Comment: Najib is behind bars, but can he still swing the M’sian general election his way?

The Najib factor.

James Chin | October 13, 2022, 02:16 PM

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With Malaysia’s 15th General Election likely scheduled for November, many Malaysians are wondering what role ex-prime minister Najib Tun Razak will play in GE15.

To recap, Najib Razak is the first ex-PM of Malaysia to be convicted of corruption and he is currently serving a 12-year sentence. Despite this, his political presence looms large in the minds of many Malaysians.

The number one question is whether he will stand again for his Pekan constituency. Legally, he should be able to, as he is applying for a royal pardon, but many are disputing this. There is no previous case that one can refer to.

It’s the first time, that I know of, where we are faced with such a situation. But the one I’m certain of is that if he is allowed to stand, one of the other Pekan candidates will file a case at the Election Court.

Najib's long shadow

The second biggest question on the mind of Malaysians is what role Najib will play in GE15, regardless of his candidature. His political shadow is undoubtedly the biggest in Malaysia.

All this is due almost exclusively to his social media presence. There are no other politicians in Malaysia who even comes close to his reach.

In Twitter, he has 4.1 million followers. In Facebook, he has 4.6 million followers. In Instagram, it’s close to 1 million. Even on TikTok, the hashtag #NajibRazak shows 35 million views.

One can argue endlessly that most of the followers are “fake” or “bought”, but when it comes to Malaysian politics, that is not how you measure a politician’s social media reach.

The real social media reach in Malaysia is not how many followers you have, but how your message is carried in two non-public platforms, the WhatsApp and Telegram messaging apps. This is where the real "political propaganda" takes place.

There are literally thousands and thousands of WhatsApp and Telegram groups in Malaysia, and almost all will carry some sort of political meme, or in more recent time, short political video clips. Many of these clips are used for TikTok as well, and if short enough, for Twitter.

I can tell you I am on many WhatsApp and Telegram groups (too many in fact), and I cannot remember a period where Najib’s name does not appear regularly.

He commands such a presence that he even has a moniker on Malaysian social media -- Bossku (My Boss). His infamous meme tagline is “Malu Apa Bossku" (translated as: "What are you ashamed of, my Boss?"), written on a poster with a picture of Najib riding a motorcycle.

If you use the word “Bossku” anywhere in Malaysia, I guarantee you most Malaysians would think you are referring to the ex-PM.

This is how you measure his political influence -- similar to the word “Boris”. If you use “Boris” in the UK, most people will think you are referring to ex-PM Boris Johnson.

Pic from Najib Razak's Facebook page.

On the surface this sounds crazy, given that Najib is a convicted felon and his 1MDB scam is recognised as a financial scam in half a dozen countries, including the U.S., Switzerland, Singapore and the UK. Yet in Malaysia, apparently, he has nothing to be “ashamed” about.

During the state elections in Melaka last year and the Johor state elections this year, thousands of his fans turned up at every campaign stop he held.

UMNO people told me in no uncertain terms that when it comes to pulling the crowd, especially the younger people, no other UMNO politician comes close to Najib.

Active on social media

The Prison Department put out a press release saying that Najib cannot get special treatment and thus, will not be allowed to go out to campaign. But the horse has already bolted from the cage. Najib officially went in on Aug. 23, but if you look at his FB page and other social media, he is as active as ever, with almost daily postings.

Of course, I am not saying that he has access to a smartphone inside, but at the same time, I find it hard to believe that the postings were done without his knowledge.

It is true he has a social media team working for him full-time for a number of years, but it is also true that he is consummate user of social media -- he knows what works to reach to UMNO’s Malay base.

In my mind, when the formal campaign period starts, even with him behind bars, his social media machinery will go into high-gear.

UMNO, like all political parties, love only winners, and there is little doubt (at least to me) that Najib is “King” when it comes to political social media in Malaysia.

Social media has a track record of succeeding in campaigns

If you think Malaysians won't be swayed by a felon’s social media posts, think again. Malaysia’s neighbour, the Philippines, elected the son of kleptocrat with a massive victory in May this year.

“Bong Bong” Marcos defended his father, Ferdinand Marcos and his corrupt legacy and the Filipinos went along with his narrative. How is this possible? Because Bong-Bong Marcos had the best social media army in the Philippines.

My Filipino friends tell me social media won the elections for Bong-Bong. No other explanation is needed.

So those Malaysians who think the Najib factor was decapitated by his jailing are in for a rude shock. I have no doubt Najib will retain his status as the "five-star general" of UMNO’s cyber army.

UMNO cannot do without Najib’s social media and Najib needs UMNO to win big so that his case can be kautim (sorted out) after the elections. Najib may not be physically on the campaign trail, but his social media imprint will be on everything UMNO does.

The only question I have is this: Can Najib repeat the performance of Bong-Bong Marcos?

Top image by Zahim Mohd/NurPhoto via Getty Images