Opposition braced for hard time from Malaysia’s new PM

An old boy of Malvern College will be sworn in as prime minister of Malaysia on Friday amid opposition fears that he will launch a crackdown on dissent

By Thomas Bell, South East Asia Correspondent  (The Telegraph)

Najib Razak, 55, inherits the premiership at one of the most difficult times in the government's unbroken 52-year rule. The opposition made record gains in elections a year ago, raising the possibility that Mr Najib's United Malay's National Organisation (Umno) could lose power for the first time.

Few in the country believe he will enjoy more than a brief honeymoon period with the former "tiger" economy entering recession after exports tumbled by 27 per cent in January, while public debt is soaring.

Opinion polls show Mr Najib is even more unpopular than the man he is replacing, Abdullah Badawi, who was hastened into retirement after last year's electoral failure.

The fight-back may have already begun. Last month a senior opposition figure, Karpal Singh, was charged with sedition; an opposition rally was tear-gassed after it failed to obtain a police permit and two opposition newspapers were banned.

There has been a furore over alleged dirty tricks in Perak, one of Malaysia's state governments.

"The writing is all over the wall that a clampdown is looming," said Dzulkifli Ahmad of the Islamic party, Pas.

Anwar Ibrahim, the main opposition leader and Mr Najib's long-time rival for the premiership, claimed: "We know Najib's tactics – intimidation, fraud, corruption, bribery."

Mr Najib, who has been a government minister since 1986 and deputy prime minister since 2004, denies such allegations. He has protested that he is being prejudged and wants to clean up politics.

"Give me a chance, judge me by my actions, don't judge me on rumours and baseless allegations," he said at last week's party convention where he was elected unopposed as leader. "I will reform and I will make changes. I am aware that the people expect me to do certain things."

Mr Najib acknowledges that his party is in desperate need of reform if it is to win back public trust. "UMNO is seen as a party that practises money politics," he said, using the Malaysian euphemism for corruption.

He has promised sweeping reforms, partly aimed at attracting more foreign investment to Malaysia. But as the ultimate party insider, many people doubt Mr Najib's ability to change Umno's image.

According to analysis by Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy: "The public sees Najib as a member of the old guard, deeply entrenched in the very system they want reformed."

It predicts that Mr Najib's main tactic for rebuilding the government's authority will be attacking or even persecuting the opposition.

Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Johns Hopkins University in America, agreed.

"I think the focal point is on limiting the opposition and their ability to organise," she said. "The other tactic is intimidation."

"There has already been an escalation," said Dr Welsh, referring to fears that Malaysia could be headed for political confrontation.

"This type of politics has already hurt the country in terms of the economy." The first public test of Mr Najib's popularity will come almost immediately, in three by-elections next week.