Najib in the deep end

New Malaysian PM's attempts to make a fresh start won't be easy

By Carolyn Hong (The Straits Times) 

When Datuk Seri Najib Razak is sworn in as Malaysia's sixth prime minister today, there will be precious little time for him to savour the moment.

Fires await him on several fronts: Malaysia is being battered by the global economic storm, race relations are fraying, the country's public institutions are shaky while his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition has yet to revive its standing with an angry electorate.

Next Tuesday, the BN faces a litmus test in three by-elections.

“The greatest test is in a time of crisis, and Najib is getting right into crises from the word go,” former deputy premier Tun Musa Hitam told The Straits Times.

The swearing-in is scheduled for 10am today, after which the new Prime Minister is to address the nation.

With the array of challenges before him, the question is whether he can change things. Will he? And will he be allowed to?

Najib, 55, has appealed to Malaysians to give him a chance.

His background is certainly impressive. His appointment as Prime Minister marks the first time that a son of a premier has risen to the same high office. His father Tun Abdul Razak Hussein was Malaysia's second prime minister from 1970 to 1976.

His uncle, Tun Hussein Onn, was the third prime minister, and son of Umno's founder Datuk Onn Jaafar.

“Najib has literally been preparing for this post since his childhood,” Musa said.

Musa, at one time a young protege of Razak, remembered dining with him and his young son Najib in London when he was pursuing a master's degree: “He was just a kid then, listening wide-eyed.”

After graduating from the University of Nottingham with a degree in industrial economics, Najib worked at Bank Negara and Petronas.

He was 22 when his father died of leukaemia. Five weeks later, he was elected as Malaysia's youngest MP. He became a deputy minister at 23, and Pahang mentri besar at 29. He was 32 when he joined then-Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's Cabinet.

At the same time, he ascended the Umno hierarchy. He was Umno Youth chief from 1987 to 1993, and is now party president.

To many observers, Najib does not come clad in the garb of a reformer, given his 32 years in the system.

“He can't represent a new Umno because he grew up in the ambit of the old Umno. He will try, but he can only succeed if he is truly sincere,” said Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, a former political secretary to Razak.

And critics point to last month's toppling of the Perak government and the spate of prosecutions that followed as signs of the tightening of an iron fist rather than greater democracy.

But Najib has begun trying to show a different picture.

Two days ago, he visited the offices of Sin Chew Daily, a vocal critic, in his first stop after becoming Umno president.

The next day, he handed out funds for Tamil schools, sending a message that he was reaching out to the minorities.

His supporters point out that he has also set a new tone for Umno, citing the choice of Ismail Safian, a civil servant, as Umno's candidate for next Tuesday's Bukit Gantang by-election.

Ismail was picked despite the fact that he was not the local Umno warlord. “He's sending a signal that the people's interests will not be subservient to party interests,” said a party insider.

Najib also wants to revamp Umno's voting procedure to curb money politics. His supporters say his vast network of allies, now heading powerful divisions, can help him push through reforms.

But the hard fact remains that much political support is tied to patronage, and he may find it hard to cut that link.

Musa believes that the incoming premier has a good sense of the political terrain and its hazards. His friends say he is cautious and a good listener.

“He plays golf the same way!” said one of his golf partners. Najib is said to seek views before playing a tricky shot.

Like Razak, he is taking over a weak BN. His father had to face the rise of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, then a firebrand student leader. Anwar is today bent on toppling Najib.

But that is where similarities end. Najib does not enjoy as much public support. His wife Rosmah Mansor has not escaped the potshots either.

He is trying to make a fresh start, but it will be tough. “The easiest way out is the old way, but it will not go down well with the people of Malaysia or the world,” said Musa.