For Najib, it will be about the economy

The message from Najib’s choices for the Cabinet, appear to show little political change is on the way, which is something that will make some Malaysians sceptical about promised economic reforms.

Analysis by Leslie Lau, The Malaysian Insider

Lost amid the criticism over some less-than-inspiring choices for his Cabinet may be the fact that Datuk Seri Najib Razak has put the economy and systematic reforms at the heart of his new administration.

By appointing a combination of reformists such as Datuk Husni Hanadzlah as the second finance minister and retaining experienced hands like Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop, he has placed politics on the back burner in favour of technocrats to manage the economy in trying times.

Appointing as the minister of international trade and industry Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, a man less comfortable with politics than he is with talking about the economy, will also help send the message that Najib has a solid team in place to cushion the impact of the global recession.

After losing two crucial votes in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau, the new prime minister’s administration will have to roll up their sleeves to hold back the slide in the economy and put the country on a sound footing for a recovery.

“There are many in Umno who are unhappy about the Cabinet appointments,” an Umno MP told The Malaysian Insider.

“Najib’s best hope in changing people’s minds about the Barisan Nasional may be to turn around the economy.”

Husni’s appointment has been one which has been well received so far.

The 56-year-old from Perak is not well known among the public because he had for years been overlooked by consecutive BN administrations.

An unassuming lawmaker, he is known to be a reform-minded politician who has risen steadily in Umno. Husni also has the benefit of serving short stints with Coopers and Lybrand and Chase Manhattan, and is an economics graduate from Universiti Malaya.

The appointment of another experienced technocrat in Mustapa will be key to reforms Najib has pledged.

As the global economy goes through a period of realignment, Mustapa’s fastidiousness, which often frustrates journalists looking for a sensational quote, will stand Malaysia in good stead when negotiating through the minefield of tough trade talks, especially with the United States.

Mustapa is also an experienced hand who gained tremendous respect from his peers and from the corporate world for being one of those who helped steer Malaysia from trouble during the Asian financial crisis.

Nor Mohamed is also another veteran from the Asian financial crisis and was credited as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s chief advisor in fending off attacks from currency speculators.

Still, Najib’s team has their work cut out.

While the prime minister has not been overwhelmingly embraced by the Malaysian public, it is clear he has staked his political future on the economy in a nod to the fact that chief among criticism of the previous administration was an inability in providing leadership and its indecisiveness in economic matters.

But despite being praised as “market friendly” some of Najib’s other appointments were not so well greeted.

The appointment of the 67-year-old Datuk Seri Rais Yatim to the new Information, Communication, Arts and Culture Ministry, which even some BN leaders have admitted “sounds like something out of Communist China,” is not a signal that political reforms are on the way.

The message from Najib’s choices for the Cabinet, appear to show little political change is on the way, which is something that will make some Malaysians sceptical about promised economic reforms.

Since last year’s general elections, voters have also shown themselves to be impatient with government promises and pledges for reforms.

They appear to be more than willing to punish the BN coalition at the polls, giving four victories so far to Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and only one to the ruling coalition in by-elections since.

Besides the economy, an increasing number of Malaysians are also demanding reforms to the judiciary, police and other public institutions.

Significant numbers have shown through the ballot box that they are more than willing to shun the old “development politics” of BN and are no longer happy with new roads and other infrastructure projects promised.

In the next week or so, Najib will be announcing appointments to his Council of Economic Advisors (CEA).

The CEA, which will see a small band of top corporate leaders providing direct advice to Najib, could well be one of the crucial initiatives needed to turn around the economy.

Together with what appears a solid Cabinet economic team, Najib will be hoping that he will not only be able to reverse a sliding economy but BN’s dwindling fortunes as well.