KUALA LUMPUR, July 3 — His detractors have dismissed him as a mere internet troll.
Few leaders in Pakatan Harapan (PH), when in power or as the current Opposition, bother to entertain his daily vitriols. While his newfound popularity among disenfranchised Malay youth has been the subject of much debate, many of his rivals appear uninterested to know why.
The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal and dozens or so corruption charges saddled on Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s back may explain this apparent lack of regard that PH leaders have for the man whose scandals helped end five decades of Barisan Nasional (BN) rule, pundits opined.
But with the Perikatan Nasional (PN) administration’s plan for snap polls now appearing likely, they cautioned rivals against writing the former prime minister off.
If anything, the “Bossku” phenomenon, the culmination of a slick social media campaign that has earned the Pekan MP pop star status, not only suggests Najib is still very much relevant, but also a force to contend with.
One piece of evidence is the groundswell of support for the Umno-PAS alliance, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
Operating from the sidelines, Najib led an effective social media drive to galvanise protest against the PH government, riding on ethnic tension and anger fueled by a slew of unfulfilled election promises to help BN win four by-elections, all within the second year of PH rule.
Oh said Najib’s public relations push, built around a contrived image of the former prime minister as the common man and is likely the work of expensive communications and image consultants, proved effective because it provided the then Opposition with a relatable figure.
“The groundswell was epitomised or personified by Najib mainly because Umno at the time did not have a presentable figure,” Oh said.
“(Umno) needs to attract not just young and moderate votes, but also conservative heartland votes... and Najib was the only one who was able to do so.”
Various polls seemed to confirm Najib’s popularity.
One of them, the “Malaysian Opposition Parties Strategic Survey” conducted by PR firm Citrine One, found the former Umno president to be the second-most “trusted” Opposition leader among younger urban voters, next to former Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin.
Political scientists have not been able to pinpoint exactly why the corruption allegations against the former Umno president have not stuck.
Years of rivals harping about Najib’s link to the 1MDB fiasco and the constant media spotlight of the drama around his criminal trial instead have induced a sense of fatigue, or even scepticism about the allegations, something particularly evident among ethnic Malays, they said.
All this, according to Sivamurugan Pandian, political scientist with Universiti Sains Malaysia, is working to the former prime minister’s advantage.
“The more he is criticised, the more sympathy he gains... he’s popular because of his ‘communication skills’ which reach various target groups,” he said.
“Focusing extensively on his cases will not bring any good as it is almost 26 months since the 14th general election.”
Inside the PH camp, Brand Najib’s popularity has spurred murmurs of calls to reflect and examine the causes behind the coalition’s dwindling approval rating, and if its short stint in power was rife with missteps that played into Umno’s hands.
Some felt the coalition could have done better with its messaging and communication, be it to explain the failure to fulfill several of its election manifesto pledges, or to counter the race rhetoric peddled by its rivals.
“We did not do enough to deal with identity politics because we were busy dealing with institutional reforms,” said DAP’s Steven Sim, MP for Bayan Baru and a former deputy minister.
“When you have no care for rules or propriety, you just agitate and provoke, spinning fictions, twisting facts, or in social media parlance, a troll.
“(But) I agree that PH failed in our communication as a government. This is something we need to reflect on and improve drastically.”
Others have blamed it on the slow pace of reform, saying PH’s inability to deliver swift justice against corrupt politicians fueled doubts about the coalition’s ability to govern.
“No doubt Najib’s publicity team has done a marvellous job... he has also ridden on people’s grouses towards the Pakatan government,” said Chang Lih Kang, PKR vice-president and Teja state assemblyman.
“If Pakatan had done better in governance and public communication when we were in power, I don’t think Najib could have achieved such popularity.
“Is Pakatan at fault? I think so. We are not seen as trying hard enough to pursue the case.”
And until the prosecution can secure a full conviction, political pundits believe the former prime minister could still inflict considerable damage on the Opposition’s campaign.
Within his own party, Umno warlords have continued to rely on his advice to draw strategies, analysts said. Najib is said to be among those pushing for snap polls, which Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is speculated to call early next year.
The former Umno president is already in the thick of another by-election, pulling his weight to help the party campaign for the Chini state seat in his home state of Pahang, where his family’s clout has kept BN an indomitable force for over six decades.
Najib took over the Pekan constituency after the death of his father and the country’s second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, whose legacy made the parliamentary seat an Umno fortress.
Yet no pundits would bet on Najib to make a comeback despite attesting to his influence.
There are those who still view Najib as a liability to Umno, as it must contend with a new generation of younger urban voters who are far more critical and less keen on racial politics.
Parliament passed an amendment to lower the voting age to 18 last year, a move the Election Commission said could increase the electorate size to 22 million by the 15th general election, from nearly 15 million previously.