Scoring Najib’s first few moves as PM

By Monday April 6th, 2009 No Comments

KUALA LUMPUR, April 4 — So the man many people say was destined to lead Malaysia is finally occupying the country’s top job.

And he and his team of advisors (foreign and local) have chartered a 100-day programme to shock and awe Malaysians.

In the days ahead, Datuk Seri Najib Razak will speak about meritocracy, possibly even attempt to put a time frame for the affirmative action programme, talk about key performance index in the public sector and unveil a leaner Cabinet line-up on April 8.

From time to time, The Malaysian Insider will lift the veil on some of these initiatives, and separate the fluff from the fact.

We start with the:

• Decision to release 13 Internal Security Act detainees.

Several months ago, Najib met MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu and told him that when he becomes the prime minister, he will free a couple of the five Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) leaders as a goodwill gesture.

He made good on his promise yesterday, ending the detention of V. Ganabathirau and R. Genghadharan. But why didn’t he go all the way, and free P. Uthayakumar, M. Manoharan and T. Vasanthakumar?

Because balance is everything in Malaysian politics, and even a new PM, wanting to inject the feel-good factor into the system, is constrained by this fact. He had to balance the obvious benefit of scoring points with the Indian community with the possibility of alienating Malays, who view Hindraf as an illegal organisation, promoted by Indians who have forgotten their position in Malaysia.

Also, the administration could not be seen buckling to the threat of Hindraf. So a compromise was struck — 13 ISA detainees of all nationalities were released.

This is not the first time that a new PM has made such a move. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad disarmed many of his critics in 1981 by releasing 21 ISA detainees.

Still, Najib’s move could persuade some fence-sitter voters in Bukit Selambau and Bukit Gantang to give him and BN a chance.

The positives following the release of the lucky 13 should last for about a week. If he wants a more sustained level of support from the cynical electorate, he has to make good his promise the review and amend the ISA — and do it soon.

Over the years, especially after a difficult election (read: 1999 and 2008), the Barisan Nasional government has made the right noises about reviewing and amending the ISA.

Last year Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi asked the then de facto Law Minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim to conduct an extensive review of the draconian law. This included a proposal to take away the power from the Home Minister of locking up someone for 60 days and putting the detention process under the scrutiny of the courts.

It was also suggested that the ISA be applied in limited circumstances such as organised violence.

Abdullah and Zaid did not get support from Umno ministers in the Cabinet, and the review of the ISA died a natural death.

The Malaysian Insider has learnt that the new administration is considering changing the legislation and making it clear that the ISA cannot be used against political opponents.

If Najib does make significant changes to the legislation which allows for detention without trial, he would have succeeded in stealing a march on Pakatan Rakyat and loosening the bond of cooperation between PAS, DAP and PKR. Opposition to the ISA is one issue which binds Pakatan Rakyat together.

He would not be the first politician who pulled the carpet from under the competition by adopting their ideas and philosophy.

• Accepting Dr Mahathir back into Umno.

This is a gesture aimed at uniting Umno. For the rest of Malaysia, news of Dr Mahathir returning to the ruling party after throwing a tantrum and leaving Umno a year ago means very little.

Indeed, it could be a harbinger of dark days ahead. The former prime minister has bags of charisma and can stake claim to turning Malaysia from an agrarian-based economy to one of the top trading nations in the world.

But if Najib is really serious about reconnecting Umno/BN with non-Malays and repairing the country’s hollowed institutions, then the former prime minister may not be his best role model.

It was during his 22 years in charge that the judiciary was paralysed; the doctrine of the separation of powers trampled on like an old flower; that the excesses in Umno which blossomed during the Abdullah administration took root and political patronage became the norm.

More recently, Dr Mahathir has sounded more like a racial chauvinist than the man who promoted the concept of Bangsa Malaysia.

In Johor last year, he warned Malays that they stood to lose much in the new political environment where non-Malays were unafraid to make demands.

“If we don’t speak up, if we choose to keep quiet, we will lose our rights and other races will take over, ‘’ he said at the May gathering.

Several weeks ago, he struck the same discordant note at a gathering of Malay NGOs in Kuala Lumpur.

At a press conference today, Najib sidestepped the question of whether he will be offering Dr Mahathir an official position in his administration, saying that he would seek the former PM’s advice.

Najib’s supporters believe that the PM will be respectful of Dr Mahathir but will not accept being ticked off in public or abdicate decision-making to him.

The PM’s strategy is to engage Dr Mahathir and not make him feel like an outsider. Still, it is questionable whether Dr Mahathir will simply be satisfied making stump speeches at Bukit Selambau and Bukit Gantang, and being treated like an elder statesman of Umno.

The answer could be provided as early as April 8 when the Cabinet line-up is expected to be unveiled.

Source : Malaysian Insider

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