Malaysia ex-premier Najib set for economic advisor role as PM Ismail looks to shore up support

KUALA LUMPUR – Scandal-hit former premier Najib Razak has been offered a role advising the government on the economy, sources say, as Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob seeks to maintain his slim majority ahead of next week’s Parliament sitting.

Despite a graft conviction related to 1MDB’s controversial dealings, Najib remains influential in the ruling Umno and his endorsement could prove crucial for Datuk Seri Ismail whose attempts at a confidence-supply-agreement (CSA) with the opposition is on the rocks.

A CSA involves opposition MPs supporting the government in motions of confidence and appropriation or budget, by either voting in favour or abstaining.

Mr Ismail was sworn in on Aug 21 and presides over a government that commands just 114 members of the 222-seat Parliament where two are vacant. If just four MPs refuse to vote in favour of a government motion in Parliament, Mr Ismail would face doubts over the legitimacy of his administration, which may have to operate as a minority government.

The premier’s initial efforts since taking office are widely seen as efforts to shore up support, given that his government is made up of the same parties and MPs who failed to hold together for more than 18 months in the Muhyiddin Yassin administration, the shortest-lived in Malaysian history.

Last Saturday, he appointed his predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin as chief of the Covid-19 National Recovery Council, a position that comes with ministerial privileges. Tan Sri Muhyiddin heads the Perikatan Nasional coalition that supplies the government with nearly half its MPs.

On Wednesday (Sept 8), Mr Ismail met with Najib, who is simultaneously appealing his conviction while fighting other graft charges, and several sources told The Straits Times the latter was offered an advisory role with ministerial status. The appointment could be announced within days if both sides agree to the finer details.

“In the hour-long meeting, we discussed domestic and external economic challenges as well as strategies to face the Covid-19 pandemic. Datuk Seri Najib is committed in contributing energy, time and ideas together as a team for our beloved Malaysian Family,” Mr Ismail said.

Former Umno president Najib also said on Thursday: “The time has come to solve problems… I have taken time to outline various suggestions, steps and approaches to tackle Covid, increase public and investor confidence and restore the economy and people’s prosperity.”

“I am very confident and believe these approaches that I have recommended are realistic, will bear fruit, and are easy to implement in the near future… God willing it will gain the blessing of PM (Ismail) and the Cabinet to be implemented soon,” he wrote on Facebook.

While some reports speculate that Mr Ismail would appoint Najib as his personal economic counsellor, other options on the table are to name him as advisor to state-controlled entities such as national oil firm Petronas or fund manager Permodalan Nasional Berhad.

Najib was prime minister from 2009 until Umno’s uninterrupted six-decade rule was shockingly ended in the 2018 election. He was also former finance minister.

“This will hand Najib an influential role in the current government and rehabilitate his status,” said a source with knowledge of the discussion.

This follows on Umno secretary general Ahmad Maslan being nominated as deputy Parliament speaker, despite also fighting corruption charges.

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The Ismail administration has in recent days dismissed the need for a confidence motion in Parliament despite King Abdullah Ahmad Shah decreeing so last month.

Although the premier is an Umno vice-president, the party’s 38 MPs are divided generally between those who were handed plum positions by Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president Muhyiddin, and those in the so-called “court cluster” who were left to face trial.

Najib is among about 15 MPs who chose to withdraw support for Mr Muhyiddin last month, and his backing could ensure Mr Ismail is safely in power in the short term.

The “court cluster” includes Najib, who is appealing against a 12-year prison sentence, and Umno president Zahid Hamidi, whose defence team this week insisted the prosecution failed to establish a prima facie case in an ongoing trial for 47 graft accusations.

The Straits Times reported on Monday that a CSA between the premier and Pakatan Harapan could be scuppered as the main opposition pact only offered to abstain in confidence and supply votes, rather than openly back Mr Ismail.

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