Malaysian PM takes a beating over reforms, inflation

Carolyn Hong, The Straits Times 

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s approval rating has dipped below 60 per cent, the lowest in a year, as he faces a public restless with the slow pace of reform and struggling with rising inflation.

The survey released yesterday by the independent Merdeka Centre said 59 per cent of those polled said they were satisfied with PM Najib’s performance, down from 65 per cent in the last poll in May.

The centre’s director, Mr Ibrahim Suffian, described this as a ‘significantly reduced’ approval rating.

Mr Ibrahim said the drop was due to increased concerns over the rising cost of living, as ordinary Malaysians begin to feel the rise in fuel and electricity prices.

Datuk Seri Najib’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The survey, which polled 1,027 Malaysians around Peninsular Malaysia this month, was conducted about a month after a Bersih rally where tens of thousands defied police orders and marched in the streets to demand electoral reforms.

Other recent controversies included a raid by the Islamic authorities on a church in Petaling Jaya, on suspicion that Muslims were being converted; opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s ongoing sodomy trial; and claims of discrepancies in the voter roll.

In the survey, only 38 per cent of Chinese Malaysians said they were satisfied with Mr Najib’s performance, compared with 69 per cent of Malays and Indians.

“A major part of the perception was shaped by how people feel the economy is performing, but at the same time, unending controversies such as the Christian issues, and poor handling of the Bersih and election reform issues appear to give the public a negative impression about how the government and leaders handle problems,” Mr Ibrahim said.

Bersih, which means “clean” in Malay, is a civil society movement pushing for electoral reforms.

Mr Ibrahim said Malaysians may also see Mr Najib’s attempts to stay above the political fray as an inability to address problems or to control his team members.

When Mr Najib took office in April 2009, he had an approval rating of just 44 per cent. That was higher than the 34 per cent among those polled a month before on whether they thought he would make a good prime minister.

Thanks to his attempts to bring about economic and government reforms, his approval rating climbed steadily over the next year, reaching 72 per cent in May last year.

Since then, his rating has dropped, after he appeared to backpedal on some of his promises, particularly on rolling back pro-Malay policies.

The six percentage point dip this time came even after Mr Najib made extensive efforts to engage directly with different groups of Malaysians.

Since he became PM, he has gone on numerous walkabouts in various parts of the country, and has personally made pledges to reform the government and economy.

The falling numbers are significant because he is expected to call a general election within the next year.

The survey also found that the percentage of respondents who felt that Malaysia was headed in the right direction had fallen to 51 per cent this month from 54 per cent in May.

Respondents said their top concern remained the economy, followed by social problems and political matters.

The Chinese remain the most pessimistic with only 31 per cent agreeing that the country was headed in the right direction, compared to 39 per cent of the Indians and 64 per cent of the Malays.

The respondents were also asked about the Bersih rally last month, when police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters, and arrested over 1,000 people.

Almost half the respondents said they were dissatisfied with the way the government handled the Bersih rally, while the vast majority agreed with Bersih’s proposals for reforms.

These proposals include the use of indelible ink, allowing foreign election observers, greater access for the opposition to the media, and cleaning up the electoral rolls.