Will makeover work for Najib?
Khoo Kay Peng Apr 6, 09 3:24pm
comment I was one of those who received a private email from Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak. It was a cordial reminder to check on his blog, 1Malaysia.com.my. I was told Najib had assembled a team of public relations and media consultants to work on his leadership image several months ago. Several media big-wigs had lobbied hard to be part of his team.
Najib's succession of Abdullah was criticised by the opposition as inappropriate and unsuitable for Malaysia. He was blamed as the architect of the fall of the Pakatan Rakyat government in Perak, for the ban of opposition party organs, and for the use of other iron-fisted tactics on his political opponents.His former colleague, ex-minister Zaid Ibrahim, had asked the King not to appoint Najib as the next premier. It was followed by a petition signed by 81 Pakatan MPs which was submitted to the palace with the same request.
The team of advisers hit the first home run for Najib. At his inaugural speech as premier, Najib made three very important decisions to soften his image and distance himself from talk that his leadership will mark the return of rule a la Dr Mahathir Mohamad.He said: "I would like to announce that the government has decided with immediate effect to remove the temporary ban on two news publications, release 13 detainees from ISA detention, and conduct a comprehensive review of the Internal Security Act (ISA)."
Two of the five detained Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) leaders were released, but there is now a reasonable doubt whether the now-banned movement can remain intact. The detention of Hindraf’s top echelon has allowed for factional leaders to emerge and they have vested interests, as seen in Bukit Selambau.Najib may want a comprehensive review of the ISA, but don’t expect the law to be repealed.
Three tasks ahead
Next, he would surely want to flex his ability to tackle the economy. He must address three most important aspects.
First, he needs to re-energise the private sector as the main engine of growth. Najib can be expected to tap into the readily available network of corporate alliances and family network to help him here. To rebuild confidence, he must take the bull by its horn and address the sensitive and highly controversial New Economic Policy (NEP). Again, don’t expect it to be abolished. He will offer more rhetoric than action. NEP is his party's lifeline. This is the only policy the party can use to beat its chest about protecting Malay economic interest and rights.
It is easier to tinker with the ISA than the NEP. Without using the ISA, Najib would still have access to a range of policy instruments, legal coercive power, public institutions and others to achieve his political ambition and objectives. NEP is sacrosanct to the Malay supremacy, a communal sacred cow.
Second, Najib has to address the growing operations cost and budget deficit. The public sector is a big white elephant. The larger it grows, the harder it will be to restructure the sector. Efficiency must increase a few notches to help support a modern government faced with numerous difficult and complex global challenges. The public sector must not continue to be used as a social welfare tool to help ease the unemployment problem. A government’s role is to provide a suitable environment to allow the optimisation of the private sector, not to frustrate it. The role of the government in the economy must be minimised and reduced.
Third, the new premier has promised a new deal for Malaysia. This must unleash new energy and initiative in the private sector. Private players must be convinced to invest in talents and technology. If not, Malaysia will continue to lag.In the next decade, we should expect a higher mobility of talented people.
As nations developed, the competition skills and talents will intensify. Without a right policy and leadership direction, highly skilled Malaysians will continue to move out to better markets.
Najib may have started on the right foot. Yet, do not expect him to be showered with the same instant goodwill as Abdullah received. Abdullah came in without much baggage as he was an outsider, not part of Mahathir's inner circle. He was expected to take a more moderate and humane governance and leadership approach.
Najib has already made a mistake by not addressing the issue of Alantuya Shaariibuu openly and transparently. His text messages to aide Abdul Razak Baginda were damaging to him, although these did not reveal involvement. He should have ordered a probe against his chief of security as well as Abdul Razak, his chief advisor, on possible abuse of authority. He did not and the allegations are sticking to him.
The opposition, especially Anwar Ibrahim, has not been able to produce evidence of any relationship between him and Altantuya.
Can Najib become an effective prime minister with this allegation hanging over his head? He can still perform above expectations if he can deliver all his promises. After all, he is a seasoned politician who should know that not performing is not an option, whatever the perception of him.