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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

WONG CHOON MEI: More than meets the eye in Hasbie's arrest

Wong Choon Mei 
Infighting and unease in Umno has intensified following the arrest of a political secretary to a senior Cabinet minister, sparking questions about Prime Minister Najib Razak's grip on his embattled party and consequently the stability of his year-old administration.

Not only is the 57-year old leader dogged by personal scandal, warlords in the fragmented Umno are said to be discontented and once again openly on the lookout for their own interests. Privately, the buzz is that the party is disappointed that after 11 months in power, Najib has failed to bolster crucial voter support, nor is he likely to do so going forward.

“Basically, there are two main conspiracy theories going around town. Which is the more probable depends on which of the three main factions in Umno that you belong to,” a veteran party watcher told Harakahdaily on the condition of anonymity.

“One theory is that Najib is fighting back against his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin and Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The second is that Najib wants to squash Khairy Jamaluddin, the Umno Youth chief, before he becomes too successful in his own plots to topple Najib.”

Quicksand politics

Indeed, Umno politics is complex and often a vipers pit of corruption where loyalties switch at the blink of an eye. After passing the premiership to Abdullah Badawi in 2003, it did not take long for a jealous Mahathir to U-turn on his initial praises and launch attack after attack to destabilize his successor's administration..

Abdullah was finally forced to surrender the top job to Najib in 2009, and among key conditions for the power transfer was that his son-in-law Khairy became the head of Umno Youth, while Muhyiddin got the deputy-presidency and Defence Minister Zahid Hamidi the No. 3 spot.

In the latest graft scandal to rock Umno and the nation, Hasbie Satar the political secretary to Nor Mohamad Yakcop, the minister in charge of the Economic Planning Unit in the Prime Minister's Department, resigned a day after news broke that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission had made a high-profile arrest.

Without naming who, the MACC had on Sunday confirmed they arrested a political aide after finding him with more than RM2 million cash at a flat in Penang. It was also reported that the aide was under probe since late last year due to allegations of having amassed several properties by helping business groups secure government approval for multi-million ringgit projects.

A short one-paragraph statement issued by the ministry on Monday did not offer any reasons or details but the spin from the Umno media is that Najib wanted to show that he is serious about weeding out corruption. Nevertheless, few Malaysians are convinced by the alleged show of altruism from their prime minister.

“Whether it was Hasbie or if he acted on his own - with or without the knowledge of his boss - is not at heart of the debate taking place.The speculation is on who his boss is linked to," said the political watcher.

"Some favour the first theory because they see Nor Mohamed as a Mahathir man. Nor Mohamed was the brains behind Mahathir's capital controls in 1998. So the question being asked is – has Najib begun his move to come out from under Mahathir's thumb?

“Yet others say Nor Mohamed is no longer that close to Mahathir and has become aligned to Pak Lah and Khairy. Remember he was a very powerful Second Finance Minister in the Abdullah administration and his first political secretary was Norza Zakaria, who is a Khairy man. So is Najib trying to purge Khairy?”

The Zahid factor

Norza – the FT Umno Youth chief - was arrested in January 2009 for offering bribes to voting delegates ahead of the party’s election in March the same year. He has pleaded not guilty and was released on bail pending investigations.

Mahathir has made no secret of the fact that he detests Khairy even more than Abdullah. Just weeks ago, the 85-year old former Umno president was accused of instigating a move to oust Khairy as the Youth chief. Mahathir’s son Mukhriz – the deputy international trade minister – is also seen as eager to head the wing.

Meanwhile,Zahid has also entered the fray. Once regarded as a Najib loyalist, he is now believed to part of the movement to topple Najib.

But it is still unclear if Zahid has thrown in his lot with Muhyiddin and Mahathir or with the 34-year old Khairy. As the senior-most vice president, he stands to be promoted immediately to both the Umno deputy-presidency and the deputy premiership if Najib is ousted in a power struggle.

“It is hard to say for sure which camp Zahid is currently with. And it doesn’t really matter because at this stage, their common priority is to seize control of Umno now when it is weak and fragmented,” the Umno observer said.

“Once Najib surrenders to Muhyiddin, who as the current No. 2 is next in line to inherit the Umno presidency and premiership, Zahid can switch out of KJ’s camp and into Muhyiddin's. For him, what’s important is that he gets to assume the deputy presidency which would also make him the country’s Deputy Prime Minister.

“As for Khairy, he will have to look after himself. But he is still young, whereas Mahathir is not. In politics, as long as time is on your side, you have a chance to win. It is indeed a dirty game and what more in Umno – which already has a reputation of being one of the most corrupt political parties in the region.”

Scandals galore

In the past few months, Zahid has raised eyebrows by revealing several incidences of high-level corruption and security breaches at the Defence Ministry when Najib was in charge.

One such incident was the astonishing theft of two fighter jet engines from right under the nose of top military and immigration personnel. And just last week, Zahid revealed that the nation’s first submarine – one of two costly Scorpenes ordered by Najib in 2006 and delivered by French shipyard Armaris in 2009 – could not dive due to  a technical problem.

Also related to the controversial Scorpenes purchase, Najib’s close associate Razak Baginda had been accused of accepting a whopping RM540 million commission from Armaris. Furthermore, Baginda was charged with abetting two former bodyguards of Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor in the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu.

Although Baginda has since been acquitted, speculations remains rife that he – together with the first couple – had been involved as the two bodyguards did not know Altantuya and could not have any motive of their own to kill her.

Najib has also been blamed for driving away key Chinese votes from the BN by staging an unpopular coup d'etat in Perak last year. To help him cling to power there, the country's judiciary has been plunged into infamy for questionable rulings that have been ridiculed by constitutional experts throughout the Commonwealth, which shares Malaysia's legal history.

More recently, Najib's weak handling of the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims sparked a spate of violence against places of worship throughout the country and created serious rifts in Malaysia's multi-racial society, attracting a reprimand from international bodies including the World Council of Churches.

No less messy was his insistence to push through a sodomy trial against arch rival Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim that has been widely condemned as rigged and politically motivated. Among the groups that have condemned his 'persecution' of Anwar are the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and scores of Australian lawmakers, who tendered a joint letter of protest to the Malaysian High Commission last week. There is a large population of Malaysian students and workers in Australia.


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