KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 18 — Datuk Seri Najib Razak called in sick to a 1MDB corruption trial for the second time in a month last week, but this was no barrier to his growing proclivity for needling opponents on social media.
His lead defence counsel told the trial judge that Najib was down again with an eye infection, forcing the trial to be adjourned. For most of Wednesday morning, Najib did not post anything on social media.
By 3pm onwards, however, the social media activity began trickling in and Najib resumed mocking Pakatan Harapan over various issues, often using his intimate knowledge of government matters to add credence to his allegations.
On the next day and while he was still certified as sick, the trickle became a flurry of social media activity, often posting about two topics in an hour and mostly on Facebook, only occasionally turning to Twitter.
Through it all, his 3.9 million Facebook followers lapped it up by the thousands and retransmitted his messages to their own networks, giving him a reach that most other politicians in the Opposition would envy.
Many of the commenters responding to Najib either concurred with him or expanded on his posts, effectively reinforcing his allegations. However, it was not all positive as some derided him and others continue to accuse him of the 1MDB scandal.
All this has allowed the once-aloof Najib — the son of a former prime minister and born of nobles — to style him as a man of the people, one who depicts himself as commiserating with them from the comforts of his mansion in Langgak Duta.
Husband to what was once described as the most hated woman in Malaysia, the former prime minister’s newfound ease and guile on social media has prompted speculation that he may be plotting an eventual comeback despite his fall from grace.
However, analysts told Malay Mail that Najib’s apparent popularity in the virtual world was unlikely to translate significantly into tangible support, and not nearly enough to usher him back to his previous position as prime minister of Malaysia.
Universiti Utara Malaysia Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani political scientist said that it was “impossible” that Najib would return to his previous political heights as he was permanently tainted by the 1MDB scandal, so much so that even his Umno kept him at arm’s length.
“Najib definitely has the ambition to lead the country again but in current circumstances, no way he will come back,” he said, adding that social media popularity was a temporary phase and even the “BossKu” phenomenon would soon be replaced by other issues.
“Najib was very popular on Facebook prior to GE14, even more popular than Mahathir Mohamad, but still it could not help him to win the election,” he said.
To this day, Najib remains one of the most popular Malaysian politicians on Facebook. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad trails him with 3.6 million followers while PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has on half of the prime minister’s followers.
For Universiti Malaysia Sabah academic Wan Shawaluddin Wan Hassan, Najib’s current popularity was ephemeral as he was simply playing on populist topics with admitted deftness.
“The problem is, that’s only a certain demographic that he attracts, maybe Bugis or Malay. Sadly, it is the lower income group who miss the handouts of Barisan Nasional. Cost of living now is no better than better, if not worse, so they’re suffering. Hence they miss the BR1M,” he said.
“He was and is likeable. The grassroots like him because of small things: he tries to speaks their lingo, his office sends Hari Raya greeting cards; these are things that the grassroots likes and remembers,” he said.
Wan Shawaluddin then pointed out that Najib’s social media strategy was not fundamentally different from that used by Pakatan Harapan leaders when they had still been the Opposition: rile up the electorate against the government.
The academic explained that it was simple to go on the offensive as the Opposition as the only thing that was needed was to make credible claims with little regard for fact or delivery.
“You can say anything, you can raise any question, make any claim, whether they are true or not. You can instigate racial tensions easily, but this is something the current government didn’t do as Opposition though,” he said.
Another observer suggested that Najib’s apparent confidence on social media could in fact be signs of desperation rather than ambition, saying that the former prime minister on trial for dozens of corruption and abuse charges might be trying to draw attention away from these.
Universiti Teknologi Mara political science lecturer Mohammed Raheezal Shah Abdul Karim also said it was difficult to gauge how effective social media activity was in building political support needed for Najib’s comeback.
“It is more towards shaping a more favourable image and change people’s perception towards him after being prosecuted with so many charges,” he told Malay Mail.
It was also possible that Najib was harbouring smaller ambitions than a return as prime minister,
According to Universiti Malaysia Sabah political analyst Lee Kuok Tiung who said Najib was simply trying to remain relevant.
He pointed out that Najib’s resignation as Umno president and BN chairman following the general election defeat showed that he was not seeking to return to those heights.
Lee said that while Najib might not be engineering his comeback, he would still remain a politician and would need an avenue to reach his supporters.
“I believe he himself didn’t expect there’ll be overwhelming response towards his posts.
“There are so many accusations towards him. Social media is a platform for him to share his views on all the accusations. It’s the only alternative channel he has as the mainstream media is controlled by PH now,” he said.
Najib returned to court this week for the continuation of his main 1MDB corruption trial, which was briefly disrupted again today as he sought medical attention for the same eye complaint.