A Prime Minister for the Times?
So, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has finally announced he will be stepping down. While this is undoubtedly going to be greeted with cheers from many, I see no particular reason to rejoice. Abdullah is unquestionably a bad Prime Minister; this has been apparent for quite a while. But will his anointed successor, Najib Tun Razak, be much better? Can any of the men who seem likely to in turn succeed Najib be much better? There is no reason to celebrate if we lurch from one terrible Prime Minister to another.
Abdullah's term as premier was marked by a combination of incompetency and a marked tendency to announce half-baked, constantly still-born reforms. What sign is there that a Prime Minister Najib will reform our institutions or run the country more effectively?
Najib is far more hardline than Abdullah, that much is clear, even though Abdullah earned his fair share of brickbats for his handling of security matters. Inevitably, he would lock up lawyers, writers and activists as terrorists. His administration shut down newspapers and was the first in Malaysian history to censor a website for political reasons. Would Najib be more liberal? It seems unlikely, to say the very least.
Is Najib a competent administrator? Abdullah was a career civil servant who happened to be a politician; he was picked by Mahathir Mohamad to succeed him as premier precisely because he lacked the political ability or base to destabilise Mahathir's regime. Najib on the other hand is a career politician; he knows how to play the political game, but his ability to govern is much more open to question.
Najib has held a variety of portfolios, including the important postings as Minister of Defence and Education; he has not made his mark in either ministry. He has not led us in any significantly new direction, and his term as Minister of Defence has been marked by questionable arms dealings which some have denounced as wasteful. As Education Minister, Najib maintained the policies of his predecessors, unwilling to break new ground or significantly reform the system in any way. There is no promising indicator as far as administrative competency or reform ability go.
What Najib brings to the table is his political acumen and ability. He knows how to keep the UMNO warlords in line, and he knows how to play the game of politics in UMNO. He might run the country and lead the Barisan Nasional coalition with an iron fist, but will do what he has to do to placate the men and women who run UMNO. He can stabilise the situation in UMNO, at least for a while, and maybe even make some cosmetic changes.
However, I will be very surprised if Najib can fulfill the promises of Abdullah. The systemic and institutional factors — corruption, racism, and oppression — which led to Abdullah's near-defeat in the popular vote of the recent election will not disappear under a Najib administration. Unless Najib goes against his background as a staunch party man and turns against his backers, instituting a fair legal system, banishing racialism from politics, and jailing the corrupt, he will not undo the tsunami which wiped out many Barisan politicians in March.
This is not a personal thing; it applies to any viable contender for the UMNO presidency in the future. Tengku Razaleigh aside, every man has a history of sticking to the status quo, of being unwilling to go out on a limb and shake things up. They do not bring a vision of governance to the table, but a hardnosed political approach based on the realities within UMNO rather than Malaysian politics. Whoever the Prime Minister after Najib may be, he will have to face the fact that his upbringing in UMNO has ill-prepared him to handle the issues which the Malaysian public so dearly wants addressed.
Those baying for Abdullah's blood have got what they want; they have not however procured a significant change in the direction our country is going. A Najib administration may be less rudderless than Abdullah's, but it will not face the realities of the signal the Malaysian public sent to our politicians on March 8. Abdullah was not the right Prime Minister for our time. The problem is, neither is Najib.