Najib at bay

Feb 4th 2012

Politics in Malaysia – Good intentions are not enough for a leader at odds with his party


WHEN the leader of the Malaysian opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, was acquitted by a high court judge last month on controversial charges of sodomy, supporters in the government of the reforming prime minister, Najib Razak, were able to claim it as something of a victory. It was proof, they said, that ministers no longer meddled in judicial decisions, as in the bad old days. They even claimed it as evidence of Mr Najib’s wider programme to bring the country into a modern, liberal age.

And so the attorney-general’s decision barely two weeks later to appeal against Mr Anwar’s acquittal hardly looks good. Mr Anwar has always maintained that the sodomy charge was a smear that had been orchestrated by people from within Mr Najib’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). The case had run for two years, which for many Malaysians was quite long enough. Mr Anwar’s lawyer quickly derided the appeal as “a desperate act”.

The attorney-general’s decision renews suspicions that nothing much has changed within UMNO, which refuses to stop hounding Mr Anwar and, despite Mr Najib’s worthy intentions, wants few reforms to speak of. Resistance to Mr Najib’s changes has become something of a leitmotif of his time in office, and it could cost him dear at the next general election, which is expected later this year.

Over the past two years this English-educated son of an earlier prime minister has positioned himself as a bold moderniser. Mr Najib has promised to repeal a myriad of repressive laws, some carried over from colonial times, and to usher Malaysia into a new era of “transparency, democracy and the rule of law”. He seems sincerely to believe that Malaysia’s political settlement after independence in 1957 is anachronistic, because it uses wide-ranging affirmative actions to privilege the rights of the majority ethnic Malays over those of ethnic Chinese and Indians. It should, he says, be dismantled, slowly but surely.

As well as being right and proper, such reform makes political sense too. A younger generation of Malaysians resents the ethnic divisiveness practised by the ruling establishment and yearns for more political and social freedoms. It means that the centre ground of politics, on which the next general election will be fought, has shifted away from the politics of Malay supremacy.

The trouble is that though Mr Najib believes in change, much of his party clearly does not. UMNO was founded specifically to protect Malay privileges and has ruled Malaysia without interruption since independence. Mr Najib came to power in 2009 not through an electoral mandate for change, but in an internal coup. As a consequence, he lacks the clout and possibly the will to impose his agenda on UMNO. And the longer he postpones an election, the more his personal authority will ebb.

Reformists within the party are now frustrated, whereas others have defected to other parties. One, Mohamed Ariff Sabri Aziz, used to be chief of information in Mr Najib’s own division, or constituency. He argues that Mr Najib “does not have the foot soldiers to bring his reformist slogans down to the ground. He has the right instincts, but he’s running into a brick wall.” Most of the internal opposition to Mr Najib comes at the divisional level, where a belief in Malay privilege remains entrenched. Here are the people who have benefited most from the tenders and contracts traditionally doled out by UMNO ministers to friends and family. “These are the favoured lot, who grease the wheels of power”, a senior UMNO man says. “You have to dismantle all this, and so far Mr Najib has done nothing. He is not strong enough. He has tried very hard, but he has been pushed back by the conservatives in his party.”

The civil service is a problem too. Traditionally an important source of Malay patronage, it is dominated by those with a vested interest in hanging on to their perks and their standard of living. So even if the prime minister’s office tries to push a reform through, the outcome is by no means assured.

Obstructionism from within the governing system to Mr Najib’s reforms has become brazen. Take the Peaceful Assembly Bill, awaiting signing into law. This legislation, from the attorney-general’s office, seems to go directly against much of Mr Najib’s earlier declarations about the need for greater civic freedoms. To many, the bill, regulating the right to protest, seems to be even more restrictive than what went before. Najibistas in the cabinet claim that they fought back bravely, watering down some of the more draconian provisions. Nonetheless, the new law has come in for condemnation, including by UN human-rights people.

So much for the great reform programme. The pity of Mr Najib is that a well-intentioned man has reformed just enough to alienate his own party and too little to convince the centre ground. He may be courting electoral disaster.

  1. #1 by sheriff singh on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 1:14 pm

    ”He may be courting electoral disaster.”

    He does not know what he is doing, he’s out of touch.

    He offers no leadership or direction. Just a lot of mumbo-jumbo words, phrases and numbers, in effect, a lot of emptiness.

    So let him court disaster. It will be his own doing.

    The people deserve better.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 1:18 pm

    //Mr Najib believes in change//

    Of course Ah Jib Sor Gor believes in change! See how he changed the Perak PR state govt by buying over 3 assemblymen

  3. #3 by dagen on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 1:35 pm

    Good intentions? Jib has good intentions? Awww come off it. Jib has brilliant intentions only for himself; and for others, he has nothing but slogans and lip service.

  4. #4 by Godfather on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 1:39 pm

    “he has tried very hard….”

    Are you kidding me ? He has tried hard to appease all the warlords, including Mamakthir. He’s so scared to confront miscreants from his own party. Najib fiddles while Malaysia burns.

  5. #5 by Godfather on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 1:40 pm

    Why do you think Rosie spends as much as she can ? She knows that the end is near…..

  6. #6 by yhsiew on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 1:41 pm

    The problem with Najib is he believes in lip service and not action.

  7. #7 by Bigjoe on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 3:18 pm

    EVERYTHING here was PREDICTED by Tan Siew Sin when NEP was implemented. NOTHING here was unknown..

    Because all these was predicted, Najib and the so-called reformist in UMNO excuses are just apologist for the unreformed. THAT they did not anticipate the problem when it was already expected decades ago just mean they simply stand in the way of the needed agenda.

  8. #8 by Winston on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 4:59 pm

    So much for the great reform programme. The pity of Mr Najib
    is that a well-intentioned man has reformed just enough to
    alienate his own party and too little to convince the centre
    ground. He may be courting electoral disaster. – End of quote

    He, a reformer? A well-intentioned man?
    The guy who wrote this piece of naive prose must have come
    from the outer reaches of outer space!!

  9. #9 by limkamput on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 11:47 pm

    The Economist may be a very reputable magazine but I think it has got it all wrong. Are there hardliners and reformists within UMNO? The reality is there is only one fraction within UMNO when they face the opposition and that fraction is one that gives lip service to reform and inclusiveness but remains every inch an ultra-nationalist. It was a dual track strategy from the beginning to have the cake and eat it. UMNO is incapable of reform and change. Even at this juncture, Rafidah is itching to make a comeback to the gravy train. UMNO ruling elites do not their own baloney, that is a fact.

  10. #10 by limkamput on Friday, 3 February 2012 - 11:48 pm

    sorry, the last line, UMNO ruling elites do not know their own baloney, that is a fact.

  11. #11 by monsterball on Saturday, 4 February 2012 - 3:05 am

    Najib at the bay of the dock…watching the waves go by..passing time…waiting for good news.

  12. #12 by boh-liao on Saturday, 4 February 2012 - 6:04 am

    Economist no understand what ah CHEAT kor means

  13. #13 by waterfrontcoolie on Saturday, 4 February 2012 - 7:34 am

    THE CONDITION today is the result of the support given by MCA, Gerakan and MIC to UMNO to divide and screw up the nation’s coffer. What make you think that after over 30 years of easy cash, they would give up? They have cheated long enough for them to think that this is the norm practised by every Gomen on earth! Otherwise how would you explain that in spite of Sub-gate, Cow-gate, Shopping-gate would still be done so openly? They have sloganed it so hard that now they believe that it is their inherent rule to plunder the nation. Of course MCA, MIC and Gerakan were junior partners in this act, hence they NEVER say anything about corruption. Indeed, BN especially UMNO are desperate enough to do anything! Of course, cintanegara has NOTHING TO SAY!

  14. #14 by boh-liao on Saturday, 4 February 2012 - 8:57 am

    Economist also no understand 垃圾 of 污桶

  15. #15 by dagen on Saturday, 4 February 2012 - 10:41 am

    Now what happened to the apanama jibby-o-nomics thingy? He would be much better off if he had consulted cintanegara and employed cintanegara’s Prinsip2 Ekonomi Pokok Rambutan.

  16. #16 by dagen on Saturday, 4 February 2012 - 11:04 am

    The trouble with umno is it is now facing rejection by the electorates and it has absolutely no idea as to what it could do. The best that umno has done so far was to coin yet another of those confusing and ill-conceived terms: “winnable candidate”. This very term (whatever it means) is proving itself to be the catalyst that will surely quicken umno’s demise. Actually umno has been playing the same game for decades with the people, confusing and deceiving them with (intentionally) unclear and undefinted terms, slogans and acronyms. If they are confused then surely they would not know what to complain.

    And now a desperate umno is being burdened by its own trickery – by the mother of all ambiguities – by that “winnable candidate” criteria for selection to stand for election in GE13.

    Umno-o-umno. Jangan tipu tipu ya. Kini sendiri yg kena tipu. Tapi tak apalah. Kan tu ubat sendiri? Telan je ubat tu dgn dua sudu besar gula.

  17. #17 by Winston on Saturday, 4 February 2012 - 1:57 pm

    Good news everybody!
    Looks like the “winnable” candidates in UMNO are tearing
    each other apart for corruption so that they can take the place
    of the “victim” to carry on with the corruption!
    Looks like the electorate MUST give the PR the mandate to
    clean up all this shit at the 13th GE!
    No IFs, no BUTs!!!!
    JUST DO IT!!!!!!!!!!!

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