After last year’s historic Malaysian election, which brought in the country’s first new government in 60 years, there were hopes for an end to the cronyism and corruption that has long haunted the nation. As part of this, former Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, was charged with 42 counts relating to abuse of power and money laundering.
Following the recent delay of his trial, however, Najib has turned accusations that he is a “thief” to his own advantage – by rebranding himself as a “thief of hearts” and transforming himself into a man of the people. This bizarre yet successful populist strategy poses a challenge to the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.
Following the election, Najib’s political fortunes seemed dire. Implicated in the 1MDB financial scandal, Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, have been charged with an increasing number of crimes. The scandal and its fallout contributed to the downfall of the former ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), in the election, and captured the world’s interest because of its sheer scale.
Current prime minister Mahathir Mohamad says prosecutors have an “almost perfect case” against the former leader. The tide of public opinion had also turned against Najib following seizures of bags of money, luxury handbags and jewellery valued at £212m.
His trial was set to begin on February 12, but has since been delayed on a technicality. The Court of Appeal has set March 11 and 12 to hear appeals, with the trial potentially now beginning in April.
This delay is significant, as it gives Najib the opportunity to rebuild his political support. By prolonging his role in politics, he is also providing a challenge to the PH government. What is noteworthy is that this strategy is centred around a relatively bizarre rebranding.
In the past, Najib was widely viewed as an aristocrat. His father, Abdul Razak, had also been prime minister, he was educated in England, and he had a passion for luxury brands. Now he wears hoodies, black jeans, and t-shirts branded with the now iconic image of him mounting a scooter adorned with his adopted slogan “Malu apa, boss ku” (ashamed about what, my boss?).
Though he claims not to have created the slogan, it portrays him as being down to earth, a people person. He uses scooters instead of luxury vehicles (though he always rides pillion), and is pictured going to markets and sitting on the floor eating.
The rebrand is particularly targeted at the “mat rempit” – poorer Malay youth known for riding on scooters – and involves him posting wefies (group selfies) with these individuals and appealing to their passion for light motorcycles. His wife Rosmah, who remains a symbol of excess, has disappeared from view.
It might look like a midlife crisis, but it’s having an impact due to its popularity on social media. Najib is using Facebook and Twitter to become a self-styled “King of the Trolls”, using contemporary language, sarcasm and humour to criticise the government.
One example is when he posted the finance minister’s and economic minister’s phone numbers, which he suggested was “to help them coordinate better”. When he visited Langkawi – the current prime minister’s seat – he posted: “Anyone know where the counter is to apply for a permit to take selfies?”. This seemingly was in response to the government requesting police to monitor him.
And so Najib has become an entertainer. He has even recorded a Malay version of The Manhattan’s song Kiss and Say Goodbye, singing: “This is the saddest day of my life. Since May 9, 2018, I was ousted. All this while, I have been fighting for the people who I really love”.
A political impact?
While these jokes are easy to dismiss, he is using his new-found social media popularity to bring attention to the government’s lacklustre performance. He often emphasises poverty and takes aim at PH which has been unable to meet its promises on lowering the cost of living. By branding himself champion of Malaysia’s poor, Najib is boosting his own popularity and directing frustration towards PH.
It is questionable how much this translates into tangible support, though he is winning the battle for public opinion. In a recent by-election in the Cameron Highlands, BN won after Najib took control and focused the message on poverty. He argued that: “I only went there to help the candidate based on the people’s demand”, but he proved especially popular among young voters, who call him “bossku” (boss).
In the town of Semenyih, he was met with massive crowds at a supermarket. He declared: “This shows that people want to be close to me as a leader”, and pointed out that his near empty trolley was all that you could buy now with 50 ringgit (around £10).
But while the “mat rempit” seem persuaded, other sections of Malaysian society doubt this rebranding will lead to real results or translate into votes for BN.
What next for bossku?
But could it influence Najib’s upcoming trial? He often links posts to his innocence, but Mahathir is unfazed by Najib’s popularity and even some of Najib’s BN party colleagues are sceptical. Humour as a deflection has been used successfully in Malaysian politics before, however. Mahathir, while not facing criminal charges, did the same during his transformation from autocrat to a “saviour” of democracy, making jokes about his previous life as a dictator.
It is unlikely to impact on the legal case itself, however, despite concerns that he is trying to delay the sentence until after the next election. Nevertheless, the BN are more likely to gain support if Najib continues to damage the reputation of the PH coalition, and his campaign could win him the court of public opinion – heightening accusations that the charges against him are politically motivated.
Najib is putting pressure on PH, and is gaining momentum. And until his trial takes place, he will continue to do so.