Contest of credibility before Malaysia’s elections

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.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 7:13 pm

    Of course he will be haunted by the purchases of the two Scorpène submarines and the navy-secret deal come GE13.

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 7:34 pm

    Who is relying on credibility to win? Its race/religion.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 7:35 pm

    And Money.

  4. #4 by mauriyaII on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 8:16 pm

    A good attempt to shore up the credibility issue in Najib’s administration. If all the self serving opinion polls’ high marks for Najib is taken at face value, he is not short of credibility.

    On the other hand if the reality on the ground is taken as a benchmark, his credibility is in shambles. For all his talk about ‘1Malaysia, people first, performance now’, nothing tangible has been achieved. If he had put his foot down on the warlords who are out to scuttle his plans and if he had reined in Perkasa from going on a racist rampage, undermining his 1Malaysia concept, his credibility would not taken such a severe beating.

    At all foreign forums Najib talks about moderation, but back in Malaysia where he should implement all inclusive, non racial policies, he has failed miserably. Whenever he talks to UMNO supporters, he forgets that he is the PM of Malaysians. He exhorts his supporters from Perkasa, Pekida, Mat Rempits and Silat groups to defend and protect the Malay race and religion. Sometimes he gets carried away to the chagrin of moderate Malaysians when he calls participants of BERSIH as taking part in a coup d’etat attempt.

    If Najib had abolished ISA, OSA and clamp down on the printing and publishing act without just replacing them with more sinister ones, he would have won the hearts of Malaysians.

    Even the Peaceful Assembly Act has become a farce. Instead of allowing peaceful assemblies, he has armed the PDRM with a more reprehensible act.
    If he had at least tried to lessen the disastrous police actions on BERSIH participants by not demonizing the participants and at the same time if he had set up a RCI on BERSIH, he would have regained some credibility as being sincere in his 1Malaysia initiative.

    Pakatan Rakyat states are doing well in their administration. Instead of encouraging the BN held states to do better, he is not gaining any brownie points by trying to take over good, transparent and accountable state governments.

    Najib has a long way to go to regain the people’s confidence not with what is happening with the EC playing partisan politics.

  5. #5 by Taxidriver on Saturday, 9 June 2012 - 9:22 pm

    And Scare Tactics. Example: Over crush bones and even at the cost of losing lives.

  6. #6 by boh-liao on Sunday, 10 June 2012 - 8:15 am

    $$$, BRIBERY, SEX, sodomy, THREAT, VIOLENCE, manipulating d polling system, postal votes – itu dia 2 WIN GE13, UmnoB/BN’s way, NOT credibility which is oredi ZER0

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