Can Najib be the reformist Abdullah failed to be? — Ooi Kee Beng


MARCH 28 — Five years after the 2004 general election gave unprecedented support to Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, he leaves office a disappointed man eased out by his party’s leadership.

He also leaves behind a disappointed population that hoped he would reverse the downward trend of governance in Malaysia. He also hands over office to a man who, unlike him, will start his term under tremendous pressure to perform.

Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak, the eldest son of the country’s second Prime Minister, will, barring any last minute move by his political enemies, become the sixth Prime Minister of the country. This is a role he — and his wife — seems to think is destined for him to play.

In fact, he will be holding not one, but three if not four, pivotal positions at the same time. According to tradition, the country’s Prime Minister is also the president of Umno as well as the chairman of the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional.

Chances are, he will take on at least one other major portfolio. He became Finance Minister only recently and will therefore probably continue to be such. The Home Ministry is one further administration that he might be tempted to control directly.

The immediate challenges Najib will face as Prime Minister radiate from this triple pyramidal system of government that Malaysia has always had.

Forming a Cabinet that will bring the “massive change” that he recently promised Malaysians is his first Herculean task. His first picks have to come from among Umno’s leaders. He will have to accommodate newly-elected leaders of the various wings of the party as well as from among the supreme councillors.

In doing this, he has to balance the various factions within the party. Alienating any of them badly will increase chances of defections to the opposition further down the road.

Umno’s biggest problem at the moment is its inability to win support from among young Malays. It is losing urban areas to Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the rural north to Pas.

Corruption is seen to have corroded the party at all levels and many suspect that the only way it can reinvent itself is to lose power, just as the Kuomintang in Taiwan had to do.

After making hard choices from among Umno’s leaders, Najib has to, in keeping with the BN’s claim to represent all major ethnic groups, place prominent non-Malay allies in middle-rank portfolios.

Given how parties such as Parti Gerakan Rakyat and the MIC were decimated in last year’s general election, their leaders who had lost their parliamentary seats will have to be made senators first before they can constitutionally become Cabinet ministers. Doing this repeatedly will inevitably be taken as a snub by voters.

Not giving high positions to leaders such as Gerakan’s Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon and MIC’s Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu will, however, almost definitely estrange them and their supporters.

BN’s biggest problem at the moment is its inability to regain the Indian vote, and the uncontested re-election as MIC president of Samy Vellu, the man blamed for alienating the Indian community, undermines the raison d’etre of the coalition further.

Constrained by the power balance of his party and of the damaged coalition that he leads, Najib, at the personal level, has no choice but to seek the moral high ground. This will take some doing, seeing how the murder trial of the Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaaribuu, continues to haunt him.

All the new Prime Minister can do is to hope that the affair will fade away from public consciousness after the court’s verdict is handed out next month. “Revelations” about his connection, or lack of connection, to the sordid case are no longer an option for him.

Instead, Najib will have to drown himself in the work of softening the worst effects of the emerging economic crisis.

Serious dialogue with civil society — if not with the opposition parties — is a tactic he has to adopt, not for its own sake, but because that is the only way for him to project himself as a Prime Minister for the country, not for party or coalition. That is also the only chance he has to slow the flow of voter support away from the BN.

Relying only on Umno and the BN merely strengthens the image of insularity and arrogance that voters punished the government for last year.

The optimism and pro-activeness that Najib needs to project depends on his ability to keep his three major roles apart. He has to persuade Malaysians that he is the nation’s leader, first and foremost, and not the defender of his party’s and his coalition’s vested interests.

His political future depends on him acting tough against his own. Radical reforms from the top are the only answer. — Today

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