The struggle for Malaysia’s political leopards to change their spots

By Ooi Kee Beng (The Malaysian Insider)

AUG 19 — All parties agree on one thing in Malaysia at the moment, and that is that things are in flux.

The politically positive trend is to talk about "reforms". Nevertheless, the political bedrock is very much a conservative one, in some areas extremely so.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has never been known as a reformist. He is now in control of a powerful apparatus of power that cannot but be conservative after having held power for over 50 years.

But he takes command at a time of reform, just as his predecessor Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi did five years ago.

Najib is therefore likely to choose his reforms carefully. He concentrates understandably on foreign affairs and foreign investments. His forays into internal affairs have consistently seen him losing to the opposition in most cases.

This downward trend for the ruling coalition was already obvious during Abdullah's last two years in power.

In contrast to Najib, though, Abdullah's announced areas of reform in his first year in power were in internal affairs. He sought to fight corruption and he sought to reform the police.

It can be argued that had Abdullah carried out a proper restructuring of the police force, he might have increased by 2008 the record popularity he enjoyed in 2004.

But he hesitated, and reversed his decisions. The forces of conservatism within the coalition were too strong.

The police did not reform, and corruption grew worst.

Abdullah thus went from being the most popular leader ever to being the most disappointing.

In that sense, Najib is a more serious conservative than Abdullah. He has cleverly avoided threatening the police, and has instead gone for reforms that do not affect the common man too painfully.

At least during the first 100 days in power, Najib seemed to have pulled off the difficult trick of appearing a reformist without upsetting conservative supporters too much.

His popularity has risen, and the opposition is left somewhat flat-footed.

But then came the unfortunate death of Teoh Beng Hock, a political aide within the opposition DAP.

The many protest rallies that followed were soon accompanied by the huge anti-Internal Security Act demonstration on Aug 1 — with the police responding by using water cannons and tear gas freely.

In forcing the government to show its muscles, the opposition managed to remind erstwhile supporters that nothing had changed.

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