Is Najib staying the course or doing nothing in political crosswinds?

In Putrajaya, the number one question these days is this: is Datuk Seri Najib Razak's (pic) tenure as Prime Minister under threat from growing criticism from within Umno?

For the time being, Najib and many in his inner circle believe that stinging comments about his stewardship of the economy and damning statements behind closed doors by Umno veterans – including Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad – on the perilous future of Barisan Nasional in GE14 are part and parcel of the peaks and valleys of politics.

They are comforted by the fact that the Umno Supreme Council – the powerful decision-making body – is stocked with Najib loyalists and that as the incumbent president, Najib has many tools at his disposal to stave off any coup attempt.

They also do not take kindly to breaking ranks, lumping a recent opinion piece by banker Datuk Seri Nazir Razak on the legacy of their father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, as an ill-advised point-scoring attempt by someone who was quite happy to jump on the Najib bandwagon during happier times.

Less sanguine about the current mood in Malaysia are a few advisors and Umno watchers who feel that Najib should not underestimate the ability of the likes of Dr Mahathir, Tun Daim Zainuddin and others to frame his leadership as a failure, foment dissent on the ground, create the impression of a groundswell and then leave him with only two choices: leave office or appoint his detractors as advisors.

This group believes that Najib needs to understand that there are powerful individuals within the party who want to replace him, and respond. Easier said than done.

The laundry list of must do things for Prime Minister Najib gets more challenging by the day.

His critics in Umno and those agitating for his removal believe that he should get rid of Datuk Seri Idris Jala and the consultants at Pemandu; become more decisive and use a cudgel to bring everyone in line; cut government wastage; pull the emergency brake on any more price increases; focus more on the reliable Malay vote bank; stand firmly behind all moves to block non-Muslims from using the word "Allah"; and, last but not least, find a role for Dr Mahathir in government.

More enlightened Malaysians and his family members believe that he needs to reboot the Najib premiership which has been drifting since GE13. What they want is a PM who is willing to use all his political capital and powers of incumbency to steady the country which has been buffeted by rising religious and racial tensions.

What they yearn for is a PM who is prepared to challenge the status quo, and revisit the power-sharing formula and social contract among the races. This group also says that Najib should cut his overseas travel, reshuffle his cabinet and limit his wife's role and presence on the national stage.

A daunting task? For sure. More so for a PM who:

*  can appear so out of touch with the pulse of the nation.  Going overseas on holidays while middle Malaysia is feeling the pinch from rising cost of living.

*  is so in love with symbolic gestures. Surprised by criticism that his government was more prepared to inflict pain on Malaysians instead of cutting down government wastage, he announced a raft of poorly-thought through measures including cutting ministers entertainment allowance by 10%.

*  is handicapped by arguably the most inept collection of ministers ever. Datuk Hassan Malek has become the poster boy of the prototype Najib minister: not very clever, with the uncanny ability of being insensitive and dense at the same time but more than happy to lecture Malaysians.

* goes missing every time a serious issue erupts in the country.

*  is surrounded by the largest collection of advisors and consultants but served ably by few.

So what is next on the agenda for the under-pressure PM? In an ideal world, he would shake-up his office, honestly accept that he has underperformed and go down into the trenches and fight to bring Malaysia back from the brink and salvage his premiership.

That is the ideal world. In Malaysia, it is likely to be more of the same. – January 21, 2014.


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