AFTER the gaffe over appointing his predecessor as economic recovery czar, what do you think Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob talked about when he met the last Umno PM before him, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, two days ago?

Yesterday, Ismail Sabri said they met for about an hour to discuss economic challenges and strategies to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

Do you really believe that? They probably did just briefly touch on those two most important issues facing the country right now – you can only scratch the surface when you have a mere hour to discuss those topics.

The more important, unsaid things that were more likely to have been discussed but not disclosed was the issue of support for Ismail Sabri’s prime ministership and what kind of quid pro quo would have been required. That would give an indication of what faces us going forward.

It would be fair to surmise that two seasoned politicians who both have much to lose will have plenty to discuss on how they can grant mutual favours for the benefit of both parties – the old political horse trading.

Why, the very announcement of the meeting itself was a message and a statement – Ismail Sabri is publicly acknowledging that he believes Najib is a force to be reckoned with, and the former is prepared to deal with the latter and take his suggestions.

This is despite the fact that Najib is a convicted criminal. That would mean political accommodation with him, showing his willingness to deal with Najib, and therefore a possible deal in the offing. The last may not be publicly disclosed.

Remember that Najib was sentenced to 12 years’ jail and fined RM210 million for seven offences involving RM42 million linked to SRC International Sdn Bhd. He is out on bail pending appeal now, and faces numerous other charges involving 1MDB.

They include:

– Twenty-one counts of receiving, using or sending illicit funds, as well as four counts of corruption involving US$681 million (RM2.82 billion) that appeared in his personal bank accounts.

– Joint charges with then treasury secretary-general Tan Sri Irwan Serigar linked to RM6.6 billion in government payments to an Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, as well as monies linked to rail and pipeline projects that involve Chinese companies. Najib faces six counts of criminal breach of trust for his alleged role in this incident.

– One count of corruption for allegedly tampering with a state audit report of 1MDB, with former 1MDB president Arul Kanda Kandasamy accused of abetting him.

Ismail Sabri of Umno now stamps his first difference with his Bersatu predecessor Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin – being prepared to deal with Najib. But it is not a good one and stinks of compromise, concessions and cop-outs, which can have hugely adverse effects on the country, to say the least.

Recall that Muhyiddin, when he was deputy PM under Najib, was expelled from Umno in 2016 following Muhyiddin’s continued criticism of Najib over 1MDB, which lost an estimated RM42 billion or more.

He formed Bersatu together with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to fight the kleptocrats in Umno. Bersatu joined Pakatan Harapan (PH), which won the 2018 elections. Dr Mahathir was reluctant to hand power over to PKR and PH head Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as agreed.

This led to the so-called Sheraton Move at a Petaling Jaya hotel to engineer a change in power to deny Anwar the prime ministership. In that move in February last year, Muhyiddin, along with Umno, PAS and PH dissidents led by Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali, gained power.

Dr Mahathir, who wanted to form a unity government he would head, was ousted, in addition to Anwar. Azmin and Ismail Sabri became senior ministers in the Perikatan Nasional government comprising Bersatu, Umno, PAS and the Azmin faction.

Now, after appeasing Muhyiddin and ensconcing him in the comfortable position of chairman of the National Economic Recovery Council (NRC) after Muhyiddin resigned as PM in the face of a no-confidence vote, Ismail Sabri now makes his move to accommodate Najib and bring him over to his camp.

In the meantime, if anyone thought that sections of Umno did not support the PM’s appointment of Muhyiddin as chairman of the NRC, that did not reflect the stated position of Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

His stand was unequivocal. Since Umno supported Ismail Sabri as PM, it is up to the PM to take any decision he feels appropriate in running the country.

Zahid himself faces 47 charges totalling over RM100 million involving, among others, 10 charges of criminal breach of trust under Section 409 of the Penal Code, eight charges under Section 16 of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Act 2009, and 27 charges under Section 4 of the Anti-Money Laundering, Anti-Terrorism Financing and Proceeds of Unlawful Activities Act 2001.

Ismail Sabri seems to be sitting pretty now, seeming to have placated all of his foes and potential foes – Muhyiddin, Najib and Zahid.

The question that arises is what Ismail Sabri will give in return for so obviously courting support from tainted people. The answer is worrisome.

Any kind of interference in the court process will be highly unacceptable to all right-thinking Malaysians of any race, denomination or faith. Ismail Sabri ignores that at his own peril – Malaysians can be unforgiving over kleptocracy, as May 9, 2018, showed.

In this respect, it is worth remembering what Muhyiddin said in his resignation address on August 16: “I could have taken the easy route and sacrificed my principles to remain PM. But that is not my choice. I will not compromise with kleptocrats or interfere with the freedom of the judiciary just to stay in power.”

Note that Zahid had said that Ismail Sabri, upon becoming PM, had agreed to set up a royal commission of inquiry (RCI) to investigate allegations of political interference in the judicial process, as mentioned by former attorney general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas in his controversial book.

That suggestion should be taken up, but should include all types of interference in the judicial process. Further, the scope of the RCI should be extended to suggest measures to minimise and eliminate all forms of judicial interference in Malaysia, including making the attorney general’s position independent and propose heavy penalties.

That will make the suggestion of an RCI more meaningful instead of focusing only on the actions taken by the PH government to bring to book those who were in government and engaged in criminal activity.

One thing is ominously clear – Umno is firmly back in the driver’s seat, thanks to all the machinations and manoeuvres over the last couple of years, and the conniving, cunning crooks who made this possible. – The Vibes, September 9, 2021

P. Gunasegaram says we badly need a united opposition focused on doing right by the people. He is chief executive of research and advocacy group Sekhar Institute and editorial consultant of The Vibes