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 4 Apr 2009

Malaysia: Najib takes over a ‘battered ship’

Najib Abdul Razak was sworn in Friday by King Mizan Zainal Abidin as Malaysia's sixth prime minister. Najib takes over at a time when his country is facing its worst economic crisis, his ruling party is in disarray and his own credibility is under fire, reported Kyodo news agency.

Dressed in black traditional Malay garb with a silver embroidered sarong wrapped around his waist, Najib, 55, took the oath of office before the king at the national palace.

He is the son of the country's second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, and nephew of the third, Hussein Onn. The ceremony was attended by dozens of top officials including outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Abdullah's predecessor-turned bitter critic Mahathir Mohamad and Najib's intended deputy Muhyiddin Yassin who is also the International Trade and Industry Minister.

Unlike Abdullah, who five-and-half years ago inherited from Mahathir a strong economy and the ruling National Front coalition fully in charge, Najib is taking over a battered ship.

A British-trained economist who is also Finance Minister, Najib has already warned the economy could contract 1 percent this year as exports have plunged to a record low and unemployment continues to rise.

And already, he has unveiled two stimulus packages worth a total of 67 billion ringgit ($18.1 billion) to boost the economy. In a multiethnic country such as Malaysia, a growing economy is one of the ways to keep race relations smoothly in check as everyone gets a piece of the growing.

But Kamrul Idris, a senior editor at the New Straits Times, warned Friday that "the notion, indeed ideology, of wealth redistribution through an expanding 'economic cake' is being undermined by a vertiginous global recession whose bottom has not yet to be found."

Ties among Malays, Chinese and Indians, the major ethnic groups in Malaysia, have frayed lately in the face of rising Islamic fundamentalism that has worried Chinese and Indians who are mainly non-Muslims.

And it does not help that Najib's party, the United Malays National Organization, which is the backbone of the National Front coalition, is being seen as "too Malay" as it continues to harp on Malay supremacy.

This, and the image of UMNO as a party of corrupt warlords, cost UMNO and the coalition votes from non-Malays and, to some extent, younger Malays in the March 2008 general election.

Najib will need to contain the racist-edge in UMNO as well as ridding it of a culture of political patronage that breeds corruption if he wants to win back support. Later Friday, when Najib will deliver his inaugural address as prime minister on television, he is expected to outline his economic and political policies and his concept for "One Malaysia."

He wants to ensure people that he will not discriminate against any one based on race and that he will be a leader of all Malaysians. Whether Najib can convince the public is yet to be seen as public confidence in him is still lukewarm, particularly as several scandals have touched him.

Unlike his father, highly regarded by all, Najib has arrived at the top with a full load of baggage. He has been linked to the murder of a Mongolian model who was an ex-lover of a close Najib aide and then there were allegations of him taking cuts from military deals such as the recent purchase of two submarines from France when he was the defense minister.

He has vehemently denied all the allegations, but the opposition, in a failed move, still petitioned the king to delay Najib's swearing-in until he had cleared his name. Still, the allegations remain a plus for the opposition in the campaign for three by-elections set for Tuesday.

And the elections are likely to seen as a referendum on the new prime minister the opposition has compared to the autocratic Mahathir due to a recent crackdown on dissent, including the use of tear gas to break up a rally by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the suspension of two opposition-owned newspapers.

The actions may have sparked fear of a return of heavy-handed "Mahathirism," but Mahathir believes that is just fine. "This country needs a firm hand," he stated recently.

"We have the potential for racial pressures, and it has not happened in this country because the government was strong and knows how far people should play around with sensitive issues," he said.

And Mahathir's attendance at Najib's swearing-in speaks of his approval of Najib. Having the cantankerous elder statesman on his side, at least for now, would surely make Najib's job a little easier. Mahathir made life hell for Abdullah with incessant attacks on his abilities.

Najib's was thrust into politics with the sudden demise of his father in 1976. At 23, Najib was picked to defend Razak's parliamentary constituency in Pekan in his home state Pahang.

He won and has never looked back. At 25, he was made a deputy minister and at 29 he became Pahang's youngest chief minister. He returned to the federal Cabinet four years later and rose to become deputy to Abdullah in 2004 after Mahathir retired. Najib is expected to unveil a new, slimmer Cabinet soon -- the first step in what he hopes will leave his mark on Malaysia.




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