Malaysia’s scandal-plagued former premier Najib Razak is down but clearly not out. At least that’s the message he apparently hoped to send by aggressively campaigning in a by-election held late last month that saw the former ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition clinch a rousing victory after being toppled in last May’s general election.

Ramli Mohd Nor, a 61-year-old former police officer and BN candidate, became the first candidate from the indigenous Orang Asli community ever elected to Parliament after a January 26 vote in the Cameron Highlands constituency. It was Najib, however, who stole the limelight in a race widely seen as a testing ground for his political comeback.

Since his electoral ouster, Najib has leveraged social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to relentlessly criticize the ruling Pakatan Harapan government’s policies and leaders. It’s a bid to reinvent himself as a champion of the working class, all while facing trial for his alleged involvement in the biggest corruption case in Malaysia’s history.

Najib, 65, has been charged with 42 counts of graft, money laundering, abuse of power and criminal breach of trust, mostly tied to a sprawling corruption scandal that saw an estimated US$4.5 billion stolen from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a now-defunct state fund he established in 2009 and oversaw as advisory board chairman.

The former prime minister, whose highly anticipated trial opens on February 12, could spend the rest of his life behind bars if found guilty on only some of the total charges he faces. Najib maintains his innocence and has pleaded not guilty to all charges, claiming instead to be a victim of slander and political persecution.

Malaysia's former Prime Minister Najib Razak prays at the United Malays National Organisation in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP
Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak prays in a 2018 file photo. Photo: AFP

An aide to the ex-premier even described the three latest counts of money laundering brought by prosecutors on January 28 as an attempt to “punish” Najib for the BN’s victory at the Cameron Highlands by-election. The ex-premier spent six days campaigning in the hill station constituency while skillfully using social media to raise local grievances.

While detached and lacking a common touch as premier, as an underdog Najib is more vocal, visible and perhaps more popular than any time in recent memory. From selfies with jubilant supporters to daily posts on bread-and-butter issues, his online persona is often blusteringly confident, unrepentant and seemingly unflustered by his grave legal troubles.

Thousands react to his frequent Facebook posts “trolling” the government, though Najib generally reserves his sharpest barbs for Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng’s management of the economy. On photo sharing app Instagram, his posts now yield a two-to-three times higher rate of engagement compared with content shared during his final months in office.

Last month, Najib launched a social media campaign to drum up support for himself that saw staged videos and images of him revving the throttle of a Yamaha moped go viral, along with the Malay Language slogan “Malu apa, bossku” (“What’s there to be ashamed of, boss?”), which has become a rallying cry among his mainly ethnic Malay Muslim base.

The antics don’t end there. He also recruited a choir of youthful back-up singers and in January released his own Malay language adaptation of the 1970s soul ballad “Kiss and Say Goodbye” by R&B vocal group The Manhattans, during which Najib called his May 9, 2018 ouster the “saddest day” of his life and vowed to “reorganize” the BN coalition.

Restructuring the BN – presumably with himself still at the center – will be an especially tall order. Dozens have shifted their allegiances to Harapan, defecting from the coalition and its lynchpin party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), in droves. Former Najib allies such as Khairy Jamaluddin and others now openly pour scorn on him.

Members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) listen to a speech by Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak during its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
UMNO members at the party’s general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, December 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

The ex-premier is, however, adept at exploiting one of the government’s major vulnerabilities: the growing perception that Harapan’s multiethnic coalition is “anti-Malay” and not sufficiently committed to safeguarding Islam’s status as the country’s official religion and certain constitutionally ascribed privileges enjoyed by the Malay majority.

A study published in August by the think tank Ilham Centre found that Malay support for Harapan had already begun to show signs of erosion over the coalition’s failure to ease living costs and Malay Muslim opposition to the appointment of non-Malays to lead key institutions such as the Finance Ministry and Attorney General’s Chambers.

After last month’s by-election victory, UMNO strategists now appear convinced they can further nurture a Malay Muslim wave by deepening a de facto alliance with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), an Islamist opposition party, and playing up perceptions of Malays being hoodwinked, sidelined and ignored by the Harapan government.

Even before his ouster, Najib often made divisive and vitriolic claims alleging that ethnic Chinese leaders of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Harapan’s second largest component party, had deceived their Malay Muslim coalition partners into being puppets through which non-Malays could govern by proxy.

“If [Najib] succeeds in convincing the Malay Muslim electorate, in particular, that he is but a victim of a political vendetta or worse still, a non-Malay conspiracy (something that unfortunately all too many will be quick to believe), his influence will only grow,” wrote veteran Malaysian diplomat Dennis Ignatius in a recent blog post.

“He knows too that his only chance of avoiding serious jail time lies in UMNO regaining power,” wrote Ignatius, who cited the unlikely political comeback of both incumbent Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his presumed successor Anwar Ibrahim as reason enough to believe Najib could also “rise again from the ashes.”

New Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, May 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Still, Najib remains deeply unpopular with a large segment of mostly urban voters. Nor does the Cameron Highland’s by-election victory necessarily signify a political bellwether. The constituency is considered an opposition stronghold and political analysts by and large projected that BN would retain the seat.

The by-election was triggered after the Election Court nullified BN candidate C Sivarraajh’s victory in last May’s election on vote-buying charges. BN increased its majority in the constituency from 597 to 3,238 votes after last month’s poll, buoyed by a higher turnout in Orang Asli majority polling districts who favored a candidate from their own community.

Some analysts, however, see the outcome as proof of the effectiveness of BN’s controversial alignment with PAS, which stayed out of the race but deployed its president, Abdul Hadi Awang, to stump for BN’s candidate. Though roping Najib into the campaign was a risk, it appeared to pay off for the opposition.

Another by-election will be held in Semenyih on March 2, a constituency in urbanized Selangor, Malaysia’s wealthiest state. Mahathir expressed confidence that Harapan would secure the majority of Malay votes in the area, in addition to that of the other minority races. Analysts believe Harapan is likely to retain the seat against a BN challenge.

Najib, meanwhile, can be expected to dial up pressure on the government over social media as his court date approaches. For many, the ex-premier’s recent grassroots outreach and newfound attention to blue-collar plight represent all the things he should have done when he was in power. As the adage goes, only the man who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.

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