by Shankaran Nambiar
East Asia Forum
June 8th, 2012
Credibility is a prized asset for any government, and with general elections fast approaching in Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak is no exception to this rule.
Najib has an onerous task ahead of him because the Barisan Nasional coalition, which he heads, won only 140 out of 222 lower house seats in the last election in 2008. This simple majority of 63.5 per cent was the coalition’s worst performance since Malaysian independence in 1957.
Najib’s leadership qualities will be severely tested this time around, but he is well aware of the daunting challenge ahead. In fact, his awareness of the problems on the ground might be his strongest suit. So far, it has enabled him to take the first steps toward repairing the damage the Barisan Nasional suffered over the years since the 2008 debacle.
Two notable efforts in this direction were the launching of the New Economic Model and the 1Malaysia concept, both in 2010. These campaigns show that Najib understands that addressing issues relating to inclusiveness and governance are key to winning the upcoming 13th general elections by a convincing margin.
1Malaysia was an initiative to foster ethnic harmony, national unity and efficient governance, but the idea was strongly criticised by detractors from within Najib’s own party, the United Malays National Organisation, and by Perkasa, a group that focuses mainly on Malay rights. In short, 1Malaysia was a worthy project that could not grow for lack of support.
By contrast, the New Economic Model started off with a bang. The initial document (Part One) was published in 2010, and was a frank admission of where Malaysia stood, and what needed to be done to get it moving forward. Part Two, however, was less than spectacular, and it lacked the vision and candour that characterised its predecessor.
The discrepancies between the two documents indicate that Najib’s high expectations were crippled by political realities that he had no way of navigating. It shows that Najib has a clear picture of what ails the country, but has equal difficulty in executing his vision.
The April 2012 protests by Bersih 3.0 and recent claims of gerrymandering, malapportionment of constituencies and irregularities in the voter lists do not make the situation any easier for Najib. The Bersih 3.0 attempt to gather at Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) was a sign that the election process has lost some of its credibility — a view that many seem to share. The fact that 80,000 people (250,000 according to non-official sources) are willing to run the risk of being arrested or beaten by the police to attend a demonstration is a clear sign that public discontent is on the rise.
In addition to underscoring the need for electoral reform, the protests also cast doubt on Najib’s commitment to free speech and assembly rights. Najib has raised these issues in the past, and has voiced his support for the abolishment of the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial or criminal charges. The allegations of police harassment of media personnel at the Bersih 3.0 rally do not show Najib in a good light, despite the fact that police excesses — even if true — need not have been on his direction.
On the economic front, there has been a great deal of prevarication on fiscal responsibility. Najib had promised to work toward fiscal balance, but the record suggests scant regard for Malaysia’s continuing fiscal deficit. For instance, Malaysia’s 1.3 million civil servants have benefitted from a salary increase in the range of 7 to 13 per cent. Then there was the RM500 (US$162) one-off cash aid for households earning less than RM3000 (US$974) per month, which was announced under the 2012 budget. It is estimated that 3.4 million households will have benefitted from the handout, amounting to RM1.8 billion (US$583 million).
The generosity on the expenditure side has not been matched with equal agility in increasing revenue. The proposed goods and services tax (GST) has been kept on hold, and will not be introduced before the forthcoming elections. An instrument as unpopular as a GST cannot be introduced in an election year and, moreover, the moral right to introduce this tax is called into question when allegations of corruption abound.
A case in point is the scandal surrounding the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC), which was run by the husband of the then-cabinet minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat. It has been alleged that NFC funds were used to purchase two luxury condominium units and pay for Shahrizat’s family’s credit card bills in 2009, to the tune of RM600,000 (US$194,500).
Najib might have a clear idea of what needs to be done to revitalise Malaysia, but his credibility will be questioned in the months leading up to the elections. And that is his greatest challenge, because voters will judge Najib on the strength of his performance, rather than on his good, but unrealised, intentions.
Shankaran Nambiar is an economist who has consulted for various national and international agencies. He lives in Kuala Lumpur.