The Umno division meeting season has started and the warm reception for Najib is an indication that his party now sees him as a winner.
THE idyllic riverside village of Sedili Besar is definitely off the beaten track of Johor.
And the Kota Tinggi Umno AGM held there last Sunday was one of the more out-of-the way division meetings Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has been to. His helicopter landed in Kota Tinggi town and he continued the rest of the journey by road.
The division chief, Datuk Daing A. Malek Daing A. Rahaman, had pulled out all the stops to welcome the Prime Minister.
Daing, despite his tanned and rugged looks, is not your average kampung politician. He is a well-connected businessman who is associated with companies that have stakes in key projects around Johor.
His welcoming speech at the Kota Tinggi AGM was accompanied by a power-point presentation to illustrate that Kota Tinggi and the neighbouring constituencies of Tenggara and Pengerang would remain Umno strongholds in the next general election.
He pledged support to Najib, criticised Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad but steered clear on the subject of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
He also had a long list of requests for the division – housing for Felda settlers, a new mosque, modern classrooms, boat licences for fishermen, better water supply and a new bus terminal.
That was probably the moment when Najib realised why the division meeting was being held in this middle-of-nowhere place. But that is part of the beauty of Johor where there are still many places yet to be messed up by greed and development.
A murmur rippled through the audience when the picture of Najib, the Johor Crown Prince and Daing having tea at Seri Perdana came on the large screen. The photograph was of the social visit that Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim had made on the Prime Minister at his official residence in Putrajaya two days earlier.
Daing’s ties with the Johor palace is well-known and he is a member of the Johor Royal Court of Advisors, but having tea with the Prime Minister and Crown Prince was something else.
Last year, before he officiated at the Muar division AGM, Najib had called on the Sultan of Johor who then took the Prime Minister for lunch at a Chinese Muslim restaurant. This year, it was the Johor Crown Prince who called on the Prime Minister days before the Kota Tinggi meeting.
Gestures like this carry a lot of meaning in Malay politics and the picture was also aimed at depicting the cordial ties between the Johor palace and Najib.
The opposition parties are hungry to capture Johor and their supporters had taken to the Internet last year to claim that the Johor palace was not with Najib.
But it is quite apparent that Umno is still very much the preferred choice among the royals and the pro-royals in Umno have even gone as far as to claim that the palace wants Johor to stand by Umno.
The message is that the Sultan and his heir have no problems with Najib and as the Prime Minister pointed out in Kota Tinggi, Umno was “born on the steps of the Johor palace”.
A year is a long, long time in politics. At around this time last year, the ground was rumbling under Najib and it appeared like the 1MDB issue was about to cave in on him.
Dr Mahathir was just months into his all-out war against Najib while Muhyiddin went on the warpath when officiating at the Cheras division meeting.
For a while, it seemed like the Cheras meeting would be the launch pad for the proverbial perfect storm because the division had also invited Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir to open the AGMs of the three wings. The Najib camp saw conspiracy written all over Cheras despite denials by the division chief, Datuk Seri Syed Ali Alhabshee.
But Najib moved quickly and two days later, Muhyiddin was out of the Cabinet.
The string of Umno division AGMs that followed was seen as potential land mines. The Najib camp was worried sick, unsure whether there would be protests, outbursts or resolutions moved against their boss.
But every politician needs a thick skin and Najib put on his game face as he went from state to state.
There were mini eruptions at division meetings in Langkawi, Kuala Kedah, Tampin, Pasir Gudang and Pontian but at the end of the day, there was not a single resolution passed against Najib.
The worst of the crisis has passed and Najib has turned the corner.
The reception Najib got in Kota Tinggi was a far cry from the mood that pervaded when he attended a couple of division meetings in Johor last year.
“After the big win in Sarawak and the by-election victories, he is no longer seen as a loser. His party sees him as a winner,” said a public affairs consultant.
The electoral wins have given Najib and his party a huge boost and a new level of confidence.
He has taken the Mahathir bull by the horns and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia has played right into his hands.
The setting up of a new party that is directly opposed to Umno has provided the basis for Umno leaders to criticise the 3Ms, to justify to Umno members that Najib did the right thing in bringing down the axe.
As Muar Umno vice-chief Muhammad Yazed Muhain put it: “There was sympathy in Johor for Tan Sri Muhyiddin after he was dropped from the Cabinet. But he has set up a new party that is trying to take over Umno’s power. How can we support that?”
In fact, the chatter in Johor is that it may not be smooth sailing for Muhyiddin if he contests Pagoh under his new party banner.
The Umno division AGM season this year began on Aug 1 and Najib’s first stop was Sepang where he sounded the prospect of recapturing Selangor.
“At first, we thought he wanted us to win back Sepang. But when he started speaking, it was clear he wants us to get back Selangor,” said Kapar division chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah.
Sepang was a classic case of how Umno did itself in during the last general election.
The party infighting in Sepang cost Umno the parliamentary seat as well as two of the three state seats. The blame fell squarely on former Selangor Umno chairman Datuk Mohd Zin Mohamed who dropped two incumbents whom he regarded as threats to his bid to control the division.
Mohd Zin’s action led to a mutiny in the division and PAS won the Sepang seat with a majority of 1,104 votes whereas the spoilt ballots added to 1,219 votes.
Najib drummed home the point that a candidate’s wow factor can go a long way but it is crucial that the candidate is accepted by the division leadership.
“Leaders from all over the country can help you win in a by-election. But in a general election, a candidate is totally dependent on the division to campaign. The PM said Sepang is a big lesson for the party,” said Faizal.
Najib’s appointment of Selangor Umno chief Tan Sri Noh Omar as Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister was done with an eye on Selangor. Faizal was recently appointed as Noh’s political secretary.
“Selangor is still uphill but it is no longer like trying to climb Mount Everest with all the quarrelling in the (Pakatan Harapan) parties,” said Faizal.
Najib’s appearances at the division meetings this year have seen him on the offensive as opposed to last year when he had to defend himself on the 1MDB issue and appeal to the party to stand by him.
In Jelebu, Negri Sembilan, he said he would not budge an inch in the face of attacks and repeated his battle cry from the last Umno general assembly: No retreat or surrender.
He told his audience he was willing to correct shortcomings in his government but would not tolerate attempts by disgruntled politicians who want to bring down the government by illegal means.
In Tangga Batu, the division headed by Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Idris Haron, Najib touched on foreign intervention in Malaysia’s politics, a topic that is quite sensitive to Umno members.
He picked up on what Idris had implied a few days earlier, that Malaysia could become the new victim of America’s agenda.
Najib said the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese is testimony to how a country could lose its sovereignty if its own citizens are willing to collaborate with foreigners to achieve their personal agenda.
He did not have to name names, everyone could tell that his prime target is Dr Mahathir who, in his quest to bring down Najib, has done almost everything that he used to stand against.
“In the 2013 general election, he said I was only looking after the Chinese and not the Malays. But who is now with Lim Kit Siang and holding up his hand?” said Najib when he was in Lumut, the division headed by Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir.
He reminded the Lumut audience that Dr Mahathir declared the by-elections in Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar to be a referendum to bring down Umno but the results showed that the people were with Barisan Nasional.
The Umno division meetings are taking place amid speculation of a general election by the middle of next year.
The momentum, said Faizal, has started, and the focus of the Prime Minister will be on the war ahead.