Najib’s disappointing start

After appointing a lacklustre cabinet, Malaysia's new prime minister refused to answer questions from the media

This poor beginning raises serious questions about his leadership and calls into question his ability to deliver on the reforms that are critical for Malaysia's future.


Bridget Welsh, Guardian UK

Malaysia's sixth prime minister, Najib Tun Abdul Razak took office earlier this month, replacing Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. In Najib's first week, he failed key tests that show he can be his own man. He lost important by-elections, failed to address persistent scandals and selected a cabinet of lacklustre appointees that has not evoked confidence. He ran away from the press, declining to address basic questions about his government.

This poor beginning raises serious questions about his leadership and calls into question his ability to deliver on the reforms that are critical for Malaysia's future.

Before Najib took office he managed to win a strong mandate from within his own party's polls last month, as loyalists in his cohort rose to party leadership positions. Najib represents a third generation of leaders from the UMNO party that governs Malaysia. The first generation assumed office in independence, the second after the racial riots of 1969.

Najib's generation came into politics after 1969, and has matured under the shadow of Mahathir Mohamad, known for promoting economic progress while simultaneously closing political space and weakening political institutions. Najib's strong party showing was expected to set the stage for the new premier to introduce reforms and step out of the shadow of his predecessors. Early signs were good, as Najib's speeches highlighted reforms and the day after he took office he released 13 political prisoners held under the draconian Internal Security Act. Malaysians were pleasantly surprised with his first moves.

Skepticism reigned, however. After the five years of promise without delivery under Abdullah Badawi, Malaysians want results, not rhetoric. Many are not willing to give Najib the benefit of the doubt. Part of this is his association with Abdullah's government, as deputy prime minister.

Another reason has to do with the heavy baggage of scandal that cloud Najib's leadership; his alleged connections with corruption in defence contract deals and links to a Mongolian model who was murdered by staff assigned to his security detail have damaged his reputation.

Last week, the two officers charged with blowing up the model were convicted. The government's response has been to ban the use of the model's name – Altantuya Shariibuu – further raising speculation about the crime and suspicions about Najib's involvement. There is no evidence that Najib was involved in the murder, but the lack of credibility that Najib faces – which is only enhanced when he refuses to answer questions – has hurt him.

An even darker shadow is Mahathir Mohamad. The former prime minister who governed Malaysia for 22 years systematically undermined Abdullah while he was in office. He has played a major role in mentoring the new generation of leaders, including Najib himself, and his values that have promoted Malay rights over those of other communities, undermined political institutions, deepened corruption and created a climate of insecurity among the elite that runs deep.

Najib is seen to be under the thumb of Mahathir. While this gives the former premier too much credit, the reality is that Mahathirism remains a force that must be addressed and Mahathir himself remains a political player in his agenda setting role.

These factors played out in three recent by-elections when more than 100,000 voters went to the polls. Najib's coalition lost two of the three contests. The contest it did win – Batang Ai in rural Sarawak – was the result of massive allocations of patronage (RM70 million in promises for 8,006 voters) and included allegations of ballot box tampering. Voters in West Malaysia in two traditionally strong seats for Najib's government, gave the Pakatan opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim larger majorities.

These results were the product of greater opposition cooperation and the inability of the governing coalition to reach across races. Non-Malays voted in large majorities for the opposition. They were joined by large numbers of Malays who rejected the use of Mahathir for Najib's campaign and were tired of the endemic corruption in the system. Najib stayed away from the campaigns, showing that he is not ready to face the public directly. He received a sharp rebuke.

Najib had the opportunity to stem the tide of negative perceptions through his cabinet selections. Here too, he disappointed. The majority appointees are recycled old faces and Najib loyalists. While many of them are among the cleaner alternatives and his choices in finance and trade show promise, the inclusion of Mahathir's son, and reliance on his close allies who are seen to not make the grade do not build confidence.

This cabinet follows in the Mahathir mould, one that appears to focus on the economy and exclude the need for political reform. It does not include individuals who appear willing to address the albatross on Malaysia's economic competitiveness, the pro-Malay affirmative action policy, the New Economic Policy, that has become a vehicle for corruption. After announcing his list, Najib refused to answer questions.

Najib is running away from addressing the factors that will hamper his government. He lacks public support. He is trapped by the system he inherited, the shadows of Abdullah's unmet reform promises and Mahathir's hardline approach. He faces a stronger and more cohesive opposition. Najib's style is more measured, but in these challenging times and in the light of his public credibility issues, the tepid responses have disappointed.

With each passing day that the new prime minister fails key tests, his tenure is shortened. Najib cannot continue to avoid the fact that his political survival is based on winning over the Malaysian public and bolder measures that deliver reform are essential.