The former Malaysian prime minister has become a social media juggernaut. Yet, he has also become the butt of jokes and memes online.
It has been a little over a year since former Prime Minister Najib Razak was handed a guilty verdict for seven counts of corruption. The case found that the deposit of RM42 million (US$ 9.9 million) into his bank accounts from SRC International, a former unit of state fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), was unlawful. The trials began in April 2019 and concluded in July 2020. Despite the controversies, Najib remains one of the more influential Malaysian political figures on social media today. This can be seen from the cultural impact of his ‘Malu Apa Bossku’ (‘What are you ashamed of, my Boss?’) campaign, which began in January 2019 and still resonates today.
The phrases ‘Bossku’ and ‘Terbaik Bossku’ (a term used when somebody does well) have become so popular that they have crossed borders into Singapore and Indonesia.
The ‘Malu Apa Bossku?’ campaign, kicked off by a host of Najib supporters and cyber troopers, was launched against the backdrop of the announcement that Najib would go on trial for his involvement in the IMDB scandal. The campaign sought to maintain Najib’s innocence, especially with the rural Malay ground. The campaign saw him travelling to rural areas, eating at warungs (family-owned stalls), posing for photographs, as well as making videos with his supporters chanting the tagline ‘Malu Apa Bossku?’ One photograph depicted Najib posing on an underbone motorcycle, the most common form of transportation among rural Malays. The campaign was one of the factors that led to the Barisan Nasional’s (BN’s) victory in several 2019 by-elections, such as those in Cameron Highlands and Semenyih. Najib is a member of the United Malays National Organisation – a major component party of BN.
Today, the impact of Najib’s campaign lingers in Malaysia. Najib’s supporters still address him as ‘Bossku’, highlighting how many still see him as a leadership figure. In their criticism of the current Perikatan Nasional coalition, his supporters also employ the term ‘Bossku’ as a way of signalling to readers that the comments are made by Najib’s supporters.
The phrases ‘Bossku’ and ‘Terbaik Bossku’ (a term used when somebody does well) have become so popular that they have crossed borders into Singapore and Indonesia. In Singapore, motorbike stickers emblazoned with the terms ‘Malu Apa Bossku’ and ‘Bossku’ have become popular. A top Singaporean podcast called Plan B uses the tagline ‘Malu Apa Bossku’ at the end of their introduction stinger. In everyday chatter, the phrase ‘Bossku’ has been adapted for everyday use by local Malays as a friendly term of endearment between friends and colleagues. Similarly, the word ‘Bossku’ has been adapted into Indonesian lingo. One can assume that it is the lingo that makes one relevant, as seen by how Indonesian Tik Tokers use it in their content. In Bandung, Aviliani, the disc jockey of radio station 105.9 FM, uses the term ‘bossku’ in her stinger as well as in her interactions on Tik Tok.
Today, Najib is a social media juggernaut. Young Malaysian politicians, opponents and allies alike admit that his social media serves as learning points on how to manage their own online presence. With his reputation and influence as ex-Prime Minister, Najib also has the ability to sway narratives and support, as seen by how the ‘Bossku’ campaign contributed to BN’s victory in the 2019 Semenyih by-elections. Compared to other politicians, Najib’s official Facebook page is the most influential, with 4.52 million followers. His Instagram profile is not the most followed profile among politicians, but still carries weight with approximately 967,000 followers.
At the same time, Najib has also become a rich source for memes and the butt of online jokes. A Facebook page, ‘Najib Memes for Barisan Teens,’ was set up to post ‘memes that are unsafe during Najib’s regime’. With 38,000 likes, the page posts funny memes for its young and diverse target audience. While there remains strong opposition to Najib among urban Malays and youth, there are also indicators of strong support for him among the Malay grassroots. Najib has been named as one of the top few contenders to replace Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in recent polls. The latter tendered his resignation on Monday.
There is an inherent contradiction in Najib’s post-PM career. On one hand, he is the politician fallen from grace who has constructed a trollish character through his sub-textual interactions with rival political factions. On the other hand, Najib appears to have succeeded in reinventing himself as a social media influencer who inspires meme-led political discourses — as evidenced by the popularity of hashtags such as #Bossku. Often, he probably does not have full control over how his image is appropriated, although it appears that he relishes the power of his image.
This means that his image could be easily ‘weaponised’ to distract and divert public attention on social media. This effectively serves as a ‘troll’ who can stir up negative sentiments against selected targets. When Tun Dr Mahathir was removed as Bersatu’s premier in May 2020, Najib posted a picture grinning depicting him eating a packet of Super Ring crackers — a clever way of signalling schadenfreude. Nonetheless, the Najib “Bossku” phenomenon has emerged almost as a barometer of sorts for tracking the direction of Malay political discourse on social media.
Clarissa Ai Ling Lee was Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
Amirul Adli Rosli was a Research Officer at the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.