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Friday, July 31, 2015

Malaysia: Lightning Strike Against Enemies in UMNO and Public Officials may yet save Najib

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Whichever way one looks at the changing of the Attorney-General, the appointment of a new Special Branch head and the cabinet reshuffle, they have everything to do with that self-styled strategic development company that isn’t – 1MDB. Just what is the Prime Minister trying to achieve with the 1MDB reshuffle?
Yes, it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to reshuffle the cabinet and perhaps even to change the attorney-general and the Special Branch head. But if he hopes by this to show his strength, then he is mistaken. He exposes his weakness instead.
The cabinet reshuffle yesterday afternoon was preceded by the change of the attorney-general. Effectively Abdul Gani Patail was removed in an announcement by the Chief Secretary to the government, Ali Hamsa – the reason, health. But Abdul Gani himself was in the dark about the announcement and refused any comment to reporters.
So why was Abdul Gani so unceremoniously removed after his many years of service dating back to the time of Dr Mahathir Mohamad when he was Prime Minister? He was lead prosecutor in Anwar Ibrahim’s first sodomy case and became Attorney-General in 2002. He has served under three Prime Ministers.
More recently he became head of the task force investigating 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). As attorney-general, he had the sole authority to decide on prosecution in the country. Others in the task force are Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, Governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, the Inspector-General of Police Abdul Khalid Abu Bakar, and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Chief Commissioner Abu Kassim Mohamad.
Right now the Prime Minister is facing allegations, not properly denied by him or his office, that some RM2.7 billion was deposited into his accounts at AMIslamic Bank. This was reported by The Wall Street Journal which has unambiguously stood by its story. Perhaps the Prime Minister thinks that Abdul Gani is too close to Mahathir, a constant critic of him in recent times and especially over 1MDB, and therefore cannot be trusted.
The new Attorney-General is an UMNO loyalist and a former Federal Court judge. A change at this stage must raise questions as to whether it is being done to ensure that there is no prosecution of the Prime Minister in investigations related to him and 1MDB.
The change in heads at the Special Branch, which does a lot of undercover investigations, acts as the eyes and ears of the government and provides it with intelligence of what is happening on the ground, will raise similar questions especially about why the changes are taking place now.
And then there is the cabinet reshuffle which is related entirely to the 1MDB issue. First out was Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to be replaced by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. And out was also another Minister, Shafie Apdal. Their only ‘crimes’ were to question the way the Prime Minister was handling the multi-faceted 1MDB problems.
Echoing the feelings of a section of the public
Muhyiddin had at the UMNO Cheras meeting come out strongly against 1MDB. Admitting that he read the suspended The Edge for some of his information on 1MDB, he was merely echoing the feelings of a wide section of the Malaysian public when he reiterated strongly that 1MDB has to be answered, putting the onus squarely on the prime minister. Presumably, as a member of the cabinet, he was not getting enough information on 1MDB.
The Prime Minister’s response was that Muhyiddin and others have to stand behind the concept of collective responsibility of the cabinet and therefore since they could not, they had to go. It was generally expected that this would happen if there was a cabinet reshuffle and it should not have come as a surprise for either Muhyiddin or Shafie and the general public, too.
If Muhyiddin and Shafie expected this, then surely they have some other plans. One could be to force an extraordinary general meeting of UMNO, and the other to move a vote of no-confidence against the Prime Minister in Parliament. Both don’t seem that likely to succeed considering that few have broken ranks and gone against the Prime Minister.
Insiders are reading some things into Muhyiddin’s remarks post the reshuffle. “What you know about 1MDB, I would know a little more than that,” he told a press conference at his residence in Kuala Lumpur this afternoon.
If that implies there will be more information coming out about 1MDB, it is not certain if it will be enough to significantly affect the Prime Minister’s position. But one can expect the playing out of a game plan by those opposed to the Prime Minister although it is not visible yet.
The general expectation was that Ahmad Zahid would replace Muhyiddin and he did, which is not to say that his appointment would be widely welcomed. It helps that he has wide grassroots support in UMNO but not that he is considered a hardliner who as Home Minister  was directly responsible for suspending The Edge.
Much more surprising than Muhyiddin’s ouster was the appointment into the government of four members of the parliamentary public accounts committee (PAC) investigation into 1MDB, including its chairperson Nur Jazlan Mohamed who was appointed deputy home minister. This leaves four Barisan MPs out of eight still remaining as PAC members.
Nur Jazlan himself said that the PAC investigations have been stopped pending the appointment of new members which can take place only after Parliament sits again in October. That means PAC’s interview of, among others, 1MDB CEO Arul Kanda next week will have to be postponed. However, opposition MPs, including DAP’s Lim Kit Siang, have commented that investigations can still go on despite some PAC members joining the government.
Observers feel that the Prime Minister’s appointment of four PAC members into the government was deliberate and aimed at postponing the investigations into 1MDB, buying time for 1MDB and for himself.
Yes, it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister to make cabinet changes and perhaps even to change the attorney-general midstream, although legal opinion is divided on this, as well as the head of the Special Branch. But it certainly does not indicate strength.
It is because the Prime Minister’s position is weak that he has to resort to such strong-arm tactics to keep people supporting him. It is because his position is weak that he has to demonstrate that those who do not support him will have to be prepared to pay the price. It is because he is weak that he has to muzzle the press and stop them from reporting legitimately on 1MDB.
Emulating Mahathir
What he is doing emulates what Mahathir did in a bigger way in 1987 with Operation Lalang, when scores of people were detained under the Internal Security Act and The Star had its licence revoked. Mahathir even pushed members of the old UMNO out of his UMNO Baru, which he set up following a judicial decision against the old UMNO. He moved decisively against the judiciary the following year, raising questions of its independence till today.
He made numerous constitutional changes to the new UMNO, making it all but impossible for a candidate to challenge an incumbent president. Mahathir won very narrowly against Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in 1987 in the closest battle for presidency in UMNO ever.
Razaleigh eventually set up the opposition Semangat 46 to challenge UMNO and Barisan Nasional but had little success except in Kelantan.
For now, the Prime Minister and UMNO President Najib Abdul Razak has the upper hand, and thanks ironically to Mahathir, his most vocal critic, it does not look like he will be dislodged anytime soon. Few who call themselves politicians will be foolhardy enough to go against Najib when they don’t see a viable game plan that can, well, overthrow him. Najib is certainly not popular in the court of public opinion right now but that does not mean that he will be exiting anytime soon.
Indeed despite the tide of public opinion against him, like Mahathir before him, he is likely to prevail. And then he will have to hope that people will forget or at least forgive, like they did Mahathir before him.

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