Is Najib the man for the job?

Posted by Penarik Beca Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Malaysian Insider (23/9/08): With a terrific pedigree and a seriously damaged reputation Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who was shoved into national politics as a precocious 23 year old in 1976, is now more than 30 years later poised to take charge of a troubled country.

It does not matter whether he takes over after Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is forced to quit before the Umno polls in December or he challenges and defeats Abdullah or consummates the 2010 succession plan, as he had promised.

As the situation stands now only Najib, who has a strong grip over the party, is in line to succeed.

Therefore what really matters is whether this man, whose upper crust origins, entire upbringing and personal politics are all geared to defending the status quo, would embrace the change that Malaysians desire.

Will he defend the old Umno-led order in an uncertain time or ride the reformasi wave that was first set off with the arrest of archrival Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 and is still rolling after the March 8 general election.

Where Najib stands on the new Malaysia and how he responds to the demand for change are key issues not just for the ordinary Malaysian voter but also for the BN component parties.

The MCA, MIC, PPP and Gerakan — all of which face an uncertain future after voters deserted them in the March 8 general election — are anxious how the Umno succession battle is resolved and who emerges the winner.

Even Umno itself, which had made all the big decisions since before independence, is labouring under the weight of a great disquiet over its future.

Can it reform? Can it win back the support of the Malays and the other races?

Najib, in some ways, is the other man of the hour besides opposition leader Anwar. His future and the country's are intertwined in more ways than one.

"We and the BN as a coalition are facing our biggest crisis ever... May 13 is nothing compared to now. The future for all of us is clouded," said a senior MCA leader on condition of anonymity.

"There are fundamental differences in all political parties over how to change, what to change and how to survive the future," he said, adding all eyes are on the Umno succession battle.

"Naturally we need a liberal, inclusive and pragmatic Malay leader to take charge and lead the BN and the country out of the woods," he said. "We have to wait and see how Umno decides.'

"Is Najib the man?" said a Gerakan leader, adding with Umno itself gripped in a succession crisis the BN parties have to wait to see the outcome.

"However the business community likes Najib's calmness, sureness and firmness but his reputation is sullied over the murder of the Mongolian lady," he said, referring to the 2006 murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu.

"We worry whether this serious issue would develop into a big a setback for the BN later," he said.

Although Najib has strongly denied any links to the murdered woman and has sworn on the Quran to never having met her and although the Umno rank and file seems satisfied with the explanation, the public perception is that many questions remain unanswered over the whole episode.

"It is a liability… political baggage that can catch up later if left uncleared especially with Najib's political enemies active, possibly growing in strength and openly targeting him for the meat grinder," said the Gerakan leader.

Becoming a minister at the age of 32, Najib put in long years of steady and hard work, rising up the Umno ladder and gaining experience after being moved from one portfolio to another.

He was relatively free of controversy and admired for his patience and ability to clarify complex issues into simple messages.

As Umno Youth leader, however, he gained some notoriety during another Umno crisis — the 1987 leadership battle — when he took part in a rally in Kampung Baru where anti-Chinese sentiments were openly expressed.

Until the Mongolian murder surfaced in October 2006 Najib was relatively above it all, both in Umno and in the country, with a clear, unimpeded run to the top Prime Minister's post.

But after that it was one controversy after another in rapid succession.

First the rumours that he was linked to Altantuya. Then the accusations surfaced on the Internet and finally came the statutory declarations.

It all led to sedition and defamation charges, police investigations and ended with the arrest of blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin under the ISA.

Adding to the skull drudgery was the explosive revelations by private eye P. Balasubramaniam and his retraction and disappearance — all within 24 hours — leaving the public gasping and speculating wildly where the truth ends and the lies begin.

The latest controversy is Najib's alleged links to Saiful Bukhari Azlan, who says he was sodomised by Anwar.

In all these controversies Najib has been deft and fast on the feet to survive the landmines thrown his way.

"It shows ambition, drive and determination to defeat his enemies and survive," a Umno insider said. "He is damaged but still firmly on the path to succession."

"If he survivors after December and makes it to the top, his future and the country's future would depend a lot on whether he embraces the reform agenda," said a lawyer and former MIC leader.

"That's the key word — reform. How he fights corruption, how he promotes the rule of law, how he satisfies the non-Malay desire for equality, meritocracy and justice... these are the key issues," the lawyer said.

"There is deep distrust of Umno and the BN among the people… it would take years to heal if at all," he said, adding that the next Prime Minister would have a tough job on his hands.

"Coming from the same sullied Umno-BN pond, naturally people have doubts over Najib's honesty and his integrity," the lawyer said, adding however Malaysians generally would give a new man a "chance to prove himself."

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