Has the Real Najib Stood Up?

By Ernie Bower

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia speaks to an Asia Society group in Kuala Lumpur. Source: Gen Kanai’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Yesterday Prime Minister Najib Razak announced a package of political reforms that, if implemented, can fairly be described as historical. Combined with his related efforts in the area of economic liberalization and amending the constitution of the ruling political party, United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO), Najib could very well be defining his legacy as a reformer. Among the steps he outlined yesterday included:

1. The “total repeal” of the Internal Security Act or ISA – which gives the police wide ranging powers to hold suspects indefinitely;
2. The “total repeal” of the Emergency Ordinance – which allows the government to hold suspects for up to two years without charges if approved by a minister;
3. An end to annual renewal of press and publication licenses with an avowed aim to benchmark new rules with “western nations”;
4. And a review of laws of freedom of assembly.

Najib understands reform is core to Malaysian competitiveness, its success as a society, an economy and indeed as a sovereign nation. The answer to the question about his legacy will be determined by whether he follows through and implements these reforms. He said new legislation would replace the draconian rules inherited from British colonial rulers. Those new laws will need to be approved by Parliament and contain the intent he conveyed declaring their repeal.

The question now is how much political courage does Najib have to follow through his reform instincts? Few Malaysians have Najib’s pedigree and experience – the son of a foundational prime minister, a key pillar of UMNO, a leading minister and deputy in successive governments – and therefore the opportunity to drive change.

However, the machinery opposing change is daunting. UMNO has not retained its role as the ruling coalition in Malaysia over the decades by mistake. There are elaborate systems designed to retain power and the fear of some UMNO faithful is that reforms which unwind the old ways threaten their privileged status.

That fear of change and the use of race, religion and other social issues to define political identity in Malaysia is partly generational. It has also been slowly undercut by Malaysia’s economic reality, namely that its engines are trade – trade accounts for over 200 percent of GDP, and foreign investment – which has been a stalwart contributor to technology development, education, and jobs over the last fifty years.

Malaysia, like the rest of Southeast Asia, is changing. Evidence abounds in Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand of changes in governance and political culture. Najib seemingly understands these trends.

Najib’s foreign policy and engagement of the United States has been consistent with this reformist push. He told one of his first cabinet meetings that he would “look west,” for competitive advantage and to avoid being caught in a middle income trap. He instituted economic reforms, sent non-combat military personnel to Afghanistan, passed new tough non-proliferation legislation and committed to reforms by joining the Transpacific Partnership.

Given Najib’s strong start, those hoping for a delivery on reform were deeply disheartened and disappointed by the response to the Bersih protests. In fact, the substantive platform of Bersih was not radically different than reforms that Najib himself articulated. Why then did he allow the police to bring out the water cannons and tear gas? This looked to be a case of the empire striking back – the conservative forces and reactionaries in the government, many who are around Najib and obviously have his ear on some key issues, won the day. It was a real loss for Najib, for Malaysians and, in fact, for the United States. It is likely that President Obama would have been visiting Kuala Lumpur before the East Asia Summit in Bali in November had the Bersih situation been handled differently.

Forces fighting change are incumbent in Malaysia. This is evident in areas which cry out for reform and underline the injustices of a system about to embark on much needed change – these include the handling of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the deaths of citizens being interviewed by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), and some instances of toleration of Sharia law that appear to have impinged on the civil rights of Malaysian citizens.

Has the real Najib revealed himself? Will a reform agenda define him as a leader? We have new evidence that suggests this is possible. In that context, the days immediately ahead will reveal the answers.

Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser, director of the Southeast Asia Program, and director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Z. Bower

Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.