By Ooi Kee Beng; in The Edge Kuala Lumpur, 22 April 2013
BN at the brink
In early April 2009, top leaders of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) succeeded in dismissing Abdullah Badawi as president of the party and thus, also as prime minister of Malaysia.
This was exactly one year after Abdullah had suffered grave losses in the country’s 12th general elections. That harsh move by the grey eminences of the party was highly significant. They were recognizing the fact that Abdullah was definitely not the man to pull the party and the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), back from the brink.
This was also one year after the PKR, PAS and DAP had triumphantly formalised their collaboration and founded the Pakatan Rakyat. The concerted challenge against the BN was here to stay, and serious measures had to be undertaken if the coalition that had ruled the country since independence was not to be swept away in the 13th general elections.
And so, Najib Razak, the man bypassed by Mahathir Mohamad when picking a successor in 2003, was singled out to do whatever needed doing to regain the BN’s traditional standing as the unchallenged government of the country.
To his credit, during his four years in power, Najib did carry out quite a stream of reforms, transformation and modifications.
A four-year-long campaign
In a very real sense, therefore, the campaign for the coming 13th General Elections began exactly four years ago, on the day Najib became prime minister.
His first measure was to lift a ban on a couple of journals proscribed a week earlier and to free a group of detainees arrested under the ISA just before he came to power. The perception that these moves were manipulatively arranged to demonstrate that his new administration was bent on reforms would unfortunately linger to harm his later efforts. The sincerity of his programmes was therefore often in doubt.
But be that as it may, the Prime Minister seems to have held his position reasonably well. He always remained significantly more popular than his party.
However, the signs have been many that he had not been feeling certain enough of his standing amongst voters to dare go to the polls. And so he waited for as long as he could; all the while, dispensing financial benefits to as many constituencies as possible. This has added further to the general perception that his reforms are not done on conviction but in reaction to social pressure, and for populist effect.
He has not been seen as the horse but the cart; being pulled rather than pulling.
Better late than never
However, the nominations of candidates offered him a good opportunity to clean house where he could. This, he did quite well, bringing in a large number of relatively young people and pushing aside what are unelectable persons today, such as Information Minister Rais Yatim, UMNO Wanita chief Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and former Home Affairs Minister Syed Hamid Albar.
Significantly, MCA president Chua Soi Lek, Gerakan president Koh Tsu Koon and SUPP president Peter Chin, who was Minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water were not picked to run. This shows most poignantly that the BN model is in serious trouble. The “loaning” of seats simply means that UMNO has to cover for its weak allies.
Equally interesting is the decision to reject right-winger Ibrahim Ali, head of Perkasa, as candidate, while picking the movement’s vice president Zul Noordin to run in Shah Alam. Had both not been picked, then a sharp reaction from Perkasa would not have been surprising. As it is, Perkasa is left flat-footed.
Be that as it may, Najib’s defensive and cautious style has caused him to do too little too late, and a little too cautiously. One can of course also say that it was better late than never.
His mandate to win back votes for the BN is nevertheless at an end. Now when Election Day draws near, Malaysians must hope that the excessive politicking will now end, no matter who the winner turns out to be.
Chances are, it will not. With party polls coming up for UMNO and the MCA soon after the national elections, nation building may have to continue playing second fiddle to Malaysia’s eternal campaigning.
Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He is the author of the award-winning The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (2006). His latest book is Done Making Do: 1Party Rule Comes to an End (2013).