The EconomistEarly elections are a possibility
Jan 20th 2011 | KUALA LUMPUR | from PRINT EDITION
IT IS rare when a few days pass without the prime minister, Najib Razak, announcing new and sometimes not so new projects under his vaunted Economic Transformation Programme (ETP). Last week saw 19 of them, from building a new “World-Class Data Centre Hub” to the creation of the Talent Corporation, “tasked to strategise and implement initiatives” to fill millions of supposed new jobs. Few areas of life are spared and acronyms and abbreviations proliferate. Thus a Wellness City is planned, and seven types of “high-demand” herbs will be cultivated under the aegis of the ECER, which, for those who have not kept up, is an NKEA in the ETP, the whole to be overseen by PEMANDU. You can, inevitably, follow it all on Twitter.
Mr Najib says the ETP is starting the year “with a bang by switching into overdrive”, part of a wider modernisation to win the Malaysian economy rich-world status by 2020. Yet the rush also looks part of a very different strategy: to win a general election which the prime minister may call this year, perhaps as early as in the spring, despite not having to go to the polls until 2013.
It reflects Mr Najib’s political weaknesses as much as his strengths. He did not win his mandate as prime minister at the polls. Rather, he owes his position to an internal coup within the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), that saw him take over from his former boss, Abdullah Badawi, in April 2009. Mr Badawi was blamed by party bigwigs for the big losses that UMNO suffered at the general election in 2008. The party, the biggest in a coalition called Barisan Nasional (BN), retained power, but for the first time since independence in 1957 the BN lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. Although the government could now hang on for another two years, Mr Najib seems to want his own mandate from the electorate before then, if only to face down many in his own party who are hostile to the direction in which he wants to go.
UMNO was founded to protect the interests of Malays and other indigenous peoples, who make up about two-thirds of the population, against those, mainly Chinese and Indian, who arrived under British rule in the 19th and 20th centuries. At independence these people were given citizenship, but in exchange Malays were granted special “privileges” to protect their political power and assure a larger share of the country’s wealth. These days, many argue that all the quotas and affirmative-action programmes to help the Malays are now not only obsolete, but counter-productive. Maintaining quotas for Malays in some universities, for instance, drives the brightest ethnic Chinese abroad. Often they do not come back, and the economy suffers from the loss of their entrepreneurial skills—they make neighbouring Singapore even richer instead.
Mr Najib broadly agrees. At the heart of his ETP is a pledge to introduce a more meritocratic society. Being a cautious politician, however, he hedges his message with promises not to abolish all the rights of the bumiputra (“sons of the soil”), as his core Malay constituency is called.
Nonetheless, for some in his party and the government bureaucracy (staffed largely by ethnic Malays), he is still going too fast, or even in the wrong direction. Wan Saiful, head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, points out that the new policy is being promoted mainly by bodies, including the ETP, which have been set up within the prime minister’s office rather than in the relevant ministries. It is a sign, he says, that the cabinet is not buying into Mr Najib’s ideas. Further, Mr Najib has to contend with a ginger group, Perkasa, that claims to defend Malay rights within UMNO.
The next election, says one of Mr Najib’s former advisers, will thus be presidential in character. It will be a test of Mr Najib’s ability to assert his agenda within his own party and government as much as a fight against the opposition, a coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party.The prime minister’s men are tracking the polls carefully, and are encouraged by recent by-election victories. Mr Najib will have to win big to convince the sceptics, at the very least restoring the BN’s two-thirds majority. Should he do that, he will be able to sweep out the UMNO old guard. Only then will it be clear what a previously unassuming technocrat with modernising ideas can do to transform his country