Najib must walk the talk on ‘1 Malaysia’

By Pauline Ng (Business Times Singapore)

APRIL 20 – Malaysia’s ruling coalition Barisan Nasional is contemplating whether to contest an impending by- election, with Prime Minister Najib Razak declaring it would be a “waste of resources” and the last thing the country needs now.

If BN does not contest the seat – vacated last week by the resignation of Penanti state assemblyman Mohd Fairus Khairuddin – it would represent a first of sorts for the country’s oldest coalition, which had in the past stressed that allowing a walkover was not in BN’s tradition.

But a contest for the Penanti seat in Penang will be Malaysia’s sixth by-election since the March general election last year, and it also comes on the heels of three contests just concluded on April 7 where BN managed to eke out its sole victory in the state seat of Batang Ai in Sarawak.

BN had laughed off suggestions to not contest the first by-election last year for the parliamentary seat of Permatang Pauh, which was triggered by the resignation of Wan Azizah Wan Ismail so that her husband and then de-facto Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim could be the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate. Ibrahim won convincingly, as expected.

A member of his party, 33-year-old Fairus was formerly one of Penang’s two deputy chief ministers. He has been dogged by controversy since assuming office, and his resignation did not come as a surprise given that he has been unable to shake off persistent allegations of corruption.

One can see why PKR and its allies in the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) were keen for Fairus to step down to avoid a repeat of the Perak brouhaha where two state assemblymen facing corruption charges helped to bring down the PR-ruled state by defecting to the BN.

But for Najib, whom local media described as “visibly tired” last week, another by-election is an extremely tiresome prospect, especially since his first two weeks in office have entailed quite a bit of firefighting.

If his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi rode into office on the weight of massive expectations only to underdeliver, the public mood is now far less positive.

Already, Najib’s plate is overflowing, courtesy of the Opposition, but also from his own party.

Last week, a crisis erupted in Umno/BN-controlled Terengganu, where dissent within party ranks led to speculation that the state assembly could be dissolved and new polls sought.

Najib has also observed that voters do not like unnecessary by-elections.

That voters could choose to punish PR in the Penanti seat, which incidentally falls under the Permatang Pauh parliamentary constituency, cannot be discounted.

But BN has lost four out of five by-elections to date and cannot relish another test. Events last week also provided more evidence that it would face a tough time at any contest.

Inadvertent comments by Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin implying voters in the recent Bukit Gantang by-election in Perak were unappreciative because they had not reciprocated BN largesse and voted for the Opposition instead, drew considerable ire – as did comments that the Chinese and Indians were now revelling in their role as “kingmakers”.

Muhyiddin has since maintained he was misquoted, but the damage has been done.

By BN’s own analysis, it will take two to three years to win voters back.

Najib’s counts on his vision ‘1 Malaysia’ to help the process.

But other than calling on Malaysians to break down ethnic silos and for his Cabinet to treat all equally, he has yet to articulate how the vision squares with the actual implementation of government policies.

If it is truly a more united and inclusive society that he desires to build, he should start by doing away with the divisive bumiputra/non-bumiputra dichotomy that still characterises the nation after more than five decades of nationhood. Such a move would take much of the wind out of the Opposition’s sails.

In the interim, staying away from another morale-busting outing at the polls and focusing on the economy seems a sensible proposition.