Weaker men falter. But not Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Najib has shown some mettle. The PM has faced the toughest storm of his political career and yet survived to tell the story.
Not unlike the Obama administration, Najib faced economic woes, political resistance and prevented the attempt by “Citizen M” to topple the government. Najib disproved, so far, the allegations leveled by a sophisticated plot to dispose him with tricks that would make Niccolo Machiavelli blush.
Najib managed to keep the deeply divided country on an even keel. The challenges are not for the fainthearted.
Despite the claims by pundits, the anti-everything voices of an immediate implosion of the Malaysian economy, the World Bank forecast paints a different picture. The Malaysian economy is expected to pick up in 2017 and 2018 with commodity prices recovering. Unemployment is stable, and the credit ratings agencies are reasonable happy.
Malaysia is performing better than the U.K after the latter’s bizarre EU exit vote. In its Economic Monitor Report dated June 2016, it said Malaysia’s growth remains resilient though GDP was expected to slow down to 4.4% in 2016 from 5% last year.
Najib is presiding over massive amounts of problems that surfaced with many arguing to be laid at the feet of Citizen Mahathir. The former Prime Minister’s legacy, largely untouched by the cultural respect his person demands, is lost in the eyes of many Malaysians.
Under Mahathir’s economic policies, the gluttony, the abuse and corruption was staggering. The culture of patronage politics flourished under the former Prime Minister who ruled Malaysia for 22 years but polished the reign with his weird narcissistic political demands and the upheaval of his predecessors.
Abdullah Badawi, a moderate, attempted to bring Malaysia forward and was quickly removed by the ploys of Citizen Mahathir. Wanting to maintain the status quo, Dr M pulled the rabbit out of the hat and Najib had to replace his old political friend and ally, Abdullah Badawi.
In true fashion, “If it works, try again”, Mahathir tried the same move on Najib Razak. This time, the Mahathirian gamble backfired.
By now, the facts of the matter are almost forgotten. The fact of the mysterious money transfers that went into the accounts in previous times held in trust by Mahathir were moved to avoid the citizen getting hands on the loot.
By moving the money into controlled accounts, Citizen Mahathir no longer had signatory rights which were earlier granted to the former prime minister.
What followed was a war-declaration on dismantling a political career that has thrown Malaysia into being a basket case of dark alley deals, scandals, ego trips and political intrigue. One might add, not very unlike the contemporary politics in the U.K.
The political marriage between the Mentor and the Pupil came to a crushing end.
The legacy of Mahathir, once dubbed by the Islamic Party (PAS) as “mahafiraun“, the Great Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, is being dismantled by the administration of Najib Razak.
The administration fights Islamic State, economic woes and national diversity and is bridging the racial differences created by 22 years’ rule of Mahathir. Many in Malaysia have had enough of “citizen” Mahathir.
And Malaysia, despite the domestic squabbles of status quo versus economic new bright future, looks promising. The World Bank issued an optimistic outlook for 2017. Similar views are shared by other research reports indicating a steady outlook for 2020.
“Fiscal consolidation remains on track despite lower oil-related revenues achieved through reduction in the government’s operating expenditures and the implementation of the GST in April 2015,” wrote the World Bank.
Under Najib Razak, a change in trading focus is emerging. With the decline in U.S. power in the region, China is becoming Malaysia’s biggest trading partner outranking Japan, Norway and Europe.
“Malaysia is one of the most open economies in the world, with a trade to GDP ratio of 148% (from 2010 to 2014) compared to 58% in developing countries in East Asia and Pacific.
Global factors such as declining oil and gas prices, low commodity prices, and sluggish growth of major trading partners, Malaysia’s problems of today are the result of policy failures of its past leaders. Najib, between the proverbial rocks, is in charge set to address structural reforms.
Following Teddy Roosevelt’s “if in charge, charge”, Najib Razak is countering forces of Citizen Mahathir attempting to maintain the status quo leading the vanguard of UMNO faction’s stalwart opposing the prime minister.
Following the sacking of long-term Mahathir loyalist, Najib is consolidating power. Him winning the by-election and overwhelming support in Sarawak cemented his position even further.
Voters in Sungai Besar in Selangor state and Kuala Kangsar in the northern Perak region opted to keep ruling party lawmakers in the seats, with wider majorities than the 2013 federal election. However, further reforms are needed.
While some reforms are underway, they are not to the liking of the opposition and his former mentor who resists changes.
After the firing of Mahathir from Petronas, the message was clear: No more political interference and no free rides. The Perdana Leadership Foundation is next. More is yet to come.
According to sources, more reforms and changes are expected to follow. Najib clearly understands what problems the nation faces. Abdul Hamzah, a commodity trader on the Pursa Efek said, “Whereas as some foreign pundits favor the old guard of the aging citizen Mahathir, many remember the old days of the Pharaoh.”
He added, “Following the revelations that Mahathir attempted to plot to overthrow the administration, Malaysians grown distrustful of the former ruler.”
In an interview with The Australian, Mahathir has called for “foreign interference” to help oust his former protégé, Najib Razak. Questions about the former prime minister committing sedition are circulating in the circles in Kuala Lumpur calling for police investigations.
But Mahathir has long lost credibility with Australian officials. Relations between Australia and Malaysia have improved markedly since the Keating era, with Labor and Coalition governments lauding Najib as a dependable ally and his country as a moderate Islamic bulwark against Islamic terrorism.
In his dealings, the inaptness of the once feared ruler of all Malaysians is rapidly declining into a shadow of his former self. Consequently, the planned takeover of power to topple the administration has failed.
The prevailing view is one of being stunned and a feeling of impotence, as Najib has managed to consolidate his premiership.
The immediate task at hand for Najib is to improve public confidence. There has been massive revenue shrinkage due to falling commodity prices and years of negative campaigning against Malaysian palm oil exporters such as IOI Berhad by foreign NGOs.
Experts estimate the Malaysian economy loss ranges between 1.73% – 2.66% GDP or RM 25.0 – RM 37.84 billions as a result of NGO campaigns.
The GST will make up the projected shortfalls over the coming years, but budget cuts and stimuli of the agricultural sector are expected to be part of the reforms initiated by the Najib administration.
The unemployment rate has been at a steady 3.6 percent. In comparison, in Indonesia, the unemployment rate is at 5.5 percent (2016), China records 4.05 percent, Myanmar in 2014 reported 4.02 percent unemployment. In comparison to Germany standing at 4.2 percent, unemployment, Malaysia economics are sound.
“The country’s main exports have over time gradually diversified into manufacturing with electrical and electronics accounting for 40% of all exports.
“About 40% of jobs in Malaysia are linked with export activities. Total wages supported by exports has quadrupled between 1995 and 2011.
“Twenty-one trade agreements have been signed by the country which have reduced tariffs, facilitated market access, and opened Malaysia for direct investments,”.
A perspective shared by the rating agencies. Standard & Poor’s credit rating for Malaysia stands at A- with a stable outlook. A view shared by Fitch’s credit rating while Moody’s last set it at A3 with a stable outlook.
It is difficult to argue if the Najib administration pursues fiscally irresponsible budgets as claimed by some of the foreign pundits last year.
“The argument is made that the Prime Minister in fact is committed to reforms. It will require a mind-set change for individuals who benefited from the status quo.” a source said.
One of the key failures by Citizen Mahathir was to tempt PAS into supporting efforts to topple Najib. A few problems with this poorly perceived attempt of the former against the current Prime Minister:
First, everyone remembers Mahathir’s treatment of his political enemies.
Second, if PAS had entertained the overtures by the former enemy, PAS would have committed sedition.
And finally, Anwar Ibrahim and Royalty do not trust Mahathir.
The new game: If ever there is one.
In theory, Najib will continue right up to 2018 as party president and prime minister. With the recent success with the Sarawak, Selangor and Perak elections, observers do not rule out early elections.
The voting turnout in Sarawak was recorded at 71 per cent showing strong support by urbanites and rural voters.
Whereas, 2015 polls showed the urban biased unpopularity with the Malay electorate, Sarawak and the by-elections shows Najib gained significant support across the voter space.
And Najib standing up to his old mentor is showing many Malaysians his mettle as a leader and politician. Following the early election victory, the prime minister is continuing to consolidate his power.
Observers note the administration is placing people in winnable seats strengthening UMNO/BN and facing the new challenges of Mahathir’s allies forming new parties.
However, there would be very little incentive to do this as parliament still has two years to run until an election is needed. The opposition also has a major credibility gap with the Malaysian public.
The end game? Prosperity for Malaysians. This may not be consistent with the previous era of Citizen Mahathir, but Najib it is better than the chaos, uncertainty and self-doubt.