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Articles, Commentaries, Straits Times

Can Najib Stem the Tide?

By Ooi Kee Beng For The Straits Times, 16 April 2013.

MOST analysts think the Malaysian general elections will be close. Although Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to retain a slight edge over his nemesis, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the social tide, even if significantly weaker, is still with the latter.

How then to find the decisive drop of water that will stem the tide for good?

Ever since he replaced Mr Abdullah Badawi as prime minister in April 2009, Mr Najib has seen it as his job to win back the rivers of voters who had turned against his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

But despite the long series of measures he undertook to transform the country’s slacking economic structure and low quality of governance, what seemed to happen was that only his personal popularity grew while the reputation of his party and his coalition slid further.

When institutional changes failed to give the dramatic upswing in support he sought, and legislative reforms were brushed aside as window dressing, he tried to win popularity for his administration by handing out money through an impressive array of channels.

To be sure, no one really knows how all these may influence voter affections, but the fact that the effect has not been obvious is reason enough for him to worry.

Prime Minister Najib delayed dissolving parliament for as long as he could, hoping for an inspired moment to strike. But in waiting too long, he lost the advantage he had of choosing a date that suited him best and that would catch the opposition napping.

However, by keeping the opposition guessing, he encouraged cracks to show in its ranks. This was an unexpected gain.

But now the die is cast.

Parliament is dissolved, the election date has been set, and Nomination Day is approaching.

And ahead of that day, Prime Minister Najib decided to announce his lists of candidates for both the state elections and for parliamentary seats.

Here is the most promising place where Prime Minister Najib can find the final drop he needs to be sure that he will win, and win enough to avert any challenge from within his own party after the national elections.

Rumours had been brewing for months that he would favour new young faces over tried and tired ones. These rumours turned out to be true. Many of those in the old days who would have been undisputed choices were dropped. In their place, new names appear.

But therein lies a big problem that is quite beyond the prime minister’s ability to solve.

It could not have been an easy matter getting so many young names to contest under the Umno and BN banner; and to have them accepted by those they are replacing. For one thing, over the past five or six years, young Malaysians eager to change the government and the country’s political culture had been attracted to the opposition. Furthermore, the opposition’s political discourses have been easier for the young to embrace. Certainly the political path to significant positions in the parties would be an infinitely shorter one than if they had joined the stiff and hierarchic parties within the BN.

In taking the risk of upsetting entrenched interests within BN parties only as D-Day approaches on May 5, Prime Minister Najib exposes how difficult and precarious his situation had always been.

He now has to play catch-up, to reform what he failed to change during his four years in power: restructuring his party by replacing the personnel. In fact, that delay was what had been undermining all his other efforts, some of which were rather gallant ones, such as the repeal of the Internal Security Act.

Now, Prime Minister Najib has chosen to bite the bullet by taking out of the running the unelectable presidents of major BN parties such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Gerakan and Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP), along with Umno personalities considered political liabilities such as former home minister Syed Hamid Albar, Umno women’s chief Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and Information Minister Rais Yatim.

If he had not done so, the campaign will be much harder for him to handle.

He is also sidelining Perkasa leader Ibrahim Ali. This is to his great credit, and will certainly help diminish race-baiting in the campaign. Over the last four years, Prime Minister Najib’s inability to act against this right-wing group, which is incidentally supported by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, caused him and his reform programmes great damage.

To be sure, showing his hand so close to Election Day puts great stress on the parties involved and on the cohesion of the coalition. Voices of protest are already being heard from the ranks of the MCA, which is traditionally considered Umno’s twin party.

Also, these new faces generally lack a track record, which may mean that the impact on BN support may not be immediate.

But at this late stage, that is all he can do to strengthen his reputation as a serious reformer.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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