by Moaz Nair@www.malaysia-chronicle.com
Marching into 2012 Najib Abdul Razak is still not perceived as a strong leader by the masses. It is the perspicacity of the masses that his many personal, social and economic debacles will keep haunting him until the next general election – widely believed to be held before June 2012.
Race relations in the country is not getting any better and evidently religion is widely seen as a convenient gizmo used by UMNO to divide the people. Above and beyond, shady characters among some UMNO and Barisan Nasional (BN) politicians , abuse of taxpayers’ money, and the ineffective economic strategies of the government have failed to convince the masses.
Almost four years of BN at the helm after the March 2008 general election has not seen much clout in UMNO or Najib to shove the country to the right track. Their popularity seem to slide.
Many social and economic woes relating to race relations, religion and the economy have since alienated the masses. Corruption is perceived as too rife among those having power and authority but more often than not these are swept under the carpet for political reasons.
They only receive the crumbs
The recent RM100 and RM500 one-off payments to students and the poor respectively have been perceived by the masses as trying to ‘bribe’ for votes in facing the next general election. Even the purported 1Malaysia RM5,000 loan to the poor to invest under a national unit trust scheme is not going to electrify the people into voting for BN.
To an aid recipient in Kedah, he is not full of praise for the government: “This matters least, as the money given to the people is not from UMNO’s own pocket but it’s taxpayers’ hard-earned money. We have to edify the people on this political strategy of UMNO. For now, just accept the money as it’s the people’s money, not UMNO’s or BN’s. When it comes to voting, this is totally going to be a different issue.”
The people sense that the amount of money given to the poor by the government is just pittance that could not even make ends meet in time of high inflation in the country now. “This ‘bribe of sort’ is for short-term delight,” says a farmer in Kedah. “The government has not come up with any concrete long-term plan to reduce inflation and bring down the cost of living to help the poor.” He adds, “Increasing the pay of those already earning big salaries is not going to help reduce the price of food. Only the rich are seen to be given huge incentives and rewards to become richer. The poor are becoming poorer, as they only receive the crumbs.”
What is more interesting to the inquisitive minds of the masses is the quality of leadership the country has to offer. The buzz among voters is, ‘”Who is actually running the country now?” This is the question asked by many within and outside UMNO and BN. Everyone knows that officially Najib is the PM. But Najib has been perceived as a leader who could not steer the country free from Mahathir’s influence. “As long as Anwar is around, Mahathir will not give up harassing Najib’s administration. He fears that UMNO and BN will lose big in the coming general election with Pakatan’s increasing popularity,” says a young voter in Kerian.
Mahathir's role in Najib's Administration
The people are beginning to see Mahathir’s role in Najib’s administration is not receding but mounting. Apparently, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was squeezed out from his post as Prime Minister in 2009 by the maverick politician, Mahathir. Could the same happen to Najib if he decides not to ‘listen' to Mahathir? Mahathir is still influential in UMNO politics not because he is too good a politician but there are factions within UMNO who would want to see Najib tumble. “But if Najib and UMNO tumble, BN has to close shop,” says a political observer. “Pakatan will form the next government.” Mahathir is thus perceived by some political observers as the right man who can decide Najib’s fate and possibly give more hope to the many other UMNO aspirants to climb up the political ladder.
The buzz is that before Najib decided on his Cabinet line-up, he was somewhat ‘warned' by Mahathir that Khairy Jamaluddin – the elected UMNO Youth leader – should be excluded from the Cabinet. True as envisaged, when the Cabinet line-up was announced, Khairy was excluded. Perhaps this must be the first time in the history of UMNO where its Youth leader has not been given any Cabinet post. “With that move by Najib, Khairy’s political fate is sealed,” says an UMNO lawmaker. To some political observers, even Khairy’s performance as a Youth leader is dismal: “He does not have the right charisma as a leader. The next general election would most probably see him not contesting at all.” The political murmur is that Khairy will lose his post as Youth chief in the next UMNO elections much to the delight of Mahathir.
Not only that, the hum was that Mahathir signalled to Najib that all Abdullah’s men should also have been thrust aside from the post Abdullah Cabinet line-up. Shahrir Abdul Samad – being a fine politician – and realising the consequence, made a pre-emptive move. He decided to tender his resignation as a minister even before the new Cabinet line-up was announced. He nattily backed out before the axe fell on him. He could have sensed that the new Cabinet was going to be a Mahathir-charted Cabinet.
But when Najib had the courtesy to include some of Abdullah’s men in, the whispers were Mahathir murmured that the Cabinet was still filled with some ‘tainted' characters. Najib had no choice, as he saw some of these UMNO hardliners as his loyal supporters. Najib needs them to ‘brawl’ for him against the Opposition for his controversial roles in many of the grim accusations on him by the latter. He is wary that he is not a political pugilist. Neither is he the pugnacious type. He is perceived by the people more as a ‘play-safe’ politician or prime minister unlike the belligerent Mahathir.
Flip flop policy
Abdullah in 2006 cancelled the famed half-crooked or curved bridge project into the Tebrau Straits to replace half of the Causeway that connects Johor Baru and Singapore. The project was mooted by Mahathir during his tenure as prime minister. When the iniquitous half-bridge was again cropped up by Mahathir during Najib’s time, the latter was rather quiet on the issue. Possibly, he must have known that the project was just unviable. Mahathir was again unhappy about this, as he is still adamant that the project must proceed. Najib has since been silent on this whole issue. The bridge project has stalled. The government lost RM740million of taxpayers’ money for this cock-up.
Abdullah scrapped the double-tracking railway project from Johor to Padang Besar which would have cost RM14billion during his time as PM. Najib showed no enthusiasm on this project either. Instead the railway project is now being designated only from Ipoh to Padang Besar and the delay has cost the government RM12billion just for this short distance. Mahathir is riled, as he feels that had the project taken off very much earlier, just with an additional amount of RM2billion the double-tracking would have connected Johor Baru and Padang Besar.
The use of English to teach Science and Mathematics (PPSMI) – Mahathir’s brainchild is being dropped by Najib’s government. Mahathir has been reported to have disagreed with the idea of dropping this plan that he implemented in 2003. Being averse to controversial issues, Najib smartly tossed ‘the hot potato’ to Muhyiddin Yassin to do the unpopular decision to scrap the policy. Muhyiddin has now ended up becoming a very unpopular education minister. This issue has dented his political career, but Najib is posing a chic silent on the matter. The dust has yet to settle and parents are not happy with this flip flop policy in education. BN is expected to lose more votes because of this issue and Mahathir is aware of this.
Muhyiddin is obdurate that the policy has to be totally scrapped. RM5billion ringgit of taxpayers’ money was wasted on the PPSMI which lasted for only nine years before it came to naught. Had this been in another democratic country the whole cabinet members would have resigned and many leaders would have been sent to the political dungeon.
The campaigns leading towards a few by-elections during Najib’s premiership washed a lot of his dirty linen in public. ‘’Enough mud-slinging at me and smearing my name,” Najib was reported to have said during one of the crusades against the Opposition. Unfortunately, Najib is not perceived by the people as a leader free from personal baggage and this is not a good omen for UMNO and BN. To the political observers, Mahathir is more eager to save UMNO than to indulge on personal problems of UMNO leaders.
In by-elections where Najib was quite reluctant to tramp Mahathir was seen more ready to tread. But, if Mahathir was to be seen going to the field jousting against the Opposition without Najib to be seen, what would the people perceive of the latter then? Despite Mahathir’s help, UMNO lost a few by-elections and this badly bruised Najib's image.
At that point of time, Najib was cagey when BN lost a few by-elections to the Opposition and Najib ended up becoming the punching bag for the Opposition as well many of his foes within UMNO. “Najib, who grew up in a political aristocratic family would naturally play out-of-harm's-way politics. The most he would do is to have his people fight for him. But he has failed to realise that others cannot keep on doing the ‘stunt’ for him. Being the PM, the millstone will still hang around his neck,” says a political observer.
Mahathir to salvage his image
Mahathir’s presence was quite noticeable during the Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau, by-elections in 2009. Najib – the incoming PM at the time – was practically kept away from the scenes. Mahathir went to the ground trying to salvage UMNO and BN but was stung taut by the ‘mountain bees' at both the constituencies and both the seats finally went to Pakatan – PAS and PKR.
Mahathir as a ‘retired general’ after leading the country for 22 years with relative success cannot live in peace seeing UMNO crumbling under Najib despite BN winning a few by-elections thereafter. Najib seems to be losing more support currently by depending on Mahathir to salvage his image. Mahathir perhaps seems to be unhappy to see Najib more into building his image rather than focusing more on economic development for the country.
Mahathir must also be wary that if the ride is tough for Najib, he will let his other Cabinet ministers do the traverse for him. Najib has been silent on many issues – specifically the PPSMI and the RM250million loan given to a company whose owner is the spouse of a Cabinet Minister. The cattle project was set up in 2008 when Abdullah was the prime minister. Khairy was at first adamantly defending the company but later on when more evidence cropped up on the alleged ‘abuse’ of the government-loaned money to the company he too went on a silent mode.
A puppet of this class
Knowing Mahathir, he does have some syatria (warrior) blood of the Keralites in him and he will go on fighting even after his war flag has fallen to the ground.
In the traditional wayang kulit (puppet show), the Tok Dalang (performer) pulls the puppet strings skilfully from behind to captivate the views and minds of the people watching the show on the white screen. Najib may prefer not to be a puppet of this class. But being perceived as a weak leader from within his team and also by his political nemeses he cannot afford to ignore Mahathir – the Tok Dalang. One flawed move Najib makes, he will be in trouble and would meet the same fate as what happened to Abdullah.
Najib, like all heads of government, aspires to be an independent prime minister but the thorn that is pricking his conscience from an ‘obvious hand' is too much for him to bear. Unfortunately, he seems at times not being able to withstand it, but out of no choice the battle against his conscience has to go on for his political survival.
“To Najib, the advice is to let his own conscience decide what he wants to do as a prime minister. He should stand by his principles. He does not have to be shoved to the edge by anybody. It may be bitter though, but this is the pill he has to swallow in order to be respected or else it will affect his image as prime minister. But then he is seen as not too forceful a leader.” says a senior UMNO member.
Next person to lead UMNO
Words are going round asking, “Who is the Prime Minister now? Najib or Mahathir?” Most people already have a vague answer to this question, for now. Najib to the masses has been implicated time and again for being a puny jouster and fingers are pointing at Mahathir who is pulling the string. But Najib is Mahathir’s choice after Abdullah. Indeed, Mahathir should have first tutored Najib to be a ‘fighter’ before the latter could be put on the altar. Mahathir was in a haste to push Abdullah out of the scene and thus the appointment of Najib as PM.
Mahathir will keep Najib on his toes until the next general election. Najib realises that if he decides not to listen to the ‘self-appointed advisor’ to him, he will be in trouble. This is the least that he wants to face before the next general election. But if he keeps on listening to Mahathir, his political nemeses will brand him as a PM without his own stand.
If UMNO and BN fail in the next general election – which is more likely, Mahathir will call for Najib’s resignation as prime minister like what he did to Abdullah at one time. Hope Mahathir lives long to see the fate of Najib after the next general election. Mahathir can, after that, decide who should be the next person to lead UMNO.