January 21, 2009 / 9:30 AM / 10 years ago

Malaysia's PM faces tough political reform task

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s incoming Prime Minister Najib Razak, hit by a second by-election loss following a disastrous outing for the government in last year’s polls, is caught in a bind as he prepares to assume the top job in March.

Malaysia's prime minister-in-waiting Najib Razak seen in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur in this December 1, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

Najib will have to restore the faith of the country’s majority Malay voters, who turned decisively against the government that has ruled for 51 years in a by-election on Saturday, and reach out to ethnic Chinese and Indian voters.

To woo those ethnic groups, which account for some 34 percent of the population, he will have to convince the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant government party, of the need to relax economic and social preferences for the Malay community, the bedrock both of government policy and UMNO’s support.

Political analysts say that changing UMNO, a party that lives on patronage and claims to represent the core interests of the majority Malay community, will require a new social contract and a clean sweep of corrupt practices.

The last time fundamental reforms were undertaken in this Asian nation of 27 million people was in 1971 when Najib’s father rewrote the social contract after bloody race riots in 1969.

Prospects of rapid action at a time when the economy is slowing quickly appear to be slim. The National Front will hold a convention in February under outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Najib is due to take power after UMNO holds party elections in March.

“Najib’s main job now is to close the widening gap between what Malaysians have shown that they want through the polls, and what UMNO seems to want,” said Rita Sim, deputy chairman of a think-tank aligned to the National Front coalition.


UMNO lost on Saturday in a majority Malay constituency in the northeast to an Islamist party that is part of Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition alliance.

While the three-party opposition appears to be able to ride out storms over the call by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) for Islamic laws, a plan that alarms Chinese voters, the National Front appears fractured.

The opposition and most political analysts have said that Saturday’s by-election showed an unprecedented level of cooperation between the three parties and gives them a springboard to build support.

“Najib’s next test could be later this year in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, where Anwar tried last year to woo BN (National Front) representatives to defect,” consultancy Eurasia group said in a report on Wednesday.

In contrast with the growing tide of optimism in the opposition, UMNO still appears to believe that the smaller government parties need to blindly follow its lead and Najib has given few clear signals beyond reform rhetoric of the kind of vision he has for UMNO and the ruling coalition.

“Even after Kuala Terengganu, many are still in denial mode when it comes to the urgency of reforms, even though Najib has repeatedly emphasised the need for change,” Ramli Mohd Yunus, an UMNO divisional official told Reuters.

Analysts studying Najib’s possible turnaround strategy for UMNO and the governing alliance have drawn parallels between the incoming premier and his father, Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second post-independence prime minister.

Razak is widely credited for turning around the ruling alliance after a disastrous election in 1969, the only other general election apart from 2008 where the government lost its two-thirds majority in parliament.

He restructured UMNO to make it more responsive to its core audience. He extended the appeal of the ruling alliance by including two key opposition parties, the Islamist PAS and the mainly Chinese Gerakan, to form the National Front.

The NEP, designed to deal with what was then a gaping economic imbalance between Malays and Chinese, favoured the Malays but promised growth would benefit all.

“Najib now faces a similar situation in many ways to what his father had to go though in 1969, so he will need to drive change and reforms of a similar extent to succeed in winning back lost support,” said political analyst Mohamed Mustafa Ishak.


Razak’s success was widely credited to his political strength and enduring popularity as well as his clean image.

Najib may not enjoy the same level of trust and a vibrant opposition-supporting online media repeatedly links him to the lurid murder of a Mongolian model. Najib has denied involvement and there is no evidence to link him to the death.

During the by-election in Kuala Terengganu at the weekend, he was greeted by opposition supporters at one polling station by cries of “Altantunya”, the name of the Mongolian model.

“The peppering of posters with the picture of murdered Mongolian woman Altantuya Shaariibuu illustrated the persistence of unanswered questions and, more broadly, Najib’s credibility gap involving the case,” said Bridget Welsh, Malaysia politics expert at Johns Hopkins University.

“For many Malays in Kuala Terengganu, particularly for the estimated 12,000 Malay fence-sitters, it came down to this combination of representation and trust, in which PAS gained the advantage,” she wrote in an analysis of the by-election.

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