Najib fans fear of foreign plots and traitors to shore up support.
Can Najib Razak survive the 1MDB corruption scandal? The Malaysian Prime Minister came under increased political pressure in July when the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit alleging that a family friend embezzled $3.5 billion from the state-run investment fund. But he has fought back and could even turn the case to his advantage if he calls a snap election early next year.
Mr. Najib is using the same strategy predecessors used when faced with domestic opposition: Play the Malay nationalism card. The country’s racial divide makes this a powerful and dangerous weapon.
On Aug. 5 Mr. Najib said he wasn’t involved in the 1MDB case and blamed “certain enemies” for politicizing it. On Aug. 14 he warned that foreign enemies could impose neocolonialism if Malaysians share confidential documents with outsiders: “History is a testimony of how we could lose our sovereignty if we were in cahoots with foreigners.”
During an Aug. 30 speech on the eve of Independence Day, Mr. Najib reiterated the danger of foreign neocolonialists using “dirty hands” within the country. People in “certain quarters who want to topple the government in an undemocratic manner” were “poisoning the minds of the people,” he said. Other politicians from the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) are making similar statements.
One target of this rhetoric is the anticorruption organization Bersih. On Wednesday the group announced plans for a mass rally in November calling for Mr. Najib’s resignation. Since Islamists dropped out of the group, Chinese and Indian activists have played a leading role.
UMNO politicians portrayed the last such rally in August 2015 as an attempt by minority leaders to seize power and take race-based privileges away from Malays. In the aftermath of that rally, a Malay nationalist group known as the red shirts, led by UMNO official Jamal Yunos, tried to protest in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, the scene of race riots that killed hundreds of Chinese in 1969. The police kept the red shirts out of Chinatown, but Mr. Najib defended the protest as a response to posters insulting Malay leaders at the Bersih event.
A new opposition party set up by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin poses the real challenge to Mr. Najib. The Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia—which translates to Party of Malaysia’s United Indigenous People—restricts membership to Malays. Mr. Mahathir attacked the government for selling national power-production assets to Chinese companies to bail out 1MDB.
The battle between UMNO and PPBM will depend on the loyalty of rural, less-educated Malays. Both portray themselves as defenders of Malay interests against outside forces.
The risk of communal violence is real, and there are striking parallels to past eruptions. The 1969 riots began after the UMNO-led coalition almost lost a general election as Chinese voters turned to the opposition. Then-Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman supported a protest against insults to Malay leaders, much as Mr. Najib did last year.
Since 1969, racial tensions have risen whenever disunity within the Malay community threatened UMNO’s political dominance. The ruling coalition barely held on to its parliamentary majority in the 2013 election despite losing the popular vote.
The government’s motive to fan Malay nationalism will grow as details of the U.S. lawsuit and international investigations into 1MDB reach the Malay heartland. If Mr. Najib chooses to stoke resentments against ethnic minorities, he may succeed in holding on to power, but at immense cost to Malaysia.