The Malaysian prime minister hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this week, after the disappearance of flight MH370, the missing plane travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, carrying more than 200 people, writes Sholto Byrnes.
Newsmaker: Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak
On March 7, in the Sheraton Imperial hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak gave a major speech on his government’s commitment to fiscal responsibility. Najib’s defence of the removal of food and fuel subsidies and the introduction of a new goods and sales tax, which have been the subject of heated debate in the country, was swiftly overshadowed.
Less than 24 hours later, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over the Gulf of Thailand: the following three weeks have been ones of frantic speculation and equally frantic headlines; of fury from the families of the mainly Chinese passengers and from Chinese government officials; and of wildly misleading media analyses overseas, ranging from op-eds by those with an axe to grind against Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) government to suggestions that because the plane’s pilot was a “fanatical supporter” of the country’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, he was likely some kind of radical terrorist extremist – which, whatever one thinks of Anwar, was pushing it somewhat.
Serious questions have been raised about what has often come across as a contradictory, ill-coordinated and hesitant response. The perception of mishandling has even led some to query whether the country’s relationship with China could be seriously disrupted – with potentially devastating consequences for the smaller partner, given that bilateral trade stood at $106 billion (Dh389.34bn) last year, a total that the two governments had aimed to raise to $160bn by 2017. Understandably, emotions are still running very high. But when the temperature is lowered, one calm, unflappable voice will be heard, continuing to oversee the follow-up – that of the country’s prime minister.
Born into the political purple in 1953, Najib is the son of Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second prime minister, and is one of the Four Noblemen of the Royal Court of the State of Pahang, rejoicing in the title of Orang Kaya Indera Shahbandar. His English accent still bears the traces of an education at a British public school, Malvern College, after which he read economics at Nottingham University. Returning to Malaysia in 1974, he worked at the national oil company, Petronas, entering politics two years later upon the premature death of his father, succeeding him in his parliamentary seat and becoming an MP at the age of only 23. Courteous, urbane and clever, his ascent was swift. He entered the cabinet as a deputy minister in 1978, after which he held a variety of cabinet positions before becoming the deputy prime minister in 2004. He succeeded to the premiership in April 2009, but under circumstances more difficult than he could ever have envisioned.
In 2008, the BN, which in one form or another has ruled the country since independence in 1957, suffered its worst general election result for nearly 40 years, remaining in government but losing the two-thirds supermajority that had allowed it virtually untrammelled powers. The then prime minister, Dato Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, had initially been welcomed for a style more gentle and relaxed than that of his combative predecessor, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Relaxed soon appeared to be a euphemism for supine, however. Towards the end of his premiership, there was a vogue in Kuala Lumpur for putting on musicals about the lives of former leaders. Over dinner, a minister who had served alongside him for many years asked me, referring to Badawi by his Malay diminutive: “What would the soundtrack be for ‘Pak Lah: the Musical’?” He then put his head on the table and started snoring.
Personally kind and pious he may have been, but Badawi was seen as unable to exercise control over a country in which ethnic tensions were rising, corruption had become rampant and the judiciary tarnished. The resulting “electoral tsunami” saw many major figures ejected, and the legacy bequeathed to Najib was of a Malaysia dangerously divided and of a ruling coalition in which the Malay party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which he heads, had become increasingly dominated by chauvinists and ultras prone to inflammatory rhetoric about other races and non-Muslims.
In office, this has placed obstacles on his preferred path of moderation and reform. His flagship policy, “1Malaysia”, for example, is meant to promote a truly Malaysian identity that the country still lacks. Communities should leave behind their “silos”, he said, and “stand together, think and act as one people.” Unfortunately, almost every politician in the country can gain some traction by playing on fears about race and religion, and there’s a sizeable constituency in UMNO that believes the way to retain power is to concentrate solely on winning the Malay vote (Malays and other indigenous groups make up about 65 per cent of the population), and whose ethno- and Islam-centric views are in opposition to the very idea of 1Malaysia.
After last year’s general election, in which the BN stayed in government but on a minority of the overall vote, caused partly by the collapse in support for the Malaysian Chinese Association, another key component of the coalition, these “ultras” believed their approach to be vindicated. The truth was the opposite. Polling by the independent Merdeka Centre has consistently showed Najib’s approval ratings well above those of the BN, suggesting that there is a significant majority who support his approach of moderation and gradual reform (including his landmark repealing of the Internal Security Act, which allowed for indefinite imprisonment with trial), and that it’s his governing coalition that needs to improve its attractiveness to voters.
Vague glimpses of this – of a nation not quite fulfilling its potential, and a society not as at ease with itself as the glossy tourism campaigns suggest – have been afforded in the coverage of the missing MH370. At the press conferences, the defence minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, has performed pretty well, but one or two of the relevant officials appeared utterly bemused by the unaccustomed scrutiny, with one grinning gormlessly at the cameras when asked questions about this most dreadfully serious of matters. The treatment of relatives who tried to attend the briefings was inept. And how was it, many asked, that the plane could have registered on military radar and no one even seem to notice its path? However, there is a view among some Malaysians that the foreign media was over-ready to criticise the instant that what everyone admits was an unprecedented situation was not handled perfectly. “We cannot underestimate Malaysia’s success in obtaining all the necessary support from 26 different countries,” one well-placed source emailed me. “Yes, we did not have the experience to lead the biggest non-military exercise in history, but from all accounts from foreign partners, we served our role as lead admirably.”
Or, as Philip Bowring, the former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and a veteran Asia-watcher, puts it: “The Malaysians have been only averagely incompetent. The military of small countries in Asia don’t spend their nights watching for invasion by the Thais, the Burmese etc.” As for China, Bowring continues: “Its anger is as much a demonstration of its own sense of superiority as anything else. China made a lot of noise but has contributed nothing in terms of knowledge or technology to resolving the mystery.”
At the level of government action, Bowring points to the strength of “the economic pull” as an incentive to maintain normal ties, a view widely shared by other noted regional analysts. Moreover, with Malaysia being China’s biggest trading partner in South East Asia, and with Japan eager to step in to the region (its official pronouncements on Malaysia’s handling of the search have been warmly supportive), it would make no sense for China to open up a gap that could be filled by its rival to the east.
The past few weeks may not have been a great help to what is supposed to be China-Malaysia Friendship Year, but if there’s anyone who will be conscious of the need to maintain harmony, it’s Najib. It was his father who established diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic in 1974, a move commemorated by every new Chinese ambassador to Kuala Lumpur inviting his widow – Najib’s mother – to a special dinner at the embassy.
“I think history will judge us well,” said Hishammuddin Hussein at a press conference on Wednesday. Such a verdict on him, the search for the plane and on his cousin the prime minister may be much more likely than an outside world keen to oversimplify Malaysia’s complicated domestic politics may currently believe.
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