Agenda Daily


To say that Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Abdul Razak will be taking over the leadership of the. country at a difficult time would be an understatement. From a global economic crisis of unprecedented scale to local political rumblings never seen before, he has his work cut out for him. Can the besmirched political aristocrat hack it?


THERE ARE MANY THINGS THAT DATUK SERI Mohd Najib Abdul Razak has to get down to when he assumes the Prime Minister's post later this month.

The handover is expected to happen soon after the completion of the Umno general assembly and elections, which will take place from March 24 to 28.

The King, at the opening of the new session of Parliament on Feb 19, thanked the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and wished for a smooth transition, leading to some observers to conclude that the handover is final.

This came about at a time when there was growing `chatter', especially in the online media, that Abdullah might change his mind and stay on. This coincided with comments and calls suggesting that he should stay on.

Since December, there have been comments to that effect. The Pas President and ideologue, Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, was quoted as saying that Abdullah should only step down as Prime Minister once he had fulfilled his promises to Malaysians.

The former Umno Vice President and now Gua Musang Member of Parliament, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, said Abdullah could stay on as Prime Minister even if he was no longer the Umno president.

Abdullah is not defending the post in this month's election and Mohd Najib won the coveted post uncontested when Tengku Razaleigh failed to receive the required endorsement from the divisions.

Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who made Abdullah his successor but later became his most outspoken critic, said there was every possibility that Abdullah would go back on his word.

My personal feeling is that Abdullah will retire as scheduled and there's no way that he'll go back on his word. With Mohd Najib having won the Umno President's post with full endorsement except one from the party's divisions, there's no way that anybody can stand in his way. Only divinity can deprive him of the job.

I am inclined to share the sentiments of the onlinenews portal, The Malaysian Insider, when it reported on Dec 8 that Abdullah had already made plans for his post-Prime Minister days.

It said Abdullah had told his friends that he would like to spend time strengthening ties between Malaysia and the Middle East. That makes sense because he was for almost a decade Foreign Minister and his late father, ulamak-politician Datuk Ahmad Badawi, spent a considerable time in the Middle East studying Islam.

The Malaysian Insider also noted that his staff members were also looking ahead and counting the days, with some scouting for employment while members of his security team would return to the general pool.

The news portal, which is considered to be close to Abdullah and his team, said he was at peace with his decision to hand over power to Mohd Najib at the March party annual assembly.

Taking over at a difficult time

THAT there are so many things that Mohd Najib has to get down to is, given the prevailing national and international circumstances, an understatement. It looks more like a do-or-die situation.

And it is not an overstatement to say that of all the Malaysian Prime Ministers, Mohd Najib will take over the reins at the most difficult time — far more difficult than that of his late father in the months following the bloody racial riots of 1969.

When Tun Abdul Razak succeeded the late Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra in 1971, the economy was in a better shape than today and the political situation had been stabilised and law and order restored.

The trauma of the May 13,1969 riots that, according to police figures, killed 196 people and injured another 149, caused the voters to accept the Barisan Nasional (BN), which won a massive victory in the 1974 general election.

This allowed Abdul Razak a free hand to accelerate economic growth, eradicate poverty and achieve a more even wealth distribution under the New Economic Policy banner.

Economically, Mohd Najib could not be taking over at a more inopportune time. The global economic recession, brought about by the collapse of the US financial systems, is beginning to bear down on Malaysia's economy — growth is slowing down, prices are rising and jobs are at risk.

Although Mohd Najib nominally took over economic and financial management from Abdullah last September, when he swapped jobs with Abdullah — handing over defence and taking over finance — his efforts have yet to show quantifiable results and gain widespread recognition.

The positive effects of last November's RM7-billion stimulus package are still being awaited, and how the country will ride the worsening crisis now rests with the mini budget that Mohd Najib is due to present in the just-started session of Parliament.

The Najib-Muhyiddin show?

BUT the economy is not the only agenda on Mohd Najib's plate. Equally pressing is politics. The success of one depends on the other.

If he's successful in warding off the full-blown effects of the global recession and keeping the national economy intact, he'll be able to dampen the opposition to his government and the BN.

A lot of people are getting tired of the endless political conflagration within the ruling coalition and its tussle with the unofficial Opposition alliance, the Pakatan Rakyat.

The takeover by the BN of the Perak Government has not gone down well with a lot of people, although the collapse of the People's Alliance government was precipitated by the resignations of its own State Assembly members — two from the People's Justice Party (PKR) and one from the DAP.

The first real test for Mohd Najib will come from within his own party and from his team of advisers. The outcome of this month's Umno election will determine whether he will have a team of his wish or a ragtag team of have-beens and outcasts.

If he is lucky to have the former, his task of revitalising Umno and managing the country will be that much earlier, with a better chance of success. But if he's landed with the latter, then his future and the future of Umno and the economy could be in serious jeopardy.

But Mohd Najib could have missed the first step towards ensuring or building a team of his desire by not indicating to the Umno divisions the people he wants to be in the Supreme Council.

Regardless of whether he was playing it safe or wasbeing neutral, he has clearly missed that opportunity, leading to many observers questioning if Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the International Trade and Industry Minister, who is the obvious choice for the Deputy Prime Minister's post, can win the crucial three-way contest for the deputy president's post.

Although Muhyiddin is Mohd Najib's choice and received the most number of divisional nominations, the front-runner is said to be the Melaka Chief Minister, Datuk Mohd Ali Rustam, who is widely being billed as a proxy of Abdullah. The other candidate is the Rural and Regional Development Minister Tan Sri Muhammad Muhd Taib.

Party veterans say Mohd Najib should have sent out a clearer signal that he favours Muhyiddin without offending Abdullah since the latter has not only announced his retirement as Prime Minister but also his decision not to seek re-election as party president.

If Muhyiddin fails to clinch victory, then Mohd Najib will have a tough time deciding on a deputy. Clearly, Muhyiddin is the most experienced and capable of the deputy president's candidates.

Also, while Muhyiddin is a Member of Parliament, Mohd All is a State Assemblyman, and thus cannot be directly appointed to the Cabinet, while Muhammad Taib is a Senator and has a controversial past.

The current economic crisis demands that Mohd Najib appoints a capable deputy with experience in national and international economics and finance and no less important with the necessary language skills.

Listening to good advice

WITH good planning and capable advisers and implementors, Mohd Najib stands a good chance of turning adversity to his advantage and making a first good impression on the people and investors.

Given his less-than-shiny image, Mohd Najib has to spring a few surprises to attract public attention and alter their perception of him.

What he does in the hours and days following his swearing-in is crucial to his image building (or rebuilding) exercise and in rebuilding public confidence.

Properly planned and executed, he can first appeal to the sympathy and sensibility of those Umno members and supporters who reluctantly defected to the Opposition during last year's general election due to their opposition to Abdullah.

These people will not only return to Umno's fold but may even work very hard to ensure that the party returns to its former strength.

At the same time, Mohd Najib has to appeal to the young, inexperienced voters who in the last polls rallied behind the Opposition's call for change.

But with the Pakatan Rakyat in tatters and its component parties at each other's throats following the collapse of the Perak Government and the growing crisis in Selangor, Mohd Najib and his BN team stand a good chance of coaxing the young voters to look in the direction of the grand coalition.

For that to happen, Mohd Najib has to ensure that the new Umno leadership line-up and the membership of the Cabinet are made up of people that the young can identify with.

Most important is to consciously ensure that the welfare and interest of the young people, like education and employment, are adequately addressed in his economic recovery packages.

Even the rebellious Chinese and Indian voters can be coaxed to return to the BN's fold by addressing their concerns. The Chinese are concerned with the deteriorating business environment while the Indians are deeply affected by allegations of their marginalization.

Mohd Najib does not have to wait long to put his leadership popularity to test. The outcomes of the coming by-elections in the Parliamentary seat of Bukit Gantang in Perak, Bukit Selambau state seat in Kedah and Batang Ai state seat in Sarawak will reflect the early response to his leadership.

Even if he chooses to adopt a low-profile approach and treat the by-elections matter-of-factly, the People's Alliance will position them as a no-confidence referendum against him.

Bearing in mind that Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau are strong Opposition seats, an improvement in the BN's votes is good enough to indicate that the people are taking notice. Of course, a victory is a bonus that will go a long way towards buttressing Mohd Najib's leadership.

Miracles can happen if Umno and the BN do not repeat the mistakes of the last two by-elections in Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu, and Mohd Najib listens to sound advice.

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