Emerging son

Published : Dec 05, 2008 00:00 IST

Najib Tun Razak gets the support of the United Malays National Organisation to become the next Prime Minister of Malaysia.

in Singapore

NAJIB TUN RAZAKS emergence as the prospective Prime Minister of Malaysia is being portrayed by the ruling Barisan Nasional (B.N., the National Front) as the only effective denouement of the snap general elections held in March. The Opposition Pakatan Rakyat (P.R., the Peoples Pact), however, does not think so.

Anwar Ibrahim, P.R. leader, has not given up his efforts to unseat the incumbent Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, through a political realignment of forces within the House of Representatives. By the end of the first week of November, though, Anwar had not made any visible progress in the public domain, while Najib had galvanised his political base.

By November 3, Deputy Prime Minister Najib had emerged as president-elect of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the B.N.s most powerful constituent. The ruling coalitions convention is that the Prime Ministers post goes to the UMNO president. And, under the recently revised political calendar of the party, organisational elections will be held during the general Assembly session in March next year. So with Najib having secured unassailable support, amounting to his unopposed candidature for the UMNO presidency, there is no shadow of political doubt within the B.N. ranks about the way forward.

Of 192 UMNO divisions, 140 had nominated Najib for the highest party post by early November. His presumptive challenger, Razaleigh Hamzah, won the nod of only one unit, his own, and found himself with no prospect of securing the 58 nominations needed to force a contest. This set the stage for the son of the late Tun Abdul Razak, who had carved out a niche for himself among the leaders of Malaysias freedom struggle era, to assume the office of Prime Minister. In a sense, all this must make for a story of succession with a sense of political folklore in Malaysia.

However, the upscale developing country, one of the better-known members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), is currently experiencing unprecedented political fervour. Abdullah has found it difficult to remain centre stage despite having led the B.N. to a nearly two-thirds parliamentary majority in the general elections. Surely, he had put at risk his commanding 90 per cent plus parliamentary strength to get this victory more so, almost 18 months ahead of the due date. The B.N. managed to win 140 seats out of the 222 at stake. Nonetheless, Abdullah is paying the price for having won a qualitatively shallow victory as distinct from a quantitatively impressive one under the zero-sum political calculus.

At the same time, there are no obvious signs that the opposition can indeed translate into reality a paradigm shift in Malaysias politics. Anwar and other opposition leaders such as Lim Kit Siang have often portrayed the results of the March elections as a mandate for transforming Malaysia into a truly multiracial society. Right now, the opposition parties, their civil-society allies and external experts see Malaysia as a country with a social fabric of multiracial patchwork.

Seen under such a political prism, the indigenous Malay-Muslim majority does not have an incentive to strive for dynamic social linkages across the racial spectrum. For historical reasons, which the majority community does not wish to reverse, Malaysia is home to a sizable ethnic Chinese minority and a smaller Indian-origin population.

In this perspective, the opposition parties and external experts have not really called for the blanket abolition of Malaysias state policy of affirmative action in favour of Malay Muslims in education and employment. The affirmative action, as a state-response to a one-time historical reality of disadvantages for Malays in their own homeland, is too sensitive an issue for any political party to deal with.

Within these parameters, the opposition parties have argued for a shift from Malaysias contemporary paradigm of command politics. They say that their unprecedented tally of over one-third parliamentary seats in the March elections can be seen as the clearest mandate in their favour. The important sub-theme in this argument is that the opposition parties would have obtained a clear majority to form an alternative government but for the absence of a level playing field.

It is this standpoint that Anwar, formerly a Deputy Prime Minister from the UMNO stream, is deploying as the springboard for his project to unseat Abdullah and form an alternative government. However, the Abdullah-Najib lobby points out that the B.N. government remains short of a two-thirds majority by only eight seats. In contrast, Anwar will require the loyalty of at least 30 Representatives from the Treasury benches to be able to form an alternative government.

It is in such a political ambience that Najib has emerged as the UMNOs choice for Prime Minister. The easy part for Najib is that Abdullah was reasonably quick to recognise that he could not, in this atmosphere, hope to remain at the helm on the plea that he did not at all lose the March general elections. The more difficult part of the argument is that the people did not really vote for Najib as Prime Minister, if they also did not vote for Anwar or the opposition.

Prime ministerial successions during the term of an elected Parliament is nothing new in politics, and Najib certainly has the option of calling for a mandate of his own, sometime after reaching the helm. The larger question, therefore, relates to his political credentials. He is now the Finance Minister, a position that offers him a chance to address the growing concerns of the people in the context of the forebodings of a future shock because of the global financial crisis of American origin.

For him, a potential political spin-off, as different from the administrative opportunity of addressing popular concerns, is that Anwars power bid may be frowned upon by some sections of society. After all, Malaysia belongs to a region where day-to-day democratic discourse, taken as normal in countries such as India and the United States, is often seen as a waste of time.

A critical challenge for Najib will be Malaysias relatively new phenomenon of assertive articulation of deep-seated discontent by the ethnic minorities. The banning of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) with effect from October 15 did not produce any instantaneous political backlash. However, it is widely acknowledged that the articulation of ethnic grievances by Hindraf did play a part in defining political choices in the March elections.

Anwar has suggested that Hindraf tone down or move away from positions that could be interpreted as blatantly sectarian when viewed from the Malay-majority perspective. Significantly, Parti Islam-Se Malaysia (PAS), a key constituent in the opposition camp, has now given up the divisive agenda of turning the country into a Shariah-based Islamic state. The PAS has even offered to mediate between Hindraf and the government.

Ethnic issues turned into a crisis under Abdullah, though he projected himself as a hands-on politician with a soft touch compared to the reputation of his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad as a leader with nerves of steel. At one stage of the momentum generated by the Hindraf campaign for equal rights, Najib did apologise for a temple demolition, which was believed to have emboldened the group led by professionals. But he may still need to address ethnic issues from a broader perspective.

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