APRIL 3 — Brand-new Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak is not in an enviable position.
While some fear that he will try to be a second Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who will force party, Parliament and opposition to toe his line, chances are great that he will instead be a second Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
For one thing, Najib lacks the conviction and the self-confidence that Dr Mahathir had. Even if he chooses to show that he can be as Machiavellian as the next man, he has to convince a sufficiently large portion of the masses that the harsh measures he carries out are absolutely necessary. That will not be easy to do.
Secondly, given how little room Najib’s allies within the Barisan Nasional have to manoeuvre in, such a choice of direction would practically kill them off. What he really needs to do is to give BN component parties like the MIC, the Gerakan Parti Rakyat and the MCA goodies that their leaders can present to their potential constituencies.
Playing “tough guy” will instead work against allies trying hard to win back voters who deserted them because they compromised too much and allowed their party profiles to be subsumed under the federal government’s Umno-centrism.
Championing Malay ethnocentrism too loudly will not help Najib also because the emergent opposition coalition is now largely led by Malays as well. What is worse news for him on this front is that the Muslim card that Dr Mahathir used to good effect in the 1980s is not his to play. No Malay sees Najib as a religious leader in any credible sense.
Even when led by Abdullah, a man with respected religious credentials, Umno failed to gain ground among Muslims. The party led by Najib is definitely not able to adopt a position as champion of Malay Islam.
While BN and Umno had been using variations on their “Malay First” policy to justify most of their actions over a long period of time, their moral failings and the falling standards of governance had been supplying oppositional forces with endless possibilities — and time — to formulate ideas that find an easy response among voters of all ages and ethnic groups.
From this grew the opposition’s present impressive ability to repulse most of what the powerful central government can throw at it.
The strange coalition forged between the DAP, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and PAS, weak because of its apparent unholy mix, paradoxically enjoys the advantage, at least as long as they remain in opposition, of having collected most expressions of discontent against the BN government under its umbrella.
Najib’s biggest problem as he takes over from a disgraced Abdullah is that the opposition has a great discursive advantage over whatever his administration can think up. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his allies keep focusing on governance issues, and call for more transparency, more accountability and more competence in government and the civil service. They talk about helping the needy independent of race, of welfare for the poor, of more freedom of expression, and of amending the affirmative action programme that favours Malays. All these find a ready audience.
Indeed, even the spiritual leader of PAS, Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, has most recently declared his uneasiness over the term “Bumiputera”, saying that it smacked of racism.
What makes it less prudent for Najib to use harsh methods against his critics is that his personal reputation is badly injured by public association with the murder of the Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu. Any future unwarranted use of draconian methods that can be directly linked to him will damage his image beyond redemption, if it is not that already.
What Najib would be well-advised to do at this stage, and given how the tide continues moving against him, is to do a repeat of the early Abdullah period, but with a desperate effort at ending with a different punch line.
Najib does seem to be in the promising stage at the moment. He wants Umno’s electoral structure reformed, somewhat in the way Dr Mahathir’s major opponent, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, had been calling for. He is also saying that Malaysia’s future development depends on ethnic fissures diminishing, something that most Malaysians would not disagree with, having said it themselves for so long.
But beyond parroting the calls for reforms first voiced by others, Najib has to deliver on his promises, and quickly. In that undertaking, the opposition will not be his main enemies. Umno’s warlords and power holders in the present enormous federal bureaucracies will be the ones he will have to combat. He might not have the ability to manage that.
The area where he can concentrate his efforts at showing leadership qualities is in national economic policy-making. With the global crisis getting worse by the day, he is offered the opportunity of being the prime minister who is able to soften its worst effects. Should he manage that, and in the process place the country in an improved international position when and if the next economic boom comes, then he will be able to leave a legacy far more excellent than any Malaysian anywhere in the world expects of him.
The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is "Arrested Reform: The Undoing of Abdullah Badawi". - The Malaysian Insider