Bold start to Najib’s first day as PM

The Straits Times – New Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak yesterday started his first day on the job on a high note as he announced popular measures and reached out to marginalised Malaysians.

In a bold move to revamp his image from an old-school Umno leader into a reformist, he tackled one of the country's most controversial laws — the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial. He said 13 detainees would be released, and the law would be reviewed.

He also lifted the three-month ban on two opposition newspapers.

He did not name them, but they are Parti Keadilan Rakyat's Suara Keadilan and PAS’s Harakah. Both had their licences suspended recently for allegedly distorting facts.

Najib also reached out to Malaysians who had abandoned the Barisan Nasional coalition in droves in last year's general election.

“In our national discourse and in pursuing our national agenda, we must never leave anyone behind,” he said in his first address to the nation after taking office. “We must reach out to the many who may have been disaffected and left confused by political games, deceit and showmanship.”

His address was broadcast live over television. He was sworn in as Malaysia's sixth prime minister before the King yesterday morning.

Najib, who had been painted as an iron-fisted leader, had swung into action over the past few days to show an image of a multiracial leader with a liberal outlook.

His first visit after becoming Umno president last week was to the offices of the Sin Chew Daily, the country's largest Chinese newspaper and a vocal Barisan Nasional critic. The next day, he handed out allocations for Tamil schools.

Najib's moves are reminiscent of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's release of political detainees under the ISA when he took office in 1981.

The opposition is expected to pour cold water on it, saying that it is timed to win votes in the three by-elections on April 7.

The 13 detainees to be released include V. Ganabatirau and R. Kenghadaran, two leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), which led thousands of Indians onto the streets in November 2007 to protest against policies that it said discriminated against Malaysia's minority Indians. They were a catalyst for the trouncing that the BN received in the March general election last year. Hindraf's chief, P. Uthayakumar, is still in detention.

The Hindraf detentions cost the BN tremendous loss of support from the Indian community, and continue to be a sore point with the community.

The other detainees to be released are seven members of Darul Islam Sabah and one from Jemaah Islamiah (JI). The Darul Islam Sabah members were among 11 arrested in April 2002 for allegedly helping to organise the 2002 Bali bombings. The sole JI member is Wan Amin Wan Hamat.

Three foreigners — two Myanmar nationals and an Indian national — detained in 2007 for alleged falsifying documents will also be freed.

It is an astute move to recapture the ground from his opponents, who had painted a gloomy picture of a repressive administration. Najib took office saddled with harsh criticism by the opposition and the global media.

In his address to the country, he said he would be consulting different people to reshape the leadership and priorities of his government.

“It must be a government with new approaches for new times — a government that places a priority on performance because the people must come first,” he said.

Alluding to resentments over racial discrimination, he said his government will draw on talented people, “regardless of their position or background”.