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 28 Apr 2009

Malaysia PM’s choice of old faces raises doubts over reforms

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Prime Minister Najib Razak has named veteran politicians to help him regain voter support, but analysts on Sunday expressed doubts that the old guard can provide new direction for Malaysia's embattled ruling party, reported the Associated Press.

Najib, who took over the premiership early this month, appointed several high-profile but old-time politicians Friday to help lead the United Malays National Organisation.

Analysts said the appointees _ including former International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz and Information Minister Rais Yatim _ were unlikely to give the ruling National Front coalition the boost it is looking for.

The coalition, dominated by Najib's UMNO party, is still reeling from poor election results last year, the worst in the five decades it has been in power.

"It's not impressive. ... It's still the same old people at a time when you promise a reform agenda," said Mohammad Agus Yusoff, a political science lecturer at the National University of Malaysia.

"It's as if you lack credible, high-caliber leaders. ... Definitely (the new appointees) were once UMNO leaders, but their time has gone," he said.

Najib has taken pains in his first month in office to emphasize that he plans wide-ranging changes to win back support. Earlier this week, he announced the liberalisation of several service sectors to make the country more economically competitive.

As part of the liberalisation he has taken the first step to dismantle an affirmative action program that gives majority Malays privileges in state contracts, jobs, housing and education. The program has been a major thorn in the side for the minority ethnic Chinese and Indians.

He has also said he would ensure racial equality in this multiethnic nation, where Muslim Malays make up 60 percent of the population and control the government. Ethnic Chinese and Indians, who together account for a third of the 28 million people, complain they face economic, religious and social discrimination.

But political analyst Khoo Kay Peng said Najib's first month in office had been marked by promises and announcements with no real changes.

"There is totally no reform," Khoo said. "His leadership doesn't have a clear direction. If you want a new direction, you can't have people from the old school. ... There is a serious problem in (the party's) pool of leadership."

Mohammad Agus also said several of the political appointees had "problems in terms of image" because they faced allegations of corruption.

Mohamad Ali Rustam, chief minister of southern Malacca state and appointee to UMNO's decision-making body, was disqualified from party elections last month after he was found guilty of being involved in vote buying.

But some applauded Najib's appointments, especially naming top party leaders to head opposition-held and problematic states.

"The changes reflect Najib's political style _ meticulous, well thought out and strategic. His political and administrative machinery is complete and it should be all systems go from here on," analyst Joceline Tan wrote in The Star Saturday.




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