Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Najib’s dilemma: What to do with Shahrizat?

Written by Nawawi Mohamad, Wong Choon Mei, Malaysia Chronicle

Prime Minister Najib Razak's strategy to win the next General Election is to ensure that all UMNO-BN candidates are "winnable". Najib also wanted to make sure that the squabbling over who got chosen stopped, thus he had to make sure that all the UMNO delegates agreed that he would get to have the final say on who should be the chosen ones.

In the recent UMNO general assembly, the UMNO president got his wish, with delegates agreeing to give him this all-important mandate. But did they have any choice and will the squabbling really end here, even though he also managed to squeeze from them a promise not to lobby, or face immediate disqualification as potential candidates.

So far, there has been silence and peace seems to have descended on the divisions a week after the UMNO meet, the last summit before GE-13 and the party's own internal election - both slated for next year. However, insiders say it is early days and flare ups can start any time, pointing to the RM250 million NFC financial debacle surrounding Women's chief Shahrizat Jalil. How Najib deals with her case will be taken as a litmus test of whether he is fair in his decisions over the choice of candidates, they warned.

So far, Najib and other top leaders including deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin and Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin have defended her, but that there is a growing swell of discontentment even among the Wanita wing is clear. Most believe that she should step down gracefully and there are calls for the top party leadership to decide her fate.

Huge blow for Najib and GE-13 plans

According to the UMNO sources, the NFC scandal - first exposed by rival party PKR - was a huge blow for Najib, who had hoped to call for snap general elections as early as next month.

However, his own misreading of the public's tolerance for more and more UMNO corruption was to blame for worsening the situation. By stubbornly refusing to acknowledge what the Auditor-General himself described as a "mess", Najib only increased the perception that UMNO was an out-of-control pirate ship and would not hesitate to use the various institutions to continue plundering the nation's wealth.

By now it is clear, GE-13 will have to be delayed, while UMNO and Najib - himself no stranger to scandals - scrounge around for a way out of the Shahrizat dilemma. To immediate ask her to step would destroy his "face", while to not do so would spark resentment across the board in UMNO. Unhappy chieftains about to be dropped would surely use Shahrziat as an example of his unfairness and make renewed demands of their own. Who knows, if he is not careful, Najib might even find himself ousted along with Shahrizat!

In trying to dampen the huge negative publicity, Najib also fumbled when he brought in the police to make a statement that was aimed to have a "purifying" or "white-washing" effect on Shahrizat. Again, he underestimated the people's intelligence and receive a tremendous bruising in return.

Internal sabotage

Already, there are delegates who point out that there must be others in UMNO itself who are as powerful or even more powerful than Najib, and who want to fan the flames of the Shahrizat fiasco for their own ulterior purposes. Her coveted posts in the Cabinet as well as being Wanita chief are reasons enough to spark an internal 'triads war' in UMNO, while she may also be used as the proverbial banana skin to trip Najib and perhaps his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin as well.

In the typical intrigue that UMNO is famous for, the grapevine is already heavy with talk that Shahrizat had been stabbed in the back by her own party-mates. These hidden hands playing their double game are not difficult to identify, so long as one remembers to ask the all-important question - who stands to gain?

For weeks, in Umno warongs or coffee shops, debate has been raging that surely, Shahrizat must have known what was brewing in the cattle livestock project awarded to her husband and children in 2006. How did they manage to cover it up all this while? Was it an oversight or was it intentionally leaked and stirred up to create a monster headache for her, Najib and Khairy?

The NFC debacle was exposed by a PKR team spearheaded by strategy director Rafizi Ramli and Women's chief Zuraida Kamaruddin. It was confirmed as being in a "mess" by the AG in his recently-released report. Among allegations made by the PKR were that Shahrizat's family had abused their power in spending money intended for the project on 2 super-plush condos in Bangsar, a high-end Mercedes CLS350 CGI, upmarket residential land in Putrajaya worth RM3.3 million, million-ringgit discounts and transactions favoring family-controlled firms.

Let Najib decide

In the aftermath of last week's UMNO assembly, the sudden appearance of Kinabatangan MP Bung Mokhtar earlier this week to remind Shahrizat to quit, plus FT Minister Raja Nong Chik's awkward call to the top leadership to make a decision on her fate has added fresh pepper to the already boiling cauldron of hot NFC soup.

Getting more money has always been the main motivation for UMNO politicians, and thus leaders like Najib who are embroiled in billion-ringgit scandals may not understand what the fuss is all about. The project worth RM250 million, or as DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang has suggest RM300 million, is not a big deal to the UMNO elite.

Of course, Shahrizat should have stuck to politics, insisted her family behaved beyond reproach, and safely focused her attention on her Cabinet and party work. But since when have UMNO politicians ever quarreled with money? The once prominent lawyer is now 'helpless' and cannot do anything but seek help from the highest authorities in UMNO. Yet few of her own Umno colleagues have much sympathy for her.

For now, UMNO leaders have been instructed to spout the same line on Shahrizat’s future “Let Najib decide". Indeed, it is Najib’s dilemma at least for now until the GE-13 is over.

A most recalcitrant PM and Finance Minister

It is not surprising Najib is more interested in diffusing the squabbling amongst UMNO’s politicians rather than get to the core of the matte. There has not been any effort to get rid of those responsible; rectify the mistakes by putting in a professional team of auditors and managers so as to salvage what is still viable and turn NFC around. Again, only a shocking denial syndrome has been evident from Najib. Critics say the PM doesn't seem to care if every sen goes down the drain, and he is the Finance Minister in charge of taking Malaysia through financial crises!

Meanwhile, the project is still left in the hands of the NFC team headed by Salleh Ismail, who is Shahrizat's husband. No, the NFC debacle is not good for the country's economy. It is not good for the people who will not get to reap the fruits of the project aimed to ensure that everyday Malaysians got access to cheap beef.

But to Najib, the public has a short memory. It will fizzle out, he insists when asked what are his plans for Shahrizat. Meanwhile, he has issued instructions to send the message down the line that there are more pertinent matters like the survival of UMNO itself, and the future of the Malays. What is a RM250 million scandal, whether it is corruption or not, in the overall scheme of things?

Whether Najib and his ruthless brand of immoral politicking succeeds will depend on UMNO members and other Malaysians. So far, it looks like it is Najib who has the short memory. He can't seem to remember why BN lost badly in the 2008 general election. Corruption was singled out as a major factor by voters.

Perhaps, Najib has somehow come to the theory that it is infighting in UMNO that caused the 2008 losses and if UMNO is united this time - regardless of whatever scandal erupts including his own - Malaysia will still belong to BN come GE-13.

If true, it would be a sad day for Malaysia.

Malaysia Chronicle

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