Najib consolidates

The Umno elections have strengthened Najib but he now has to put in the hard work to transform the nation.

Karim Raslan, The Star

HOW times change. Five months ago – back in May – Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak appeared to be ex­­tremely vulnerable, having just presided over an uninspiring Barisan Nasional outing in the 13th general election.

Losing the popular vote and vast swathes of middle-class Malaysia, Najib’s future seemed as dim and lacklustre as his performance on election night.

Last Saturday, he erased that painful memory – albeit briefly – as he tightened his hold over Umno, eliminating all the challengers to his men (and women).

Of course, the most prominent loser was Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, whose bid to enter the major league and win a vice-presidential slot was rebuffed.

For the Mahathirites, this will be a bitter pill to swallow and there will no doubt be recriminations and some high-octane rhetoric.

Najib needs to bear in mind that consolidating his control over Umno does not mean that he’s achieved the political transformation that’s necessary to take the country forward.

Consolidating power is just the first step. Now comes the hard work.

Indeed, the retention of many of the “same old” faces (such as Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil) will only deepen the cynicism of the hundreds of thousands of new voters joining the electoral rolls every year.

The Umno hands have to ask themselves – do their mantra “gradual change” or “evolution rather than revolution” still resonate amongst voters?

Having delayed change, will they have fallen too far behind the curve?

Can they ever catch up with popular expectations?

Still, with a victory in the bag, it’s time for the PM to “kick ass” and do things “his way, or the highway” and yes, I am serious.

Furthermore, Najib is a man who belongs in the middle of the political debate.

He should not be embarrassed about his essential moderation and erudition. He has a sharp mind and enormous experience.

However, all this good sense and knowledge is nothing if he lacks the courage to act, silencing the rabble-rousers and trouble-makers.

Having side-lined the Mahathir faction within Umno, he must show us his true mettle.

Moreover, now that he has regained the upper-hand politically, Najib must act decisively.

The Prime Minister must push through his transformation agenda – and use his newfound clout to get the buy-in of the Umno rank and file (failing which he should either sack the dissenters or just ignore them).

But here, I have to pause. Can the same old team help transform the party?

Wasn’t this the same “dream-team” that got the ruling coalition less seats than it did in 2008?

Yes, we all know Umno did better in terms of number of seats – but Malay support also declined in four key states, namely Terengganu, Perlis, Pahang and Penang.

If Umno is ever going to transform with these same faces – then they must do things differently and drastically.

It should not be business as usual in the next few years.

Therefore, given the new emphasis on competence, the newly voted batch of Umno leaders will need to up their game, perform and deliver.

Najib needs a team which can balance big picture, macro policies with the grassroots. This is a tough job and the PM needs to be brave and “thwack” those who cross him.

At the end of the day, it’s all about Najib. Can he rise to the occasion and be the leader we want him to be?

Can he face down the hot-heads who would lead Malaysia off to the extremes?

Having secured his base, the choice is his and his alone.