Friday, July 2, 2010

Malaysian Politics: Najib and Anwar Locked in Battle for International Stage

Since becoming Malaysian prime minister, Najib Tun Razak has faced serious challenges trying to rebuild the image of his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition amid the rows that have afflicted the three main coalition parties. His task has been made much more precarious by the political pressure he has faced from the Anwar Ibrahim-led opposition.

While trying to keep up his political momentum at home, Najib also has been trying to juggle the task of rebuilding his image on the international stage, especially in relation to Anwar, who continues to enjoy the international image of being a moderate Muslim grievously wronged by two trials trumped up to drive him from politics or worse.

Anwar’s international reputation and credibility, particularly in the West, were cemented during his days as finance minister in the 1990s, which culminated in his falling-out with the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Back then he quickly came to embody the image of a moderate with a learned appreciation of the intricacies of maneuvering through an international financial crisis.

Between his release from prison in 2004 and winning his current parliamentary seat, Anwar reaffirmed his ties and visibility abroad.

Perhaps this was to be expected, given that he was banned from immediately jumping back into the political fray and running for office.

The period coincided with lecturing stints at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities in the United States and Oxford University in Britain.

It was also during this period that Najib’s star within United Malays National Organization was on the ascendency.

By the time of the March, 2008 general election, then-Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was already mired in a serious internal political struggle within UMNO.

The political assault from Mahathir did not help Badawi’s attempts to move the party and the country beyond the grip of the former premier, who rarely passed up a chance to indulge in Washington-bashing or be his prickly self toward the West.

To be sure, most of this sentiment was tailor-made for domestic political consumption.

As Badawi’s demise became apparent following Barisan’s meek performance in the poll, Najib, the prime minister-in-waiting, also found himself in the dubious position of being propped up by anti-Washington demagogue Mahathir.

Already tarnished by allegations over the gruesome murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaaribuu in 2006 by two of his bodyguards and by allegations of corruption over the purchase of French submarines, Najib’s close political links to Mahathir may have helped consolidate his position within UMNO, but it hardly helped to make Najib a sweetheart in the West.

In an effort to improve his overseas image and blunt Anwar’s, Najib launched a public relations campaign costing millions of dollars with international powerhouse Apco.

That has backfired because of opposition allegations that Apco also does work for the Israeli government.

It is against this backdrop that there was much hullaballoo made in the state-controlled media of Najib’s “Kodak moment” during his meeting with President Barack Obama at the nuclear security summit in Washington in April.

It symbolized Najib’s stepping out of Anwar’s shadow and onto the international stage.

The prime minister’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, also gained a higher profile when honored with the International Peace and Harmony Award. Such exposure helped give the couple a favorable image internationally.

Anwar, bogged down in another sodomy trial, has been keeping the international spotlight on Najib’s government by stressing political persecution in Malaysia. This is how his legal team has cast the case.

Anwar has continued to cultivate his international links, addressing the Oslo Freedom Forum in late April.

More recently, he renewed old and enduring ties with associates in the United States during a visit centered around a presentation on Islam and democracy in Southeast Asia delivered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

Anwar will continue to rely on his international reputation and image as a credible democrat — and a moderate, internationally renowned Muslim figure — to sustain his domestic political ambitions.

It is, incidentally, also in this light that we can interpret Anwar’s recent “regret,” as reported in a Washington Post article, for invoking the reference of “Zionist aggression” in his characterization of the flotilla incident off the coast of Gaza.

Surely, Anwar must have realized that he had stepped just a bit too far and can ill afford to compromise his credentials in the international community as a moderate.

Asia Sentinel

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