Corrected 11.20am on 2 April 2009
IT might be interesting to find out what Datuk Seri Najib Razak privately thinks of his impending succession as prime minister of Malaysia, which looks set to happen tomorrow, 3 April 2009.
Penny for your thoughts (Public domain)
Would he perhaps be comparing the responses towards him with those towards Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi when Abdullah succeeded Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in October 2003? When Abdullah took over as prime minister, Malaysians experienced a different kind of shock to the system. After more than two decades, the country was going to have a new leader and the country sighed with relief. Abdullah was seen as a combination of Mr Clean and Mr Nice Guy.
So high were Abdullah’s approval ratings that he helped the Barisan Nasional (BN) win 198 out of 219 parliamentary seats in the 2004 general election. That translated into an unheard-of 90% seat majority in Parliament.
Contrast this with public perceptions of Najib right now. For one thing, Najib simply cannot make rumours alleging his involvement in the killing of Mongolian national Altantuya (corrected) Shaariibuu go away.
Umno veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah notes that Najib is approaching the nation’s highest office with allegations of corruption and involvement in a murder clinging on to him like radioactive material.
“None of our previous prime ministers came to that high position with any question at all of their integrity. Not Tunku Abdul Rahman, not Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Hussein Onn or Mahathir or Abdullah Badawi,” Razaleigh tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview.
Razaleigh stresses that the allegations against Najib are unproven, but adds: “By the same token, they are also unanswered allegations.
“Until these questions are resolved, I don’t see how Najib can have the credibility to carry out his large promises of reform. I also find it difficult to see how he will bring Malaysians closer to each other,” Razaleigh says.
He adds that the political manoeuvres in Perak have also damaged Najib’s reputation for respect for the rule of law.
ZaidNoting that his views may not be popular within some Umno quarters, Razaleigh argues that “I don’t live in a bubble. I am only repeating obvious truths, known to all our citizens and to the rest of the world.”
Razaleigh is not the only one with anxieties about Najib, that’s for certain. Former de facto Law Minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, who was expelled from Umno in 2008, also raised similar concerns in a public speech on 18 March. Zaid concluded: “If a referendum were to be conducted on the subject, or if the prime minister was to be elected directly by the rakyat, I do not think Najib Razak would succeed.”
The public are also increasing the pressure. On 4 Jan, an online petition was launched: “We have no confidence in [Najib] as Prime Minister of Malaysia.” As at 7.45am on 2 April 2009, the petition has collected 5,640 signatures. (Corrected) Lawyer-cum-blogger Haris Ibrahim says the signatures from the public will be directed to 141 Members of Parliament for them to raise the matter.
Other political options
Additionally, sectors of civil society are imagining other political possibilities apart from the convention of having the Umno president automatically assume the premiership.
While not directly refering to Najib, Sisters in Islam (SIS) member Nik Noriani Nik Badli Shah says in an e-mail interview, “The people need to be reminded that it was only a practice. Constitutionally, the members of the Dewan Rakyat, elected by the people, should have a say in the appointment of the PM, not the delegates of one political party nominated only by the party members.”
Razaleigh goes even further. The Umno politician says Najib’s claim to the prime ministership is established through a party election process that people, inside and outside of Umno, recognise as “undemocratic” and “corrupt”.
He notes that while Najib seems popular among Umno delegates, nobody can really tell how popular he is among Umno members “because the matter is never put to an electoral test.”
Razaleigh“There was no contest for the presidency at the elections [in this instance either],” Razaleigh, who did not garner enough nominations to contest the position in the recently concluded party polls, adds.
More troubling, he says, is that it didn’t appear that the integrity of the party and national leadership was a priority at the 59th Umno general assembly. “I attended three days of the general assembly, and never once heard a mention of any of these issues [surrounding Najib].”
Instead, he said, members and observers got a lot of “melodrama about love, reconciliation and everlasting loyalty.”
But is it merely the rumours alleging Najib’s involvement in Altantuya’s murder that are fueling the discomfort towards him?
MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek thinks otherwise.
“Najib has inherited the presidency of Umno and the leadership of the country at the most difficult time for the BN and Malaysia,” he says in a phone interview.
“By comparison, Abdullah inherited a strong BN and a country with a relatively stable economy, while Najib will have to lead us out of a possibly protracted recession,” Chua says.
If anything, Chua adds, the Chinese Malaysian community feels that Najib’s Achilles heel will be the economy, not politics.
“You see, anywhere in the world, when there is an economic downturn, the political incumbency will suffer,” he says.
Unlike Najib’s detractors, however, Chua has faith in Najib.
“He has a strong party and BN support. He has a wealth of experience. He is a good listener, with a good brain and a good memory. He is friendly,” says Chua.
Chua also dismisses fears that Najib could resort to even more strong-arm tactics than his predecessor in quelling dissent.
One point to ponder, however, is that even a hugely popular prime minister like Abdullah could have his fortunes reversed within a single term. What then can a decidedly unpopular figure like Najib expect?
Razaleigh concurs. “Reform is not a walk in the park. You need a leader of real political strength and unimpeachable character to make it happen,” he says, directing people to look at Abdullah’s own record.
“If Pak Lah could do so little with one of the biggest electoral mandate ever, and with a solid reputation as Mr Clean, I am not sure what reforms Najib can undertake with the smallest mandate ever; four states under the opposition and one in constitutional crisis; a racially and religiously divided rakyat; an economic crisis; and the most gravely tainted reputation the nation has ever seen in a candidate for prime minister.
“These are the facts, I’m afraid, and we have to acknowledge them whatever our political affiliations.”
Disclosure: Shanon Shah is an associate member of Sisters in Islam.