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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin (Last of Four Parts)

The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin
M. Bakri Musa

[Last of Four Parts]

Salvaging Najib


There are many lessons that Najib could learn from his predecessors. The first necessary exercise however, would be for him to determine which leader he identifies with or resembles most.

One thing is certain: Najib is not his father’s son, neither politically nor intellectually. Najib also does not have his father’s personality or trait, in particular the Tun’s acute sense of probity and prudence. In persona, Najib lacks his father’s great presence; the late Tun Razak commanded instant respect. No one would dare crack a joke in his presence, not out of fear but of awe and respect. With Najib, he would probably join in with his own ribald riposte to an off-color joke by his colleagues or juniors.

In physique, Najib should have a commanding presence; after all he is much taller than his father, and broad-shouldered as compared to his father’s perpetual stooped posture. Alas your body-build would take you only so far.

The late Tun would never let his wife loose on extravagant shopping sprees. In his sympathetic biography of the late Tun, William Shaw described an exchange where the Tun’s children were instigating their father to install a swimming pool at Sri Perdana. The Tun would haven none of it. “What would the people say?” the Tun reminded his children. Najib never learned that important lesson from his father.

For sure Najib does not have Mahathir’s vision, charisma, or single-mindedness. Thus there is not much that Najib could learn from the mercurial Mahathir, no matter how hard the latter tries to influence Najib.

To me, Najib resembles the Tunku the most; smart enough to be accepted into a British university but not brilliant enough to have a transformational vision for his country. Najib’s attempt at having one – his now crumbling “1Malaysia” – proves more an embarrassment than inspiration.

Like Tunku, Najib has a fondness for the good life. I would not however, recommend that Najib pattern himself after the Tunku in this regard, like resorting to regular nightcaps. The cultural environment today is far less forgiving; it would be political suicide were Najib to indulge in such worldly pleasures. Pleasures of the flesh are more tolerable to today’s crowd than pleasures of the palate.

Very unlike the Tunku however, Najib is burdened by an overbearing spouse. With Tunku, Malaysians had a soft spot for his wife, the late Sharifah Rodziah. There was a good reason for that; she was humble, modest, and stayed in the background. She was the very antithesis of Rosmah.

Najib could usefully emulate Tunku in one respect, in having an able, young and brilliant deputy. That is, have his own Tun Razak. That someone should be like the late Tun, smart, competent, diligent, and not corrupt. That someone should also be satisfied if not actually enjoy wielding power in the background while letting the number one hogs the limelight and credit.

Tunku was only 52 when he became the country’s first leader, only a few years younger than Najib when he became prime minister. Tunku’s deputy, Najib’s father, was only 33. Like Tunku, Najib should groom someone young to be his deputy, a generation younger. He needs to cast his net far and wide, within and outside the party, to find fresh talent to entice into UMNO. He must be willing to gamble and take on those who are initially not sympathetic or even hostile to UMNO in the quest for his own Tun Razak. Who knows, by co-opting them into government they might just become UMNO members. The late Ghazali Shafie was not an UMNO member when Tun Razak brought him into his cabinet.

Najib should consider including in his team such individuals as Khairy Jamaluddin, even though I risk puffing up his already inflated ego. Khairy is not even half as smart as the late Tun, but then that is all UMNO has to offer these days. By specifically bringing in Khairy, Najib would be declaring that he is out of Mahathir’s shadow, or at least could not care less what he thinks. That would be quite a statement!

The danger is that unlike the late Tun, Khairy, apart from being not half as smart, is not content remaining in the background; he likes to hog the headlines. Khairy is also “damaged goods” because of his earlier overbearing ways while the under “protection” of his father-in-law, Abdullah Badawi. However, if a discredited politician like Nixon could be rehabilitated, so could Khairy.

As the search for his own Tun Razak would be slow and difficult, Najib needs to do something quick in the interim. First, he would have to dump Muhyiddin; he would of course still retain UMNO’s deputy presidency as he was elected to that position. To make that move palatable as well as lessen the repercussion, Najib would have to appoint someone with gravitas to replace Muhyiddin, someone who would command instant respect and credibility not only among Malaysians but also the world.

Fortunately UMNO has such a person in Tengku Razaleigh. Muhyiddin would not dare squeak if he were to be replaced by someone of undisputed integrity, competence, and stature as Razaleigh.

Early in Abdullah’s tenure I suggested that he should pick Razaleigh as deputy prime minister, but for a whole set of different reasons. Had Abdullah done that, his fate as well as Malaysia’s would be far different today.

If Najib were to be bold enough to dump his current deputy, he would accomplish many objectives simultaneously. One, he would certainly make all Malaysians take note. For another, he would reassert his leadership of the party. After all there is nothing in the party’s constitution to stipulate that the deputy leader should also be deputy prime minister. That is only a tradition. By boldly breaking the party’s hallowed practice, Najib is signaling his commitment to a new path, for his party as well as country.

Muhyiddin cannot be unceremoniously dumped; that would trigger a severe backlash and precipitate a leadership crisis. We are an Asian culture where ‘saving face’ is supreme. Thus instead of dumping Muhyiddin, Najib would have to sell the exercise as a ‘promotion’ for Muhyiddin – to undertake the more important and immediate task of ‘revitalizing’ UMNO. After all he heads the management committee to reform the party; that crucial job has yet to be completed. To further soften the impact, Najib would have to compensate the loss of Muhyiddin’s ministerial income by offering him a lucrative chairmanship of one of the GLC’s, like the Iskandar Development Project.

Najib should not be satisfied only with ‘promoting’ Muhyiddin; he should simultaneously radically revamp his cabinet by reducing the bloat and getting rid of the dead woods. I would begin with such old tired characters as Nazri, Rais, and Hishammuddin. Replace them with fresh young candidates.

All those ministers are tainted. If any were to squeak or in any way try to undermine his leadership, Najib could always unleash the MACC upon them. That ought to shut them up. We saw how quietly even the boisterous Rafidah Aziz went when Abdullah fired her. And he was a meek leader!

As deputy, Tengku Razaleigh would pose no political threat to Najib. Razaleigh would be focused on serving the nation; he is too senior to be involved in mere politicking or conniving to topple Najib. Together with Razaleigh, Najib could aggressively recruit fresh bright young talent into public service and revamp UMNO.

There is only a limited time window for Najib. If he were to delay revamping his cabinet till just before the election, that would be dismissed as political gimmickry. Then there is the UMNO leadership convention; if Najib were to delay making these changes, those dropped UMNO ministers would retain their clout and be re-elected. By removing them now, their influence would have waned come party election time.

These radical changes may be unpalatable to Najib and he may shy away from undertaking them, but then he has to ponder the consequences of his staying the course. At a minimum he risks becoming another Abdullah Badawi, except more pathetic. At worse, the battle between Najib and Muhyiddin would consume more than just the two. It would also take down UMNO, the RAHMAN prophecy coming true.

It is not enough for Najib to endlessly declare that he is “ready to make the difficult changes that Malaysia needs.” He needs to demonstrate that through his deeds, or as my old kampong folks would say, “Bikin saja, jangan cakap!” (Just do it, dispense with the hollering).

Najib and Muhyiddin may have bad karma and ill feng shui, but as practitioners of those ancient occult arts will tell you, those can be mitigated though appropriate actions. In short, Najib’s destiny lies in his own hands, on whether he is willing and capable of undertaking these much-needed radical changes.

If he does not, then it is time for voters to take actions. In P. Ramlee’s movie, Labu and Labi’s strict taskmaster Haji Bakhil would punish the pair by making them perform ketok-ketampi, a Malay version of humiliating pushups, every time they goof off. It is time for voters to make our political Labu and Labi perform their ketok-ketampi by booting them out at the next election.

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