Najib's first 100 days finish on a high note

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 July, 2009, 12:00am

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak completes his first 100 days in office today on a high note, winning widespread approval for a slew of economic reforms.

But political analysts warn his commitment to human rights, press freedom and tolerance for dissent is wanting.

While Anwar Ibrahim, his rival to be prime minister, fights new sodomy charges, Mr Najib announced a range of reform measures that his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, had swept under the carpet.

A poll by the independent Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research this week showed Mr Najib's approval rating had shot up from 42 per cent in April to 65 per cent last month on the back of measures he took to repeal wealth ownership restrictions, abolish Malay preferential rights and create a level playing field under his 'One Malaysia' concept.

He also announced scholarships based totally on merit, abolished Malay education quotas and opened the civil service to Chinese and Indian minorities.

'The slew of measures were well-received by a sceptical people but the real challenge is in the implementation,' political scientist Denison Jayasooria said.

'However, he has not shown the same zeal in the areas of human rights, minority welfare, press freedom and tolerance for dissent.

'He has not reined in the police and other agencies whose misuse of power is glaring.'

The poll showed that 74 per cent of Malays approved the measures but just 48 per cent of Chinese.

Dr Denison said this indicated the economically dominant Chinese minority was not convinced and was waiting to see how the liberalisation policies were implemented.

Mr Najib's political fortune is in stark contrast to another poll by the Merdeka Centre in January that showed nearly 55 per cent of Malaysians felt Mr Anwar would make a better prime minister than Mr Najib.

The former deputy prime minister made an amazing comeback after spending six years in jail on corruption and sodomy convictions that were later overturned.

Last year, Mr Anwar led the Pakatan Rakyat coalition to victory in five states and won a third of the 222 seats in parliament.

The coalition has since been hit by numerous disputes with a key partner, the Parti Islam se-Malaysia. The second sodomy charge against Mr Anwar also raises the possibility that he might be jailed again, leaving the Pakatan rudderless and the political landscape wide open for Mr Najib.

But not all is well for Mr Najib.

Some of his liberal policies have angered the Malay political establishment, which benefits the most from the pro-Malay policies that Mr Najib is dismantling gradually.

Mahathir Mohamad, his former mentor who had constantly criticised the policies of his successor, Abdullah Badawi, is starting to confront Mr Najib as well. He dismissed Mr Najib's reform measures as 'unlikely' to benefit the country and is upset that he has reversed a key legacy - teaching science and maths in English.

While some Malays are upset, there are plenty of supporters.

'With an economic slowdown, loss of jobs and keen competition for investment from neighbours, Najib did what was right and not merely popular with Umno members,' the mass circulation The Star said in commentary on Wednesday.

'It is still very early days into Najib's term but he has done remarkably well, given the economic challenges and political burdens he inherited,' said Wong Chun Wai, the daily's chief editor.