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Najib’s first 100 days – long on form, short on substance

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In Brief

Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’ s first 100 days have been similar to the first 100 days of his predecessors—long on form, short on substance. His policies thus far do not address the root causes of Malaysian problems and continue to reflect patronage, religion and race-based politics with the overarching ideology of ‘Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy)’ firmly entrenched.

Najib, who took office on April 3, came to power in at the worst of times. Real GDP contracted by 6.2 per cent (year on year) in the first quarter of 2009, Malaysia’s worst performance since the fourth quarter of 1998, when the economy shrank by 11.2 per cent during the height of the Asian financial crisis. 2008 also saw the weakest growth in six years and there is no sign of improvement for 2009, confirming the long term trends that Malaysia is fast losing its competitiveness. Najib also came in as the most unpopular Prime Minister in Malaysian history.


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Najib’s economic measures (11 gifts to the rakyat (people) and liberalisation measures) were driven purely by the need to please a clearly discontented Malaysian electorate and contain long-term economic decline.

The 11 gifts may address short term issues relating to the poor provided it is implemented graft-free and race-blind. For example, the plan to sell 44,000 low cost houses to existing tenants may solve severe housing problems faced by the poor. However, similar programmes in the past were implemented through political parties in the National Front who then allocated to the highest bidder or friends or relatives, leaving those targeted beneficiaries homeless. This strategy only serves to perpetuate patronage and race-based politics.

The liberalisation measures that reverse outdated affirmative action policies are steps in the right direction. It has been long recognised that race-based investment restrictions have not benefitted the larger Malay community and have in fact contributed to Malaysia’s long term economic decline. The liberalisations were narrowly defined and avoided areas that affected the Malay political base and strategic sectors which are dominated by the government through government linked companies. The fine print of these liberalisation measures have yet to be revealed. Furthermore, in the creation of Ekuinas, another government agency to protect the interest of Bumipeturas through equity ownership, Najib has opened yet another door to crony capitalism.

Economic liberalisation must be balanced with social and political liberalisation, yet thus far Najib has shown no sign of pushing for reform in these areas. Instead, he has promoted a series of populist measures which do not address the root causes of Malaysia’s social, political and economic problems. For example, the media has paid much attention to Najib’s 1Malaysia policy. Although aimed at uniting Malaysians of every race—an admirable goal given Malaysia’s ethnic divisions —the actual policy content remains unclear. While Najib has been promoting the 1Malaysia policy through songs, TV and radio advertisements, and a choreographed ‘cultural workout’ dance routine, the rakyat have been left wondering what the policy actually means, and how it differs from the ‘bangsa Malaysia’ envisioned by former Prime Ministers Mahathir and Badawi. Furthermore, his support for Malay unity talks with erstwhile enemies flies in the face of 1Malaysia.

Najib’s ‘walkabouts’– on which he converses with ordinary Malaysians at local political events – are another indicator of his unwillingness to implement genuine civil and political reforms. Indeed a ‘walkabout’ would be unnecessary if Najib opened the political system to public scrutiny, legitimate evaluation and appraisal. Media investigations have revealed that the ‘walkabout’ outings are usually surprise visits to which only the national news agency (Bernama) has been invited to attend.

The release of detainees held under the Internal Security Act (ISA) also fits with this analysis. Najib’s motives in releasing the ISA detainees appear directed towards gaining political capital rather than a genuine expansion of Malaysian civil liberties.

A telling indicator of the mettle of his administration is Najib’s inaction on the issues which led to Badawi’s downfall. No reforms have been made to reduce corruption or improve governance. A recent poll by the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research showed that the majority of Malaysians were not confident in Najib’s ability to reform the Anti-Corruption Agency, the judiciary, or implement government projects in a timely fashion. Najib’s overall approval rating also remains low when compared against Badawi’s under the same timeframe. While Najib is enjoying an early surge in popularity from a very low base, with this poll giving him a 65 per cent approval rating, Badawi scored 91 per cent support when he first took power in 2004. If Badawi was ousted for his weak reforms in these key areas, what can Najib expect?

Najib’s first 100 days have included an array of measures which signify ‘business as usual’ in Malaysian politics. While Najib’s economic reforms appear to be a step in the right direction, they must be consolidated with reforms on civil and political fronts as well. Given ongoing concerns about the role of race-based politics, corruption, breakdown in the rule of law and a weak domestic and global economy, Najib faces pressures above and beyond those faced by Badawi. In response, Najib will have to deliver on UMNO’s long-promised economic, political, and civil reforms.

Siaan Ansori and Gregore Lopez are postgraduate students in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

2 responses to “Najib’s first 100 days – long on form, short on substance”

  1. Regardless of Badawi’s standing, Najib’s 65% approval rating is a great turnaround that was effectively achieved by the very same measures that you have criticised in your article.
    However, the recent unexplained death of a political secretary(working for the opposition party controlling the populous state of Selangor) immediately following a long grilling by officers from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and within the MACC building itself raises some serious issues about the politically motivated agendas of the ruling Barisan Party. This matter alone has the potential to seriously affect the hard-fought popular support garnered by Najib from his first 100 days.
    One question- is the photo above accompanying your article a digital composition or a real one..? Has Najib actually succeeded in uniting Badawi and Mahathir together on the podium in a rare display of UMNO unity….?? Then my respect for Najib has risen leaps and bounds and suggests that he will make for a formidable politician indeed.

  2. After 3 generations the same mindset persist. If not for its Chinese migrants they won’t even take a step forward. Hopefully they don’t take 2 step back.

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