15th General Election?

Likewise, after Tajuddin’s revelation, the suspicion and distrust between Najib and Zahid might see many pro-Najib UMNO warlords denied the letters of candidacy to contest. The UMNO president has already announced there would be 70% new faces at the next election, not to mention there is no guarantee UMNO divisional chiefs will be fielded automatically.

Despite Najib’s popularity, it appears that not everyone likes the idea that the convicted former PM is hogging the limelight. The latest Asia Times interview with Mohamad, popularly known as Tok Mat, has shed some light over the silent dissatisfaction and frustration with Najib, who is being blamed for the loss of power in 2018 due to 1MDB scandal.

In the interview, Tok Mat said Najib should go to jail for his role in the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal. He also said that the root of the nation’s current malaise stemmed from UMNO’s failure (under Najib previous leadership) to “tell the truth” about the scandal. More damaging, the UMNO No. 2 said Najib has to go to jail first before a royal pardon can even be considered.

After the interview was published, Mohamad chickened out after his comments turned out to be too hot to handle, so much so that he was afraid it might rub someone up the wrong way. After he accused Asia Times of taking his statements out of context, the portal’s journalist Nick Kochan released the recording of the interview, which is consistent with what Tok Mat had said.

Tok Mat said Najib should not expect special treatment from an UMNO-led government if he is eventually jailed on graft charges – “The court is the place where you can prove whether you’re innocent or not. He didn’t prove it. He couldn’t prove it. Everybody has to pay their dues. But if we want to pardon, he (Najib) has to go through the process. He’ll have to go inside first”.

In his denial, however, Mohamad Hasan insisted that what he meant was that Najib should get a fair trial first. Trying to twist and spin, the UMNO deputy president said he was merely explaining the pardon process in Malaysia. The funny part is, exactly why Tok Mat had to explain about the pardon process if indeed he thinks Najib is innocent or the trial has been unfair?

In fact, Tok Mat obviously believes Najib is guilty as hell when he said the former PM did not and could not prove his innocence. On July 28, 2020, Najib was sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined RM210 million for the crimes involving RM42 million stolen from SRC International Sdn Bhd (a subsidiary of 1MDB). Later, the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court’s decision.

Not only all the three senior judges of the Court of Appeal had thrown out Najib’s appeal, they also used harsh language, calling the ex-PM’s corruption a “national embarrassment”. The Court of Appeal was convinced that Najib was the big boss behind SRC. Najib now has only one final shot at the Federal Court, the highest court and the final appellate court in the country.

Mohamad can choose to keep quiet. Instead, he agreed to the exclusive interview with Asia Times. He can choose to blindly defend Najib. Instead, he admitted that Najib failed to prove his innocence in court. He can choose to criticize the unfair trial of Najib. Instead, he pre-emptively suggested that Najib should enjoy prison time before a royal pardon process can begin.

As the party’s No 2, Tok Mat’s opinion carries weight. He’s a seasoned politician and knew what he was talking about. His belief that Najib should go to jail after being convicted by both the High Court and the Court of Appeal is being shared by many UMNO warlords and members. An equally ambitious man who desires to become the prime minister himself, Tok Mat was using the interview to test the water.

Yes, he deliberately used the interview to indirectly attack Najib to gauge the reaction from UMNO leaders and members. If he received heavy criticisms, he knows it’s not the time to go for the top prize. So far, not a single UMNO leader has condemned Tok Mat. Not even Zahid, who had been singing songs of praises for Najib before Tajuddin’s revelations, has questioned his deputy’s motive.

But the UMNO deputy president isn’t the only one who thinks Najib should go to jail. Other heavyweights, including Khairy Jamaluddin, Annuar Musa, Tajuddin Ramli and Nazri Aziz, are some UMNO warlords who wanted to see Najib going to jail so that UMNO’s tainted image due to 1MDB can be improved. Basically, more than half of 38 UMNO MPs are ready to throw Najib under the bus.

Most keep quiet as they are afraid of betting the wrong horse, especially when Najib is still useful to pull the crowds during election campaigns. It didn’t help that Ismail Sabri is not only weak and indecisive, but has proven to be an ineffective leader. Others, like Hishammuddin Hussein (cousin of Najib Razak), are secretly engaged in horse trading to contest for the UMNO president.

With Ismail Sabri, Zahid Hamidi, Najib Razak, Hishammuddin Hussein and even Khairy Jamaluddin eyeing the Iron Throne, it will be a very crowded, brutal and fierce game of backstabbing and betraying. If a wrestling match is any indicator, it’s always a wise strategy for the underdogs to work together to defeat the top contenders, whom in this case are Najib and Zahid, in the qualification match.

The current perception that UMNO-led Barisan Nasional will definitely win the next national election could be a double-edged sword. The narrative that UMNO will win big could boomerang and hit the party unexpectedly. The daggers are out for not only PM Ismail, but also for Najib and Zahid as both toxic leaders are seen as major obstacles to warlords who think the party needs clean leaders. – Finance Twitter