By Eric Loo
May 13, 2015
I don’t know how she died, but I remember how she lived her life. I still feel her cheery presence from her Facebook posts and emails, the last one I received a month ago. It’s surreal. Which got me thinking. What stories will we leave behind after we’re gone? Then, I thought about our prime minister. What public memories will he leave when he passes on, from the values he lives by to the political decisions he has made since 2009?
In the documentary ‘A Leader’s Legacy: Tun Abdul Razak’, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak says of his father: “I have a sense of pride knowing my father passed away in the service of the nation. There can be no other service greater than that.” Indeed.
Najib proudly presented his reformist agenda when he succeeded Abdullah Badawi in 2009. To the United Nations in 2010, Najib projected a globalist moderate persona. His realpolitik at home, however, shows a Janus-faced figure, Machiavellian even, in reaching his political ends, amoral they may seem in the public eye.
These keywords hence come to mind when I think of Najib’s administration: Altantuya, Scorpene submarines, Abdul Razak Baginda, government executive jets, Rosmah Mansor’s lavish lifestyle, 1MDB debts, and other scandals listed in the Sinar Project.
Wealth accumulation from mega business deals through political connections has hence ranked Malaysia third in The Economist’s Crony Capitalism Index 2014 after Hong Kong and Russia.
I’ll remember Najib as the prime minister for his 1Malaysia vision and National Transformation Programme, his associated schemes (BR1M, PR1MA, 1MDB) and pithy slogans (People First Performance Now; Endless Possibilities).
I’ll remember him as the only prime minister to have commissioned multimillion ringgit public relation consultancies to spin his media image at home and abroad – to the extent of availing a personal audience with President Barack Obama in the White House in April 2010, and a round of golf in Hawaii with Obama in December 2014.
I’ll remember Najib for outdoing his predecessors in suing journalists for defamation, and slapping the Sedition Act at academics, civil activists and political opponents. And, under his administration, institutions meant to be the people’s watchdogs against corruption and crime – the judiciary, the police, and the rule of law – are used to serve the interests of the politically well connected.
Growing trust deficit
The growing trust deficit among the racial groups, attributed to Najib’s consistent refusal to repudiate the Islamist ideologues, and his resort to racial politics to justify his amendments to the security laws will see him leave a murky legacy vastly different from his father who died in 1976 of leukemia in London at age 53 after serving six years as prime minister.
Bapa Pembangunan Abdul Razak Hussein left his legacy in the New Economic Policy (NEP), implemented in 1971 following the race riots in May 1969.
I can’t recall any of our prime ministers who have sincerely attempted to stamp out the systemic corruption in government, and reviewing the parameters of the NEP, succeeded by the National Development Policy after 1990, and renamed New Economic Model by Najib in 2009.
Perhaps, except for Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (Pak Lah, photo) who led Umno to its greatest electoral victory in 2004 (65 percent of the popular vote, 90 percent of the seats in Parliament), one year after he succeeded Mahathir Mohamad.
I’ll remember Pak Lah for establishing the Malaysian Institute of Integrity and the National Integrity Plan as part of the ‘punitive and preventive measures’ in eradicating public corruption and improving accountability in the civil service. But four years into his tenure, Abdullah’s anti-corruption initiatives lost its steam, buckled under political pressures to placate the Umno factions and business cronies.
I’ll remember Pak Lah for pointing out how the Malays would fail to progress as long as they rely on the bumiputera policies to move ahead.
Speaking at the 2004 Umno general assembly, he said, “Bumiputeras realise that they are relying on crutches and want to do away with the crutches; but they are afraid to discard them. Because of this fear, they revert to old habits, looking for quick fixes and blaming others. If such attitudes are allowed to flourish, then bumiputeras will get even weaker. A continuing reliance on crutches will further enfeeble, and we may eventually end up in wheelchairs.”
In a speech to the Harvard Club of Malaysia on May 5, 2005, Abdullah described himself as a “not only a man of intentions (but also) a man of deeds, not one for display or fanfare or harsh words”.
He chided Malaysia for its “1st class infrastructure, 3rd class mentality” and how Malaysians needed to seriously undergo a “system-wide change” in how we do things and measure success – benchmarked, not by mega-sized megalomaniacal projects but by developing the country’s intellectual, spiritual and social capitals.
Comparing a country to three parts of a computer
Pak Lah’s hardware-software compatibility analogy reminds me of Thomas Friedman’s book, ‘Lexus and the Olive Tree’ (1999). The New York Times columnist compared a country to three parts of a computer. First, there is the ‘hardware’, the basic shell around each country’s economy: free-market hardware, communist hardware and hybrid hardware.
Second is the ‘operating system’, which are the broad macro economic and social policies of any country. This ranges from central planning in communist countries to capitalist free markets, and a combination of socialism, free markets, state-directed, and crony capitalism.
And third is the ‘software’. This is the rule of law, public accountability, civil governance and a political-economic environment that ensures every person has fair and equitable opportunities to realise their full potential.
Under Najib’s administration, the operating system is corrupted. I’ll remember Najib as a wannabe reformist, a pretend global moderate who had succumbed to the political pressures from Umno right-wingers, danced to the beat of the Umno-sponsored NGOs, and ultimately blinded himself from his 1Malaysia vision.
ERIC LOO left Malaysia for Australia in 1986 to work as a journalist. He currently lectures at University of Wollongong, Australia, and serves on the advisory committee of UPI Next, a journalism education and training platform run by United Press International. He edits a refereed journal Asia Pacific Media Educator and conducts journalism training workshops in Asia. Email: [email protected]