From Ibrahim M Ahmad
The Kinabalu coup attempts, which have gone into full swing in recent days, have shown up Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim as a weak leader incapable of acting decisively to keep his unity government intact.
Anwar ought to have acted promptly on Thursday, when rumours of the coup attempt, led by Sabah Barisan Nasional chairman Bung Moktar Radin and Warisan president Shafie Apdal became publicly known.
In a move reminiscent of the heinous “Sheraton Move” three years ago, Sabah media reported that Bung Moktar was engineering a new alliance between Sabah Umno-BN and Shafie’s Warisan to unseat chief minister Hajiji Noor of GRS.
At that point, the prime minister ought to have stepped in and instructed his deputy, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, to put an immediate stop to the unrest his party was stirring up in Sabah.
Instead, Anwar swept the matter under the carpet on Friday afternoon by claiming that “all is calm” in Sabah, presumably relying on reports which surfaced earlier that day suggesting the attempted coup had failed after several Umno members rejected Shafie as the next chief minister.
Anwar’s rendition of “Silent Night” was misplaced. In reality, the plot was thickening, and by Friday evening, news broke that an alternate plan had been set in motion, this time naming Bung Moktar as the prospective chief minister.
That Bung Moktar – tainted by a corruption case he is facing for which his defence has already been called – would be allowed to jockey his way into the position is itself quite startling and speaks badly of both Umno and the unity government.
In any case, the plan appears to be well under way, with Bung Moktar announcing on Friday night the withdrawal of Sabah Umno-BN’s support for Hajiji.
That announcement has put Hajiji’s government in immediate peril, leaving it unclear whether he still retains a simple majority on the floor of the 79-seat legislative assembly.
With Umno-led BN and Hajiji’s GRS each a significant part of Anwar’s unity government, tensions in Sabah are bound to spill over and create hostility at federal level.
Surely, the prime minister knows this. His failure to nip the matter in the bud has raised serious questions about the strength of his leadership and whether he can preserve his own government for the full length of its five-year tenure.
To do so, Anwar must tell Zahid in no uncertain terms to instruct Sabah Umno-BN to restore its unconditional support for Hajiji, failing which the prime minister must hold Zahid himself accountable and sack him as deputy prime minister and from the Cabinet.
For his part, Zahid can offer no excuses for his party’s underhandedness.
He cannot exonerate himself by claiming he was not personally aware of the attempted coup. As Umno president and BN chairman, he is ultimately accountable for all actions which go against the ethos of the unity and coalition governments at the federal and state level.
Whispers among Umno insiders have described the Kinabalu coup attempt as “strike three” and are calling Zahid “out” for this latest infraction. They say that he will no longer be able to command the respect of the entire party and should not remain its president.
Zahid’s presidency has been marked by controversy since he assumed leadership of Umno after Najib Razak stepped aside in the wake of a crushing defeat to Pakatan Harapan at the 2018 general election.
His very appointment divided opinion, with many saying he was unsuited to lead the party given that he, like Najib, was weighed down by allegations of corruption which eventually led to him being charged in court.
As a result, Zahid was singularly responsible for a split right down the middle of the party, leading one faction bearing the derogatory name “court cluster”, while the other, which teamed up with Perikatan Nasional to form successive governments under Muhyiddin Yassin and Ismail Sabri Yaakob, became known as the “ministers’ cluster”.
That disunity within Umno – “strike one” – remained firmly at the fore throughout the intervening years between the 14th and 15th general elections, eventually leading to an even poorer showing by the party at the ballot box on Nov 19 last year – “strike two.”
Although responsible for keeping Umno and Barisan Nasional relevant by enabling them to participate in the unity government, Zahid’s own appointment as deputy prime minister created unnecessary controversy for Anwar.
Umno’s Kinabalu coup attempt is one controversy too many for Zahid.
He must do the honourable thing by announcing his immediate resignation from all governmental and party posts. His continued presence may well be the undoing of the unity government and the death knell for Umno.
If he does not, then Anwar must sack him from government.
Umno and BN must also show it is serious about reform and rejuvenation, by taking appropriate disciplinary action against Bung Moktar and his co-conspirators.
Ibrahim M Ahmad is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.