Sunday, March 22, 2009

First Things First With Najib Razak

First Things First With Najib Razak
23 Mar, 2009

Najib has to assure Malaysians that his personal integrity is beyond reproach. Frontally addressing the many ugly accusations leveled at him regarding the tragic end of that pregnant Mongolian model would be a good and essential start.


M. Bakri Musa

Barring divine intervention, or an incredibly stupid move on his part, Najib Razak is set to be Malaysia’s next Prime Minister come this April. He will assume office with an approval rating even lower than that of the man he will be replacing. He also has a dark cloud hovering over him that simply refuses to fade away.

Despite that, Najib could still lead Malaysia out of its current doldrums and on to greater heights. To achieve that, he must address two critical issues, one relating to his personal integrity and the other, his leadership. For the first, he must answer the many sordid allegations swirling around him, specifically with regard to the brutal murder of the pregnant Mongolian model Altantuya. With the second, he must select a cabinet and leadership team that would “wow” the nation.

One thing is certain. This is not the time for Malaysians to resort to extra constitutional means or set dangerous precedents that could later haunt us just to deny Najib his due. Asking the King to intervene is one such dangerous precedent. Allah aside, only Parliament or UMNO Supreme Council could legitimately remove Najib. As both moves are unlikely, we might just as well focus on the potentially more productive pursuit of at least trying to ensure that his tenure will be successful. We owe that to our children. Love for country should transcend obsession with politics.

This is also not the time to demonstrate on the streets just to express our loathing for the man. That would only hasten Malaysia’s degeneration towards another Pakistan. During these perilous economic times, Malaysians would not forgive their politicians should they indulge their followers in such theatrics.

Every new leader deserves the courtesy of a grace period. There will be time enough in the next election for us to express our judgment on Najib. Meanwhile be thankful that the incompetent and neglectful leadership of Abdullah is finally coming to an end.

The Mongolian Murder Mystery

For Najib to simply deny that he is not in any way involved with the murder or attribute evil motives on his critics – his current strategy – will not cut it. His swearing of innocence over the Quran may convince some mosque attendees but it will not remove the lingering suspicion. The alleged evidences against him are just too specific and detailed. There are the purported SMS exchanges with a prominent lawyer who was initially involved in defending one of the accused, as well as the erasure of the murder victim’s record of entry into the country.

I applaud Najib in not resorting to libel suits to silence his critics. This is a particularly pernicious habit of the powerful in the region, a reflection of their ingrained “might being right” mentality. This is also the addiction of those who think they are powerful (and thus beyond criticism) simply because they have privileged access to the court system.

What Najib should do is to have a full press conference open to all, including and especially foreign correspondents, representatives of the alternative media, prominent bloggers, and his severest critics. I would include here Malaysia-Today’s Raja Petra Kamarudin.

Apart from being thoroughly prepared, Najib should bring to and distribute at that press conference all possible exculpatory documents such as his phone logs and billing records, as well as copies of Altantuya’s visitor entry record. Anything less would only deepen the suspicion. Najib needs to prevail in the court of public opinion, not the court of law.

I am making a crucial assumption here, and that is, Najib is truly innocent. If he is in any way involved in the murder, no matter how tangentially, then he does not deserve to be in Putra Jaya. He should be sent to Pudu Prison instead.

A “Wow” Cabinet and Leadership Team

Tun Mahathir’s warning to Najib that he should not pick a corrupt cabinet, while headline grabbing and stern sounding, is neither insightful nor helpful. Of course no one wants to be associated with the corrupt. Unlike Mahathir’s advice, mine is more specific and practical.

Najib should dispense entirely with the current cabinet, bar none. This includes the most likely candidate for Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyuddin Yassin. This is the team that passionately supported Mahathir when he wanted to build that crooked bridge to Singapore, and then just as enthusiastically backed Abdullah when he cancelled it! These ministers are incapable of independent thought; they serve nothing more than as their leader’s echo chamber. Get rid of them all.

The job of finding enough fresh talent to fill his new cabinet would be made considerably easier if Najib were to substantially reduce its size to about a dozen members. Get rid of the Ministries of Women Affairs, Youth, Tourism, and Information, among others. Apart from the cost savings, such a move would also streamline his administration.

Widen the search beyond UMNO and Barisan, or even outside of politics. Malaysia does not lack for talent, only that many are currently turned off by politics.

Najib may not remember this, but his father effectively used the senate appointment route to recruit new talents. That was how he brought in such outstanding individuals as Tengku Razaleigh, Ghazali Shafie and Chong Hon Nyan. Tun Razak even sought those who had previously been expelled from the party, as he did with Mahathir. Likewise, Najib must be as daring and unconventional as his father was. This is no time to stick to the old tired playbook.

A pivotal decision for Najib would be his choice for Deputy Prime Minister. Although Muhyuddin is likely to be elected the deputy UMNO leader, he would be a poor choice as Deputy Prime Minister, Mahathir’s endorsement notwithstanding. Najib should politely decline Mahathir’s recommendation and buck party tradition.

Being of the same age and experience as Najib, Muhyuddin would bring nothing extra to the team. For another, there would always be the subtle and distracting rivalry between the two, with Muhyuddin impatiently waiting his turn. We have been through that before! In part to allay our fears of this, he has already displayed the stereotypical UMNO streak of sucking up to his superior, as evidenced by his over enthusiastic embrace of Najib. He also goes to great pain impressing everyone on how well he can work with Najib. In Freudian psychology they call that “reaction formation,” a tried-and-true defense mechanism.

Muhyuddin’s fatal flaw is that he views the office of Deputy Prime Minister primarily as Najib’s chief “gofer” rather than as the nation’s second in command.

Najib should break once and for all the current unhealthy coupling of party positions with governmental appointments. Thus he should keep Muhyuddin out of government and task him to reform UMNO, a monumental undertaking in itself. He had been chairing the committee to reform the party for the past few years. Let him continue there.

Najib should instead invite (beg if necessary) Tengku Razaleigh to be his Deputy. His considerable experience and wisdom would confer upon Najib’s team instant respect and credibility. While that is important it should not be the sole reason for picking him. Rather, Najib should maximally utilize Razaleigh’s skills and talent.

The major challenge would be to make Razaleigh accept the appointment. Appealing to the man’s sense of public duty would help, indicating that this would further his publicly-stated quest for a “unity” government.

The age, experience and temperament of the two are sufficiently different that the two would unlikely get entangled in a destructive rivalry. Instead they would complement each other, recalling the successful Tunku-Tun Razak’s partnership of two generations earlier, only this time with a role reversal.

Early in his term I suggested that Prime Minister Abdullah should choose Tengku Razaleigh as a sort of Co-Prime Minister. Such successful co-leadership teams are seen in many large corporations, the most visible being Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. Had Abdullah done that, his (as well as the nation’s) fate would today be far different.

Apart from the cabinet, there are two other crucial senior governmental appointments: the chiefs of the police and the Anti Corruption Commission. Both institutions are now hopelessly corrupted and irreparably politicized; likewise their senior officers. The only way to regain the public trust is for Najib to recruit internationally, possibly from the FBI, Scotland Yard, or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Once he has reestablished trust, then he can revert to local talent.

A One-Term Mindset

To focus on these difficult tasks, Najib should develop a Reagan-like mindset of not worrying about the next election. He should act as if he would be a one-term Prime Minister. That would instill a much needed sense of urgency and discourage him from worrying about short-term political considerations. Such an attitude would also embolden him to make the necessary tough decisions.

By instituting these changes Najib would quickly assert his leadership as well as send the clear message that he is fully aware of the awesome responsibilities of his office and that he has the wherewithal to fulfill them. That would more likely make him succeed as Prime Minister, which in turn would ensure his party’s re-election.

These changes would of course trigger anger among the many powerful warlords in his party. Rest assured that as most of them are corrupt, a reinvigorated Anti Corruption Commission under professional leadership would keep them occupied.

However, first things first; Najib has to assure Malaysians that his personal integrity is beyond reproach. Frontally addressing the many ugly accusations leveled at him regarding the tragic end of that pregnant Mongolian model would be a good and essential start.

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