With Malaysian general elections potentially taking place later this year, the person in the spotlight will undoubtedly be Prime Minister Najib Razak. How has his leadership shaped Malaysia, and who are his potential opponents for the seat of Prime Minister?
By Hisyam Nasser, edited by John Pennington
When Prime Minister Najib Razak assumed power back in 2009, many Malaysians were hopeful that he would bring change and growth to the country. Although his term has been badly marred by political scandal, his contributions to the country have been significant.
Since coming to power, he can be proud of developing Malaysia’s economy. The economy has sustained an average GDP growth rate of 5.7% (see chart below) and an estimated 1.8 million jobs have been created. His emphasis on reducing government spending – for example, by eliminating hefty petrol and diesel subsidies – has the goal of lowering the nation’s budget deficit to 3% for 2017.
He also introduced a landmark Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2015 that was hugely unpopular, but in his view necessary in light of falling oil revenue. “As a responsible government, we will continue to make the right decisions, though not popular, in the best interest of the rakyat and the nation,” he said of the GST.
Living costs went up as a result but the country’s economy is growing
Rising living costs came about as a result of the reduced government subsidies, the introduction of the GST and a heavily depreciating ringgit – to which his corruption scandal also contributed. In an attempt to alleviate these costs, in 2013 Najib implemented a minimum wage across both public and private sectors. Last year, he raised the minimum wage threshold to a maximum of RM1,000 (US$225) per month.
The Prime Minister also took a more open approach to foreign investment, establishing deeper relations and investment opportunities with other countries. His greatest achievement in this regard was securing roughly RM144 billion (US$33 billion) worth of deals from China, Malaysia’s largest trading partner.
A comparison of compound annual growth rate during his premiership shows that the growth of Malaysia’s economy rivals what his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad achieved (6.57% vs 6.97%), indicating that his reforms might not have yielded the sort of impacts he was expecting yet.
Although Najib’s economic policies have certainly contributed to the growth of Malaysia’s economy, his economic achievements have been overshadowed by failure to keep his promises, specifically on social issues.
Najib promised change, reform and inclusion, but hasn’t delivered
Najib’s rise to power came on the back of his promises for change and reform of a political system that was steeped in corruption and favouritism. He spoke of building a more inclusive society that did away with race-based politics and moved towards a system built on meritocracy, hence the 1Malaysia movement.
However, Najib’s rhetoric has taken a complete 180-degree turn, as he is now emphasising the importance of unity, particularly among Muslims, of the ruling party, United Malays National Organization (UMNO). In an attempt to consolidate support within his own party ahead of the upcoming elections, Najib warned that a Malaysia ruled by Pakatan Rakyat would dismantle the policies that have been built in favour of the Malays, in a move that effectively encourages divisiveness among races rather than the solidarity he espoused previously.
Showing solidarity with the conservative Muslim majority, Najib supported a bill tabled by rival Islamist party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia to raise the amount of punishment Syariah courts are capable of sentencing. Such a move could potentially lead to the two parties forming a loose coalition to contest the upcoming election, according to Dr. Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at the Iseas Yusof-Ishak Institute.
His fight against corruption hit the buffers
Najib’s fight against corruption was hit when an exposé published by the Wall Street Journal alleged that almost US$700 million meant for the country’s state investment company, 1Malaysia Development Bhd. was deposited into his personal accounts.
Following the exposé, thousands of Malaysians rallied together to protest against their Prime Minister, calling for his resignation. Najib responded by swiftly removing anyone in power that echoed the same sentiments.
He also did not hesitate to make use of the new Security Offences (Special Measures) Act to detain Maria Chin Abdullah, the chair of pro-democracy group Bersih who openly called for the Prime Minister’s resignation, despite repealing the Internal Security Act from Malaysia’s colonial rule. By focusing on racial politics and forcibly suppressing any growing voices of dissent, he has only served to ignite support against him, and rally the opposition that stands against him.
Najib has already seen off one opposition group
The new opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, hopes that Anwar Ibrahim will be the next Prime Minister. Anwar, who is currently in jail facing charges of sodomy, led the opposition coalition against the Barisan Nasional in 2013 to its best showing against the ruling party.
As the charges against Anwar were brought following the election, many believe that the move was politically motivated and even if there is no evidence substantiating that claim, the damage has already been done. Due to his jail term, Anwar will not be able to participate in the upcoming election. Moreover, if Najib stays true to his word and calls for elections soon, it is guaranteed that Anwar will remain out of the picture.
Despite this, many Anwar supporters believe that his party deserves to be the dominant opposition party, and it remains to be seen if the various opposition parties are able to rally together in support of the common goal of removing Najib from power. As things stand now, the opposition’s chances of victory are slim.
His former friends are now his political enemies
In what could be a hotly-contested general election, Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad hopes that the opposition can rally together to oust Najib from power. Mahathir, once Najib’s mentor, was among those quick to call for Najib’s resignation. He has teamed up with Muhyiddin Yassin, who is Najib’s former deputy Prime Minister, to form the Parti Pribumi Bersatu as a means to challenge his former student.
Muhyiddin, who was dismissed due to his call for a swift investigation into Najib’s involvement in the 1MDB scandal, was also the deputy president of UMNO, before he was voted out of the party for the same reason. Since then, Muhyiddin has been actively rallying support against his former friend, organising rallies for the opposition movement.
This has increased support for him among those seeking to back an opposition candidate against Najib, with scores of Bersih supporters cheering for him at a recent rally in Kuala Lumpur.
Is Muhyiddin a credible alternative to Najib?
Many believe that since the formation of Muhyiddin’s party, more commonly known as Bersatu, he is a potential candidate to be the next Prime Minister. His experience and the support of Malaysia’s longest serving Prime Minister ensure he has strong enough credentials to mount a decent challenge.
The main problem for the opposition is, however, not the lack of a strong candidate for the role of Prime Minister, but internal conflict diluting the distribution of votes between the different opposition groups such that the Barisan Nasional coalition led by UMNO would still hold the majority of votes.
A united front can topple Najib but who can make it happen?
Anwar has now accepted that his sentencing might have been premeditated, and has called for support in making sure that justice is carried out against the ruling party. Muhyiddin understands that with Anwar in prison, he has to take on the role of uniting the opposition parties. He has emphasised that he does not think it is important to decide who from the opposition could potentially be Prime Minister, saying instead that a united coalition needs to be formed first. Only then would the opposition have any chance of truly changing the government.
In reality, the chances of a united opposition front materialising are slim, due primarily to the multitude of opposition parties and the infighting that is endemic among them. Some members of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party left to form Parti Amanah Negara in 2015, and the latter has formed an alliance with the People’s Justice Party and Democratic Action Party, making reconciliation between opposition parties even less likely.
Nevertheless, Muhyiddin is hopeful the parties can form a united front in light of the bigger picture. “The bigger picture is the need for us to work together to have enough seats to form the next government,” he said.
Najib’s corruption scandal has generated an anti–establishment sentiment that has united Malaysians against him. However, with the opposition fragmented, the strength of this unity is lost, as the electorate struggles to identify a single credible opposition party. Between the dissent that Malaysians have for the current establishment and the loyal supporters of Najib’s dominant party, the upcoming elections are looking like they will be a battle not just for a better Malaysia, but for a cleaner and fairer government.