(Najib image source: cidb.gov.my)
Najib appears to be viewing the challenges he will face in office as an opportunity. Malaysia’s sixth prime minister encourages comparisons between his turn at the helm with that of father and former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein. Razak took over from Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1970, after 13 May 1969, during a time of national emergency.
How then should our new premier handle his first year in office amid all the concerns that Malaysians have? The Nut Graph zoomed in on politics, economy, Islam and rule of law and spoke to four individuals about what they thought the new premier should do.
In this first of a two-part feature, The Nut Graph interviewed political scientist Ong Kian Ming and economist Dr Yeah Kim Leng. Tomorrow’s feature will present interviews with Sisters in Islam’s Norhayati Kaprawi, and lawyer and former Malaysian Bar president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan.
Just out of the Umno general assembly, Najib has to hit the ground running, says political analyst Ong Kian Ming in an e-mail interview. “He has to deal with opposition attacks on his character and his ability to lead the country, which would obviously be monitored closely by Umno leaders.”
Najib’s first task of managing expectations would likely also be necessary, especially since Ong reckons that the Barisan Nasional (BN) will lose two out of the three by-elections that will happen on 7 April.
“Najib will have to do some ‘damage control’,” he says.
“In the unlikely event that the BN can will all three by-elections, it will be a tremendous boost to Najib’s confidence. He will be able to claim that this is an endorsement of his leadership and his tenure as prime minister,” Ong adds.
However, Ong believes that should the ruling coalition lose in all three seats, there will be pressure on Najib to act autocratically. “He may have to resort to sending out ‘signals’ that he is still very much in charge, like arresting or charging bloggers, or even politicians.”
Zulhasnan Rafique Ong believes that Najib cannot afford to purge the previous cabinet — especially the performers with good public reputations. “Someone like Datuk Mustapa Mohamed will obviously be retained. Datuk Seri Zulhasnan Rafique should also be retained, given that he is the only BN Member of Parliament from the Federal Territory.
“It may even be wise for Najib to retain someone like (Datuk Seri Dr) Rais Yatim, despite the fact that he failed to win a vice-president position in Umno,” Ong adds, “because he has one of the better reputations among Umno leaders.”
Ong says it would be ideal if Umno leaders associated with scandals or with bad public reputations — such as Datuk Noh Omar, Datuk Seri Jamaluddin Jarjis and Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin, who all won supreme council posts in the Umno polls — are not given cabinet positions.
As for new Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, Ong thinks it will be difficult for Najib to ostracise him, no matter the animosity between returning Umno patriarch Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Khairy. “Given that Khairy is going to be around for the next three years, it would be foolish of Najib not to include him in the cabinet, and make use of his skills to win back young voters,” Ong says. “At the very least, expect Khairy to be given a deputy minister position.”
Ong suggests the following for a formidable cabinet:
- Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin — defence
- Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein — trade and industry
- Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi — home affairs
- Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal — rural development and agriculture
- Khairy Jamaluddin — youth and sports
Facing the economy
Without a doubt, the most critical challenge a Najib administration will have to face is the current global financial meltdown.
Yeah Kim LengIn an article for the Wall Street Journal, Najib himself pointed out that foreign investment in Malaysia is set to fall by 50%. He has already undertaken some dramatic steps to combat this decline: two stimulus packages, announced in his capacity as Finance Minister, amounting to a whopping RM67 billion.
“Their effectiveness can only be measured in how well they are targeting the industries and employees they are intended for,” says practising private sector economist Dr Yeah Kim Leng, via phone. “The speed and efficiency in implementing the stimulus packages are crucial.”
Large injections of money are not enough. Looking ahead is also crucial. “The relevance of each ministry needs to be carefully examined. For example, the Finance Ministry and the Economic Planning Unit may need to be streamlined or consolidated so that we do not trade off short-term gain with long-term pain.”
This is because Malaysia would need structural reforms to wean itself off several dependencies: on unskilled foreign labour, revenue from our oil reserves and, eventually, the over-reliance of government spending to generate the economy.
Good advisers will be important. “They have to be competent, respected for their credentials, and be able to execute tough policies,” Yeah says. “They also have to be individuals of integrity,” he adds, pointing out the prevalent demand among Malaysians for demonstrably clean leaders.
Yeah thinks that Malaysian captains of industry, such as CIMB chief executive officer Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, who is Najib’s brother, will play an important role in advising the incoming administration on the way out of the financial quagmire.
He advocates that Najib retain his portfolio as finance minister. “Under the current conditions, the prime minister himself taking a direct interest will enable government spending to be implemented more efficiently.”
Manmohan Singh (Pic by Ricardo
Stuckert; source: Wikimedia)Yeah also believes that Najib’s background in economics will be an asset. “I think economists are excited at the prospect. We’ve seen examples of leaders, trained in economics, making positive changes,” Yeah says, pointing to prime minister of India Dr Manmohan Singh as an example.
“I’m looking forward to some effective economic leadership. I’m cautiously optimistic,” Yeah says.
Tomorrow: Islam and rule of law under Najib