Thursday, July 14, 2011

Malaysia’s Faltering Premier

When a political party such as Malaysia’s United Malays National Organization has ruled a nation for more than half a century, its missteps can shake an entire society.

As Malaysia recovers from last weekend’s Bersih 2.0 demonstrations in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, the normally placid 28 million population has to come to terms with its continuing immaturity in terms of politics, civil society and governance.

But in order to understand why, we have to go back in history — first to the 2008 polls and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition’s surprise drubbing at the hands of the opposition People’s Alliance, and on to the 2009 rise of Najib Razak, who replaced the well-intentioned, if accident-prone, Abdullah Badawi as prime minister.

For the Malay/Muslim political elite in UMNO, Najib’s assumption of the premiership was a huge relief. After Abdullah’s halfhearted attempts at reform and greater openness, UMNO desperately wanted a leader who could manage the challenges of modern governance and politics in a more hands-on and engaged manner. At the same time, political reform was removed from the agenda.

Still, Najib — the son of a former prime minister, Tun Razak — was a well-known and respected figure, even among Malaysia’s large and economically dynamic ethnic Chinese community. Throwing support behind a man with decades of political experience and a vast web of contacts, UMNO’s future seemed assured.

Nonetheless, having experienced the shock of losing its stranglehold over political life and countless state legislatures — including the business hubs of Penang and Selangor — Najib clearly had his work cut out for him.

Moreover, his flexibility as a leader was severely hampered by the existence of a right-wing, ultra-Malay pressure group called Perkasa — not to mention the looming presence of the feisty and ever-contrarian former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Both rejected any concessions on the country’s pro-Malay/Bumiputera policies.

Najib, recognizing the need to sequence his reform agenda carefully, stepped away from the immense complexity and heat of racial and religious politics.

Instead, he preferred to focus on economics, issuing a series of ambitious blueprints and initiatives meant to spark an undeniable degree of public enthusiasm, which pushed his approval ratings well above 60 percent.

At the time, Najib’s tactical retreat was noted by many observers, myself included. We understood that he saw the need to deal with the conservative Malay forces delicately and only after he’d secured his own personal electoral mandate.

But times change and as we survey the political landscape in the aftermath of Bersih 2.0, Najib’s initial caution may well have been his greatest weakness, leading in turn to his downfall.

By leaving the civil liberties agenda for a later date, if at all, Najib has been unprepared to handle the relatively commonplace demands leveled by Bersih. Indeed, UMNO has rejected the idea of expanding the space for public debate, forcing festering grievances into the periphery.

Another factor that must have weighed on Najib’s mind as the demonstration approached was the knowledge that Bersih 1.0 in 2007 had tripped up the lackluster Abdulllah Badawi just before the March 2008 elections.

As such, he felt he had to show his resolution and determination in the face of opposition demands, dismissing them out of hand.

The heavy-handed policing and Najib’s own hard-headedness may well have marked a turning point in his administration. A minor and relatively insignificant demonstration has revealed his stubbornness.

The handling of Bersih 2.0 clearly shows that despite Najib’s innovative approach to economics, when it comes to politics, he is still stuck in the old, unbending ways.

It shows that despite his claim that he is in touch with ordinary Malaysians, he himself is struggling to understand the changed political landscape and the role of nongovernmental organizations such as Bersih.

However, this shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Najib is, after all, a proud product of UMNO’s half-century legacy of power.

His hesitancy in the face of Bersih 2.0 begs the question:If Najib Razak can’t lead his party back to its glory days, could it be that the party itself has run out of steam? Are we witnessing a momentary setback or is this a political party on its deathbed? Time will tell.

By Karim Raslan columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.

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