Najib deals with more perception pitfalls

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 26 — He may be months away from occupying the top job in Malaysia but Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is already having to answer questions about his four brothers — and their possible influence in his administration.

The cynics and the Opposition believe that his siblings will benefit from Najib’s ascension to power, drawing a bulls-eye on the back of CIMB’s Datuk Nazir Razak, one of the country’s top bankers.

In an interview with The Edge, Najib confronted this issue. He noted that Nazir joined CIMB well before he became the Deputy Prime Minister and had done well, judging by how the market viewed him.

“And yesterday, I read that he received the recognition of being the second best banker in Asia. So I think it speaks volumes for his performance in the bank… there’s no conflict of interest and most of the dealings of CIMB are with the Central Bank.
“So the Central Bank decides on a lot of matters, '' he said. Najib did not envisage a conflict of interest situation with his other brothers — Nizam, Nazim and Johari, pointing out, that “they’ve been quite scrupulous actually in terms of not wanting to put me in any embarrassing situation of potential conflict.”

But perception is everything in Malaysia and as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi found out, the involvement of family members in business can become a political liability.

As the pain of the 1998 financial crisis hit home and the political fallout over the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim became more serious, the involvement of Dr Mahathir’s children in business was put under the microscope by his foes.

Charges of cronyism and nepotism were tossed at him and it became one of the main platforms of attack which the Opposition used in the 1999 General Election. The heat persuaded Datuk Mokhzani Mahathir to sell off some business interests and take a lower profile.

Ironically, Dr Mahathir used this tactic successfully against Abdullah, accusing him of favouring his son, Kamaluddin and his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin. The potency and source of the attack made it necessary for Abdullah to publicly defend his son and Khairy.

In The Edge interview, Najib was asked whether he was worried of attracting the perception that Dr Mahathir and Abdullah had because of the involvement of their sons and son-in-law in business. And how he would tackle such a perception?

He replied: “I have to make sure that none of my siblings come into the path of potential conflict of interest, and that they are where they are because they deserve to be there. In any case, none of them are in government. One is a lawyer, one is an architect, one is in semi-retirement and there’s one in CIMB.

“So I don’t see any problem with that and they were where they are now before I came to the job.”

Solid answer, now he just has to manage the perception.

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