Najib still standing, but at what cost?

It has been an extraordinary start of the year for Prime Minister Najib Razak as Malaysia struggled in the glare of global media attention over the mysterious disappearance of an airliner in mid-flight.

Every fumble by his officials at press briefings on the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 was broadcast worldwide; accusations of cover-ups, delays and indecisiveness were amplified by critics who say these were but symptoms of Malaysia's deep malaise: a lack of accountability and transparency, and a leadership that shies from tackling hard issues.

Mr Najib was criticised for not just being absent from most MH370 briefings but also from the helm generally.

To be fair, he has not been sitting on his hands since being returned to power last year.

Notably, he has pushed ahead with the hugely unpopular task of slashing the country's subsidy bill, which has soared to RM40 billion (S$15 billion) a year.

This was done at some risk to the support base which gave victory to his Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, albeit with a smaller mandate. The BN took 133 of the 222 parliamentary seats, down from 140 in 2008.

While the attempt to restore the budget to long-term health is applauded by economists, to many Malaysians, not enough is being done to redress the most fundamental issues, like the country's fraying social fabric.

There is also frustration that Mr Najib has been less proactive than in his first term after becoming Prime Minister in 2009, and that he has gone silent on matters where leadership from the very top would have helped.

He has hardly made any major announcement on reforms under his much-touted Economic Transformation Programme launched in 2010. These used to happen regularly.

He has also stopped going on his famous walkabouts to different ethnic neighbourhoods, watching football with young people or making an appearance in a Chinese New Year video. In short, gone are the efforts that used to send the message that he was inclusive and stood for multi-racialism.

Some analysts attribute his lower profile partly to a need to consolidate his position. His predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi lost his job soon after a poor electoral showing in 2008. The BN did even worse in 2013.

"PM Najib's biggest accomplishment after GE13 is to remain the PM," said Dr Faisal Hazis, a political analyst at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

Mr Najib disarmed potential troublemakers within his coalition by giving them plum Cabinet posts, as in the case of BN allies from Sabah and Sarawak. Mr Mukhriz Mahathir, son of the man who might have been his harshest critic, former premier Mahathir Mohamad, was named Kedah menteri besar.

With that challenge taken care of, Mr Najib turned his attention to economic reforms, removing some of the food and fuel subsidies and preparing for the Goods and Services Tax (GST) to be introduced next year.

Political backlash is inevitable as prices rise. On May Day, some 15,000 people gathered in Kuala Lumpur to protest against the GST.

The thinking is that the anger will dissipate by the time the next general election comes around in four years.

But analyst Khoo Kay Peng, who runs his own consultancy, says the government still has to demonstrate that these economic measures will benefit Malaysians as much as it benefits Malaysia, otherwise "everyone will be worse off".

Meanwhile, not much has moved on efforts to address long-standing complaints about corruption, incompetent bureaucrats and falling education standards.

Shortly after the election results last May, PM Najib appointed the respected former head of Transparency International Malaysia, Mr Paul Low, as a Cabinet Minister tasked with eradicating graft in government.

It was one of the more remarkable Cabinet choices but the appointment has not had much impact. Mr Low acknowledged in an interview with The Straits Times late last year that while he had made various proposals to reform government procurement procedures, it was a challenge getting all ministries to adopt them.

The most recent edition of the Auditor-General's report in April contained the usual litany of problems: misallocated funds, dubious deals with vendors and questionable payments.

But it is in the area of race and religion that the government draws the harshest criticism for its failure to act, as low-key race-baiting has escalated into full-blown public rows.

It came as no surprise when a heated debate erupted over whether Muslims could say "Rest in Peace" when expressing condolences over the death of a non-Muslim. This came soon after the recent death of opposition leader Karpal Singh, a noted champion against moves to impose Islamic criminal laws.

Unvarnished comments disparaging minorities are now aired openly, prompting Ms Marina Mahathir, daughter of Dr Mahathir, to remark in a recent commentary in The Star that she felt like Alice in Wonderland.

"In Lewis Carroll's tale, Alice falls down a rabbit hole and suddenly the whole world is turned upside down," she wrote. "Once upon a time, being kind to others was a very good thing to be. We were taught by parents and teachers to be nice to others regardless of who they were... Today we are told that while being kind is still a good thing, we have to mind who we are nice to.

"Being considerate and polite to some people is now considered a mortal sin simply because they believe in things differently from us. We cannot, for instance, wish that a dead person rests in peace because apparently having not believed in the same faith as we do, they cannot possibly have a peaceful afterlife."

It is not hard to see where this upsurge of intolerance has sprung from. It has its roots in Malaysia's divisive politics where non-Malays largely support the opposition while the Malays back the BN.

This trend, already clear in the 2008 election, was more pronounced last year, when Chinese support for the BN fell sharply to below 10 per cent from around 15 to 18 per cent in 2008. To Malay hardliners, this signalled a Chinese attempt to topple a Malay government.

To be sure, Mr Najib has set up a National Unity Consultative Council comprising respected Malaysians to gather feedback from voters. But his efforts appear to have ended there. In the meantime his "1Malaysia" unity slogan has morphed into a commercial entity, with shops and houses now tagged 1Malaysia.

"PM Najib has to state what kind of nation he wants and set the parameters for a multi-racial Malaysia to flourish," said Mr Khoo.

But the racial rift, which took on a religious flavour as some Muslim groups pushed for a more conservative country, has reached a level many now find worrying.

It is telling that neither Mr Najib nor opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has come out firmly to push back efforts by the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia to implement Islamic law in Kelantan.

Hudud - the Islamic penal code that prescribes punishments such as amputation of limbs for theft and stoning for adultery - is abhorrent to Malaysia's non-Muslim minorities.

Datuk Seri Anwar has barely said anything about hudud other than that Malaysia is not ready for it, while Mr Najib said his government did not reject hudud but it had to be fully understood by the people before it could be implemented.

Dr Faisal said of the Prime Minister: "He's not taking the lead in seriously addressing these issues. He talks of reconciliation but at the same time allows right-wing groups like Perkasa and Isma (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia) to try to Islamise every single thing."

Some analysts see this muted response as one of the lingering effects of the last general election - after their rejection at the polls, Mr Najib and his party, Umno, appear to have abandoned efforts to win over non-Malays.

This withdrawal to the traditional Malay base means that it is far too risky now to come across as anti-Islam, given the sensitivity of religious issues to the Muslim majority.

Mr Najib may have survived the initial trauma of the last election, but observers believe he still feels sufficiently vulnerable within Umno to be risk-averse when it comes to speaking out for moderation and tolerance in matters of religion.

One year on, Mr Najib is secure enough to take on the challenge of overhauling Malaysia's troubled finances. But he is in no mood to open another front - to fight for minority rights. There is not enough political capital for that.

This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.

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