0-3 but Najib is hopeful

The Malaysian Insider

The score is 0-3 and the threat of more embarrassment being piled upon him, the party and ruling coalition he will soon lead, grows by the day.

Defeat in Permatang Pauh. Defeat in Kuala Terengganu. Cross-over in Bota.


But he is still the calmest man in the room. Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has told Cabinet minister, senior politicians and government officials that he does not believe that the setbacks suffered by Umno/Barisan Nasional since March 8 2008 are signs that Malaysians want the ruling coalition out of power.

He does not believe that Umno is on a death watch.

He does not believe that the country is ready to flick away, like an annoying piece of lint, the government which has held the reins of power since independence and transformed a largely agrarian society to one of the top trading nations in the world.

Najib, who will become leader of the party and be installed as the prime minister of Malaysia by March 31, is confident that with some meaningful reforms and a steady stewardship of the economy, he will be able to staunch the bleeding of support for Umno/BN and put it on the right path to recover lost ground at the next general elections, scheduled for 2013.

But …

But first he will have to convince his party men that phase of change does not end when Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi steps down from power in March. Indeed, the changing of guard at the top should signal the beginning of a period of sustained change in the party. The first step

should be the composition of the Cabinet.

Every Umno president has been forced to “respect’’ the wishes of the 2,000 Umno delegates and reward successful candidates at party elections with Cabinet positions.

So it did not matter if you were corrupt, incompetent, average or a chauvinist. If you snared a senior party position, you were a shoo-in for a Cabinet seat.

Shaken by the results of Election 2008, Abdullah flirted with the idea of loading his Cabinet with at least four or five top Malay professionals.

He finally buckled to pressure from the party and only selected Amirsham A. Aziz and Zaid Ibrahim. He loaded the Cabinet with politicians, considered heavyweights in Umno but average by the rest of the country.

Najib has drawn up a list of credible individuals who have the brainpower and stature to be ministers but is already being told that he should not be too adventurous.

In short, stick to the old formula of promoting Umno politicians who bag the most number of votes at the party elections.

There are several problems with sticking with the old tried and discredited formula.

Even Umno politicians concede that vote buying and corruption is rampant this time around. What message will Najib send Malaysians if he loads his Cabinet with politicians who purchased their positions in Umno?


But first he will have to oversee an economy that will be in the doldrums for between 12 to 24 months.

In the days ahead, the government will tweak its official position and acknowledge that the growth forecast of 3.5 per cent for 2009 cannot be met.

Research houses and analysts say that Malaysia will be in recession, with the economy contracting by between 1 per cent and 2 per cent.

Government officials told The Malaysian Insider that they still believe that economy will expand this year, perhaps by 0.5 per cent. That is the best case scenario and is anchored on this important assumption: that the RM7 billion stimulus package is implemented in a timely fashion.

The Malaysian Insider has learnt that some RM5 billion has been released to individual ministeries but the money has not flowed down to projects earmarked under the stimulus package.

The biggest challenge Najib will face is to keep Malaysians in their jobs.

The second stimulus package to be announced soon will include measures to reduce the cost of doing business, including a possible corporate tax cut.

The government hopes that by cutting down cost for businesses, employers will not cut jobs. If this gambit proves unsuccessful and the rate of retrenchment increases, Najib and the BN government will have to face the prospect of between 200,000 and 300,000 Malaysians out of work.

What then? How do you inspire people when their confidence has been sucked dry, sapped by the loss of the one thing that keeps them and their loved ones going?


But first he will have to make sure the more trying economic times and more fractious political scenario does not further weaken the frayed ties between Malaysia’s races.

Looking back, one of the biggest disappointments of the Abdullah era has been his paralysis in tackling racial and religious issues.

The PM hoped that if you left tricky issues alone long enough, they would sort themselves out.

They don’t. They just become festering sores.

Just after the Hindu Action Rights Force persuaded 30,000 Indians to take to the streets in November 2007 and pushed the marginalisation of Indians to become a national issue, Abdullah convened a meeting of Indian community leaders in his office.

He was given an unvarnished account of the crime situation among Indians; the economic deprivation and cautioned that the despair in the community was like a ticking time bomb.

Abdullah promised action but there was little follow-up. In a separate meeting, he was told by non-Muslim religious leaders that there was restlessness among Buddhist, Christians and Sikhs over the perceived encroaching on their freedom to worship by the government.

Today, these complaints are as loud as ever. Abdullah found himself caught in a dilemma: he wanted to be fair to the non-Muslims but he was concerned about upsetting his power base in Umno and among the Malays.

So he did nothing.

The option of doing nothing will not be available to Najib. Indeed, the option of following the old playbook will not be available to Najib.