IN a few weeks’ time, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak will be making one of his most important speeches for the year.
His presidential address at the Umno general assembly will have to resonate with the party faithful but he is also the Prime Minister and that means he will also be speaking to an audience beyond the party.
“Politically speaking, this is a foremost platform. He can get other speeches wrong but this one, he has got to get it right,” said his former aide Datuk Mazri Muhammad.
Everyone thought the 2016 general assembly would be the final one before the general election but it has been quite impossible to second-guess Najib.
No other Umno president has gone through what Najib experienced but he has pulled through and, as Mazri pointed out, he will be standing on the PWTC stage at his strongest since taking over from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
He is also on his way to being the great survivor because no Umno leader before him has been able to survive an onslaught by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad or the political attacks and fake news raining down from the opposition front.
And despite all these troubles, he is now the third longest-serving Prime Minister after Dr Mahathir and Tun Hussein Onn.
For many party members, it also means that Umno has been able to withstand the hurricane force of Dr Mahathir. It is like being able to make it through an obstacle course – you emerge more confident and positive.
“We are seeing a more cohesive and focused Umno. It no longer needs to worry about internal dissent, it can focus on its political opponents. I think it’s a party on a mission,” said Gerakan politician Ivanpal S. Grewal who is a keen Umno observer.
There are several reasons why Najib will dominate the Umno stage like never before next month.
First and foremost is, of course, his tenacity in withstanding Dr Mahathir’s all-out attacks. There were many in Umno who were torn between the current and former presidents but everything changed when Dr Mahathir joined the opposition and became chairman of Pakatan Harapan.
He had crossed the red line, and from that point on it was a case of us against them – the survival of Umno was at stake and Dr Mahathir was now Enemy No 1.
The same psychological turning point happened after Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal went on to form political parties aligned to the opposition.
“They were with us but now they want to destroy our party. No one in our party can accept that. People who challenge Umno often fail to understand the emotional ties that our members have for the party,” said Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir.
According to Umno supreme council member Datuk Seri Rahman Dahlan, Dr Mahathir misjudged the mood in Umno when he went for Najib. Many in Umno believe that Dr Mahathir’s attacks on Pak Lah contributed to the ruling coalition’s losses in 2008.
“When he tried to do it again, we refused to go along. We did not want a second disaster caused by him,” said Rahman who is also Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.
Najib has also managed to contain the fallout from the 1MDB issue. It was big among the urban class but failed to impact the Malay heartland. The issue has run its course and the Sarawak Report, which played a big role in it, is now suffering credibility issues and facing a libel suit in the London courts.
Najib’s standing was also boosted by the big win in the Sarawak state election and the decisive victories in the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar by-elections. That was the first turning point for him and he has not looked back since.
Another factor that those outside fail to understand about Najib is the way he manages his power base in Umno.
He does not take his support in Umno for granted. He is constantly networking with leaders at the division level.
The Umno divisions are where it all starts for party leaders and it is said that 90% of the division heads are loyal to him. The last couple of years has seen him extend that connection to the level of the deputy chiefs and vice-chiefs of Umno divisions.
Najib, said Rahman, is the only Umno president who has built this sort of direct link with Umno grassroots leaders and it held him up during his darkest moments.
The smooth conduct of the Umno division AGMs was another indication that the party had recovered its centre of gravity.
This year’s division meetings were in stark contrast to the volatile and unpredictable mood at meetings two years ago when Najib seemed to be standing on the edge of the cliff.
His deputy Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was the newsmaker and set the tone by pointing out the contradictions of Dr Mahathir at one division AGM after another.
Dr Ahmad Zahid took some hits along the way but it was mission accomplished by the time the meetings wrapped up – the final cutting of ties with the 3Ms (Dr Mahathir, Muhyiddin and Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir) was complete.
“I feel very sad. The older people in my constituency even find it difficult to say his name nowadays. They cannot understand why, at 92, he is doing all this.
“Just this morning, one of them told me that some people grow old and become “tua-tua”, that is, they become wise elders. But others just become “tua” (old), they complain about everything and everyone. They become unreasonable, nothing is right for them,” said Sungai Tiang assemblywoman Datuk Suraya Yaakob who was close to the Dr Mahathir and his wife.
Najib is what Ivanpal calls the “quintessential Malay gentleman”. But the gentleman has stepped up his rebuttals to the Pakatan chairman, calling up Dr Mahathir on his U-turns and inconsistencies.
“Mahathir has thrown everything including the kitchen sink at the PM. Accountability cuts both ways and the opposition’s dilemma is having to defend him on the very policies they used to oppose. Many of them built their political careers opposing Mahathirism,” said Ivanpal.
Umno, said Ivanpal, has “outsourced” the Mahathir baggage to the opposition.
With Dr Mahathir on the other side, the weight of government missteps during the Mahathir era has been partly shifted to the opposition. The ruling coalition can start to differentiate itself from policies of the Mahathir years such as the lopsided toll agreements, crony capitalism and poorly structured privatisation contracts.
According to former Putrajaya Umno Youth chief Datuk Zaki Zahid, Najib has more than survived, and his remaining hurdle is to tackle public rumblings about the economy and issues like cost of living, jobs and decent wages.
“Having worked for a former prime minister, I can see how Najib has used the powers of his office to survive against his adversaries. I think even Mahathir is dumbfounded,” said Zaki, who was one of Pak Lah’s “4th floor boys”.
The politics of the post-2008 general election have truly tested Umno and its president.
The worst of the storm is behind them, and Umno members are looking to Najib to navigate them through the last stretch and that is why their party general assembly starting Dec 5 will be a principal event.
“Najib will be super cool, that much I can tell you. He is able to divide his attention between his duties as Prime Minister and politics, he does not confuse the affairs of government with the politics outside. For instance, the way he conducts Cabinet meetings, you would not suspect that there are problems outside the room,” said Rahman.
His attention next month will shift from government affairs to the survival of his party.