In the past few days, for the first time, we are seeing top UMNO leaders describing their former President Datuk Seri Najib Razak as a liability.
Former UMNO Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin was the first to pin the blame and the 1MDB scandal for the Barisan Nasional (BN) defeat in the last General Elections.
At that time, Khairy was a lone voice and he was attacked from within by party members who at that time did not dare to hit out.
However, as Najib faced further charges and BN's loss in the Sungai Kandis by-election, more dissenting UMNO voices were heard urging that their former President be sidelined.
Among the louder voices were UMNO secretary-general Tan Sri Annuar Musa, UMNO Vice President Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin and Titiwangsa UMNO chief Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani.
We saw the emergence of a new culture-loyalty to personality rather than to the party which eventually affected UMNO’s reputation and popularity
Annuar said that the party should no longer defend Najib and Khaled said that it is Najib who is on trial and not the party, thus the need to detach. Johari questioned Najib's presence in the Sungai Kandis by-election campaign.
Annuar, Khaled and Johari were some of Najib's biggest supporters when he was the Prime Minister.
Long-time political analyst Professor Dr Sivamurugan Pandian of Universiti Sains Malaysia stated that while many think that this is the first time an UMNO president is being chastised openly, it is not something new.
"This culture has existed before - Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad criticising Tunku Abdul Rahman, Mahathir being criticised by Tun Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh," says Sivamurugan.
What was new, he highlights, was the loyalty to personality which started in UMNO during Najib's time, which was eventually its downfall.
"Only in 2000s, we saw the emergence of a new culture-loyalty to personality rather than to the party which eventually affected UMNO’s reputation and popularity. In order to restore supporters' trust, being critical of leadership emerged again in order to show to others that there is no more ‘kow tow’ or blind support to a leader anymore," says Sivamurugan.
He regards Najib "a foregone" as he is now a liability to the party with the current allegations and charges against him.
"The more he (Najib) voices up issues related to himself and if there is no end to the 1MDB case, he becomes a liability to party. Taking a ‘sabbatical’ until he clears himself will give some room to the party to revive and make drastic changes but it needs a strong political will from the current leadership to distance themselves from the former president."
"Khairy and Khaled are giving a strong signal to members that there is an alternative voice within the party," says Sivamurugan.
He, however, points out that the UMNO president himself Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi, being caught in a catch-22 situation, is being seen as weak due to these alternative voices pushing him into a corner.
It’s a catch-22 situation but if he continues to be silent, it will definitely affect his leadership as many will start to criticise and condemn him as though he’s the last UMNO President
"He is seen as having failed to address pertinent issues related to the party and the nation. At this stage, most likely he’s trying to position himself to reconcile with his nemesis so that he can be a part of the government sooner than next GE. At the same time, he doesn’t want to be seen running away from his mentor (Najib)."
"It’s a catch-22 situation but if he continues to be silent, it will definitely affect his leadership as many will start to criticise and condemn him as though he’s the last UMNO President. At this juncture, he must be seen taking drastic actions to overhaul the party," he adds.
The best thing to happen to UMNO for now, says Sivamurugan, is for Najib to be made to take (or given) a sabbatical from political issues and perhaps wither away.
"Even though he (Najib) claims it’s merely perception, the party suffered and lost the majority. He can remain as an MP, clear his case and come back if he’s found innocent. The longer 1MDB issues stays, it will not only haunt him but it will also kill the party slowly.
"The more charges against him, the more the UMNO leaders and members will find it difficult to strengthen the party’s position. At this point, the party needs to move forward. As long as he is connected to Jho Low - the most wanted person in 1MDB fiasco - and remains in the media limelight, UMNO/BN will suffer to survive. Maybe, it is time for him to decide to distance himself from party matters and force Jho Low to return for the sake of the party," says Sivamurugan.
However, that being said, he agrees that Najib needs UMNO now more than ever and he may just cling on for political support as much as UMNO wants to cut him off.