Umno minister Shahrizat Jalil must have known that her family-managed National Feedlot Corporation was on the wrong track but somehow, she managed to keep it under wraps until it was inevitably exposed by rival party PKR. That soon after, PKR's claims of misconduct were confirmed by the Auditor-General's report that NFC was indeed a "mess" was a double whammy for her.
Questions are now buzzing around the UMNO circuit over the issue. Didn't her UMNO bosses and seniors know about NFC or did they keep their hands off because this was her project and she should be given the space to handle it?
Perhaps initially this was so, but when it became apparent that PKR was on a roll, having managed to source concrete details of the abuse of power, why didn't Najib put his foot down?
Oversight or deliberate
Was this an oversight by the UMNO supreme council? Or was it purposely downplayed so that it could be further stirred up until there was no other way out for Shahrizat but the door! Given UMNO's penchant of bending the institutions to its bidding, why didn't the elite 'influence' the Auditor-General?
Yet, so what if they had managed to 'zip up' the A-G. PKR still had in its hand the paper trail needed to nail Shahrizat's family. This argument doesn't quite work either.
Whichever the real reasons for the mishandling by the UMNO elite - whether the confusion was deliberately caused or if they were genuinely taken by surprise by the PKR's access to such detailed information - UMNO members seem to prefer to believe Shahrizat had been targeted.
Not that they don't think she deserved the worst punishment for the gross greed allegedly displayed by her family, but in the typical fashion of UMNO intrigue, the various stories spun by the different factions have thrilled many a coffee group at the PWTC during the UMNO assembly last week.
Public confidence in UMNO, Najib at its lowest
According to the UMNO sources, Najib was very disappointed with the never-ending scandals befalling UMNO leaders one after another, not to mention his own misdeeds, the most recent of which include allegations of having misused public funds to fly to Kazakhstan and Perth on largely personal matters.
Indeed, with the general election just around the corner, the situation has never been so bad for UMNO-BN. Public confidence in him and UMNO are possibly at its lowest ebb.
Najib also has to face the dilemma of what to do with Shahrizat since he appointed her to her present post of Women's minister because he believed she could perform. Party insiders say to help dampen the impact on UMNO and at the same time to distance himself from it - although it turned out to be unsuccessful - Najib tried to comment as little as possible on the scandal. Instead, he ordered those he saw as responsible for the problem to solve it.
And this is how Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin found himself being made the lead 'spokesman' for Shahrizat. But since he was also the one who selected her for the project in 2006, it is perhaps fitting that he picks up the pieces now. This is the ruthlessness and selfishness of politics and for seasoned survivors like Najib and his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, one can be sure they won't hesitate to sacrifice anyone who becomes a threat to them.
Whatever the behind-the-scenes brouhaha, the fact remains - someone is taking advantage of this fiasco apart from PKR. Some is riding on the PKR juggernaut against Shahrizat and benefiting from it. Who can it be now?
Who would benefit from this debacle?
Actually, there are quite a number of players who would love for Shahrizat to step down.
One of these could be her predecessor Rafidah Aziz, the Kuala Kangsar MP and former Trade minister. Rafidah Aziz or Mrs AP (authorised permit for vehicles) was humiliated by Shahrizat in the 2010 party polls, despite her holding a parliamentary seat.
For a woman of her calibre and pride, even if Rafidah does not attack Shahrizat to directly gain for herself, she might do so for her proteges.
Now 68, Rafidah had spent 32 years in government service, of which 20 were in a ministerial role. She felt that she had done a very good job both for the country and UMNO and there was no need for anybody else to challenge her. Indeed she did enhance Malaysia’s trade abroad to a certain extent and also boosted Malaysia's external image, albeit to a certain and limited degree.
But like all UMNO politicians, she was motivated not only by power but also by money - big, huge amounts of money. By virtue of her Trade portfolio, she later became entangled with the system of granting Approved Permits for imported vehicles. Who were the importers she favored and why she favored them were the factors that later brought her down, wiping away the good that she did and leaving only a memory of greed and graft.
One scandal that Malaysians are bound to remember is the award of share allocations amounting to several million ringgit to her son-in-law in 1993. She did try to distance herself from the decision because she knew there would be conflict of interest, but it did not stop the tongues from wagging that she had exerted undue influence behind the scenes to benefit her son-in-law. To make matters worse for UMNO, Rafidah retaliated by exposing other officials and naming their relatives who had similarly benefited.
The Badawi factor
To quell public unhappiness over the APs, the then prime minister Abdullah Badawi forced Rafidah to face Parliament and explain her role. The APs, which were handed out by her ministry for free were not used by those who received them, but instead sold to third parties for windfall profits of as much as RM50,000 per permit.
Badawi finally dropped Rafidah from the Cabinet in 2008 despite her retaining her Kuala Kangsar seat, which she has held since 1986. At that time, Shahrizat was already her deputy in the Wanita wing, and waiting to be appointed as a Special Advisor with the status of a minister.
Could Rafidah be seeking retribution against Shahrizat in the NFC case? Probably not since Shahrizat won the Wanita presidency fairly 'fair and square'.
But one thing is certain, Rafidah was not happy with Badawi dropping her from the Cabinet. She saw it as a "sacking" and was very offended. To her, losing the Wanita presidency was one thing, but she was still entitled to the respect due to a senior leader who every election year brought home a parliamentary seat for the party without fail. How could Badawi "sack" her from the Cabinet?
It must be noted that 'everyone' in UMNO knows it was Badawi who gave the green light for the NFC project to be handed over to Shahrizat’s husband in 2006. Badawi was the PM then. If Rafidah is targeting anyone with NFC, it would be Badawi rather than Shahrizat!
What about Raja Nong Chik?
UMNO Senator and FT Minister Raja Nong Chik had worked in FELCRA and was a businessman and also the president of the Malaysian Bumiputra Manufacturers and Services Industry Association. He sat on the board of directors of several companies including Pharmaniaga. His appointment to the Cabinet by Najib came as a surprise to many in 2009.
The 58-year-old was born in Perak, but considers himself as a 'local boy' in Kuala Lumpur. He is a member of the Lembah Pantai UMNO division and claims the constituency is his 'natural territory'. He has also boasted that he has done a lot to improve Bangsar. But Lembah Pantai - before it fell to PKR vice president Nurul Izzah Anwar in the 2008 election - belonged to Shahrizat.
In fact, it was Shahrizat's stronghold since 1995 and when she lost it in 2008, there were gasps of shock. Yet, Nong Chik is alleged to have been obstinate about contesting Lembah Pantai in GE-13, arguing that it was now a 'free' seat since Shahrizat had already lost it. Although, he has been asked by UMNO elders to look at Titiwangsa, won by the late PAS MP Lo Lo Ghazali in 2008, he is insistent that Lembah Pantai is where it 'all began for him'.
So regardless of the fact that it would be extremely tough to beat Nurul, Nong Chik had already set himself on a collision course with Shahrizat as the UMNO candidate for this constituency. Maybe Nong Chik and Shahrizat know something that Nurul doesn't, but they sure seem confident of being able to beat her despite her immense popularity with the electorate there.
Could Raja Nong Chik have found an opportunity in the NFC debacle to bring down Shahrizat? It sure would seem tempting since it cannot be traced directly back to him because the debacle had already been confirmed by the Auditor-General as being in a "mess". Any comment from Nong Chik would therefore be merely a response and if he called for action, such as a probe, he would be seen to be taking the moral high ground.
There is indeed growing speculation that Raja Nong Chik was the one behind the continuous revelations against Shahrizat and according to UMNO insiders, Najib has called on all the parties involved to come down hard on Nong Chik to prevent the situation from getting out of control. However, this could be a sly decoy from the Najib camp itself, since Nong Chik is close to Najib. It may well be that Najib wants Shahrizat out too.
It is interesting to note that Shahrizat's family have accused a disgruntled former staff of feeding PKR the NFC tips. It is even more interesting to note that just a couple of days ago, Raja Nong Chik called on the UMNO top leadership to decide on Shahrizat's fate.
Was Nong Chik hurrying to get Shahrizat out of the picture, leaving him the sole UMNO claimant to the Lembah Pantai seat?
Rosnah Abdul Rashid Shirlin the Puteri UMNO chief is a new face with much to learn. Her name too has been tossed around. But Rosnah is in no position to make a challenge for the top Wanita post and why should she do so anyway?
Speculation is already growing Rosnah may not even get to keep her Puteri UMNO post. Her performance so far has been less than satisfactory, and this was implied by none other than Muhyiddin Yassin just days before the main UMNO meeting began
If Shahrizat is forced to step down, then Pakatan may have to face Raja Nong Chik and he is the 'local boy' there, whose FT portfolio gives him jurisdiction over the whole of Wilayah Persekutuan, not only Lembah Pantai. UMNO would also have the benefit of the postal voters there as there are many government officials staying in the area.
UMNO watchers say it would be a neck-to-neck challenge for Pakatan against UMNO if Nong Chik contests there, but the reasons they cited were also why Nurul wasn't given the chance of a snowball in hell to win in 2008. But she did.
For PKR, which launched the NFC offensive with a string of startling revelations, they are already bracing for some form or other of backlash from the police, who instead of grilling the Shahrizats, might pull up the PKR leaders in charge of the NFC file, so as to show 'solidarity' with the UMNO elite.
Only one road to travel
However, Najib plays it and no matter whether there are UMNO leaders jumping onto the PKR's NFC bandwagon, there is basically only one decision the PM can make, which is to ask Shahrizat to give up her Cabinet and UMNO posts.
Any dilemma is of his own making. Like Alexander the Great, all eyes will be watching to see if he has the courage to cut the Gordian knot or if he will continue to waffle and defend corruption.
The longer Najib delays, the longer the 'Shahrizat cows and condos' scandal will remain in the people's memory. After all, as PKR strategy director Rafizi Ramli has promised, they have enough information on the Shahrizats and the NFC to last 2 years!