Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak. Photo: EPA

Malaysia’s mystery man Najib Razak earns a mandate


Prime Minister Najib Razak stands on firmer ground after gaining his first mandate in weekend elections after years of walking a tightrope between voters demanding change and resistant hardliners.

The Britain-educated economist with a patrician air took office after the ruling party dumped his predecessor over a 2008 parliamentary election performance that was the government’s worst in its now-56 years in power.

But after facing down a challenge from a multi-ethnic opposition on Sunday, and even snatching back a key state lost five years ago, Najib finally has a mandate to call his own.

On reforms, he is the emperor without any clothes
Bridget Welsh, Singapore Management University

Najib, 59, is the son of a Malaysian founding father, hails from the Muslim-majority nation’s revered ethnic Malay nobility, and has served three decades in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s dominant party.

But what he really stands for, if anything, has been debated by analysts.

With pressure rising for greater political space, the mild-mannered UMNO lifer has sought to cast himself as a reformist through limited efforts including replacing security laws widely criticised as tools to stifle dissent.

But his moves are dismissed by the opposition – which has called for an end to authoritarianism and widespread corruption – as mere window-dressing and are viewed with distaste by UMNO conservatives.

Caught in the middle, Najib has avoided deep reform, and a continued flight of urban voters on Sunday suggest they still see his UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional (National Front) regime as an arrogant, corrupt, status-quo force.

“On reforms, he is the emperor without any clothes,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysian politics expert at Singapore Management University.

Najib has seemed destined for Malaysia’s political summit.

His father was Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second prime minister and a key figure in securing independence from Britain in 1957.

Najib studied economics in England and in 1976 at age 23 won the parliamentary seat made vacant by his father’s death.

He later took high positions at Malaysia’s central bank, the state oil firm and in the cabinet, including the defence portfolio. He is also currently the finance minister.

Najib has moved to water down policies that give Malays advantages in business and education but which irk minorities, and claims to have shielded the economy from the global woes with huge public spending and cash handouts to citizens.

“While some may have voiced concerns, ultimately the party has delivered a bold and wide-ranging set of reforms, which have expanded civil liberties and made this government the most open and transparent in its history,” Najib said in e-mailed comments.

But the prime minister’s own reputation has been threatened.

He has been linked to allegations of huge kickbacks in a 2002 purchase of French submarines while defence minister, a case later connected to the gruesome 2006 murder of a beautiful Mongolian woman involved in the deal.

Najib denies wrongdoing, but the episode – one of a litany of UMNO graft scandals – has never been fully explained, and an ongoing probe by French justices threatens to revive it.

Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor is also widely seen as a liability, ridiculed for an imperious demeanour, a reputation for meddling in Najib’s work, and allegations of high-ticket overseas shopping forays, which she denies.

But Sunday’s win puts Najib in a better position to withstand his critics and put his own stamp on the country.