(Corrected at 7:25pm, 15 Jan 2010)
How will Najib put out the fires? (Fire pic by straymuse / sxc.hu)
COMMENTATOR Manjit Bhathia is right to say that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak “is starting to look every bit as useless as his predecessor, (Tun) Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.”
After the divisive rule of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad, Abdullah started his premiership with similar appeals as Najib: ethno-religious moderation and governmental reform. In a way, Najib’s 1Malaysia is but a secular version of Abdullah’s Islam Hadhari; his Key Performance Indicators and National Key Result Areas are but an upgraded version of Abdullah’s short-lived reform to shape up the bureaucracy and combat corruption.
Beginning his term by winning the highest parliamentary majority since Independence, Abdullah soon became the first Barisan Nasional (BN) prime minister to lose the coalition’s customary two-thirds control of Parliament. Why did this happen? Indecisiveness — Abdullah wanted to please everyone and ended up pleasing nobody. Could Najib meet the same fate as Abdullah?
By starting reforms, Abdullah alienated his predecessor and the warlords within his party, the civil service and the police. By backtracking on reforms to please these warlords, he alienated the middle-ground voters and emboldened the far-right elements in Umno. His flip-flop style eventually invited three mass demonstrations in 2007, among them the deadly Hindraf rally that swept away the BN’s Indian Malaysian support.
In every measure, Najib is now weaker than Abdullah. Instead of coming in as Mr Clean like Abdullah, Najib’s ascendancy to the premiership was marred by allegations of his involvement in the murder of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu and his role in the Perak coup.
Hishammuddin (Courtesy of
theSun) (Corrected) And the public anger evoked by then Umno Youth chief Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein’s keris-waving antics is nothing compared to public anger now evoked by the church burnings. In fact, many Malaysians are blaming Hishammuddin as the home minister for his double standards on demonstrations. After all, he had in September 2009 excused protesters dragging a severed cow’s head outside the Selangor state secretariat and threatening violence, before public anger forced him to prosecute them.
So here’s what could happen if Najib makes the wrong move. During the Abdullah administration’s March 2008 elections, alienated non-Malay Malaysians constituted at least one third of voters in 93 parliamentary constituencies in the peninsula. Fifty-three of these were eventually won by the coalition that became the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). In the present climate, non-Muslim bumiputera can deliver the kiss of death to the BN in at least 35 out of 57 parliamentary seats in East Malaysia come the next elections.
To make matters worse, the continuing arson attacks on churches since 8 Jan 2010 are acts of terrorism, although there have been no casualties so far. The police’s failure to nip home-grown terrorism in the bud is a possible early-warning sign that Malaysia may become a failed state under Najib. As it is, police cannot even stop snatch thieves effectively.
Jamil Khir Baharom (jawi.gov.my) Furthermore, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Jamil Khir Baharom‘s proposal for the Catholic church “to be … responsible towards peace and security in Malaysia” by dropping “Allah” suggests that some in Najib’s administration accept terrorism as an idiom in Malaysian politics.
The thing is, if the Catholic church and the Home Ministry broker backdoor deals and the arson attacks immediately stop, wouldn’t the international community think that the arsonists are working in the interests of the Home Ministry, in the fashion that Kashmiri terrorists were perceived as working for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence?
All these would hurt support for the BN, not only in the key Christian bumiputera constituencies, but also in the business sector. After all, can business elites afford to support an administration that is perceived to be colluding with terrorists and turning away foreign direct investment and tourists?
The PM must decide
Najib has before him three options, which, for convenience, can be named after one former prime minister or deputy prime minister or another.
(Looknarm / Wiki commons) The Abdullah option is to continue the indecisiveness: visit and offer support to churches, but also refuse to come down hard on terrorism and institutionalise interfaith dialogue. By doing this, Najib might hope that his administration alienates no one. But if the violence escalates, lives might eventually be lost. And then we would not need rocket science to know that, like Abdullah, Najib will likely only succeed in prolonging and deepening this crisis, eventually alienating everyone, making him a half-term prime minister.
(Pic by Samsul Said@FlThe Mahathir option is to crack down on the opposition, civil society and the churches. Najib could then use the Internal Security Act (ISA) to arrest vocal government critics alongside a few terrorist suspects to convince Malaysians that a return to authoritarianism is the only way to preserve peace. He may even contemplate a declaration of emergency for one or two PR-held states should more churches be torched.
Such a Hobbesian approach worked in post-1969 Malaysia and helped consolidate Umno’s power. However, this backfired in 1990 when the BN lost 47% of the popular vote to the opposition after 1987′s Operasi Lalang. The backlash would only be greater in post-2008 Malaysia which has no appetite for communal violence or martial law. A mass ISA crackdown or emergency rule would be seen as a coup. In turn, this may invite people’s power leading to a humiliating exit of Najib and Umno, much like what happened to Indonesia’s President Suharto or the Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos.
(Wiki commons) The Musa Hitam option is that Najib commits himself to rule of law and clamps down on anti-democratic forces. As acting prime minister in 1985, Tun Musa Hitam crushed attempts by the United Sabah National Organisation and Berjaya to install a Muslim-majority government in Sabah through a palace coup. Musa supported the democratically elected Parti Bersatu Sabah government, which was soon threatened by bombing, riots and arson in 1986 under Mahathir’s premiership.
Similarly, Najib must categorically declare the government’s intention to respect judicial processes and relieve the Catholic church and its publication Herald from any political or terrorist pressure to drop their case. This will not please the hawks in Umno who just want to be bigger Malay/Muslim champions than PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat. But Najib must remember that he cannot afford to alienate three other groups: Christian bumiputera, the business sector, and the international community.
None of these options will make Umno a knight in shining armour. Najib should really blame his strategists and media czar for allowing Utusan Malaysia and the Umno hawks to play with fire in the beginning. His main priority now should be damage control before the entire country catches fire. That’s the least he can and must do as a prime minister if he wants to keep his job.
Based in Monash University Sunway Campus, Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and journalism lecturer by trade. He thinks Malaysians should call in to radio stations and request Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire.
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