Corrected on 15 July 2009 at 12.30am
GOOD news for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. His approval ratings jumped from 45% in mid-May to 65% by 1 June, according to a poll by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research released ahead of his first 100 days in office on 11 July.
The increase follows a slew of changes, and promises of more to come. However, change can be real or perceived. Change can be a result of a commitment to a larger good or as a reaction for the sake of political survival.
What type of change has Najib implemented so far?
New economic model
Najib’s announcement on 30 June 2009 about the scrapping of the Foreign Investments Committee (FIC) requirements, and the removal of the 30% bumiputra quota on companies seeking listing, will surely make it into press reviews about his first 100 days.
While news about the 30% quota removal was the attention-grabber, it is the undoing of FIC rules that is far more significant, notes Monash University Malaysia political scientist Prof James Chin.
The 30% quota for equity participation had been a non-issue for more than a year already due to a depressed economic market. In April, Najib had also announced the liberalisation of 27 service sub-sectors which would be freed from the same bumiputra quota.
“Taking away the quota was just a formality. For the past year, opening share prices had dropped below the initial public offering (IPO) price. Which bumiputra in their right mind would want to buy shares under quota when they could buy cheaper on the open market?
“Whereas, making the FIC redundant is real change. It was putting off a lot of foreign investors. Not only was the FIC in charge of approving bumiputra shareholding in foreign ventures, but they also nominated the shareholders. It opened the way to cronyism,” Chin tells The Nut Graph.
Najib’s new economic model is an attempt to minimise cronyism (stock pic)
However, Chin says this move doesn’t amount to structural liberalisation of the economy. The FIC’s role has been replaced by Ekuiti Nasional Bhd (Ekuinas). The new investment vehicle merely changes the way bumiputra participation in shareholding is facilitated, and ensures that those shares remain in hand.
Ekuinas is meant to boost bumiputra equity which still falls short of the 30% target under the New Economic Policy (NEP). “There is no ‘loss’ to bumiputras as such, because whatever investments now coming in, instead of the FIC directing which bumi shareholders should be given stakes, Ekuinas will just buy them,” Chin notes.
Thus, what Najib’s new economic model amounts to is an attempt to minimise cronyism. It should keep the Malay Malaysian ground happy that their constitutional privileges are protected, while showing the rest of the country that he is addressing abuse of the NEP.
With the reversal of the English Teaching of Mathematics and Science (ETeMS), Najib can silence the opposition and detractors of the policy. Overall, the policy’s benefits were found to be nominal, although there are still those who argue that it should be continued.
Beyond this, it’s more important for Najib’s administration to overhaul the deteriorating education system.
A more politically thorny issue is government scholarships. Najib has promised to introduce a new category of scholarships based “totally on merit” for “super-bright students” next year. But will this be another category of scholarships which has racial quotas? Additionally, what is stopping the government from publicising the list of scholarship recipients and how they qualified?
As to Umno’s external image, he’s showing that he’s fighting money politics with party constitutional amendments that will open up voting for the election of top office bearers.
However, these have not been enough for Umno to recoup public confidence as demonstrated from its string of losses in five out of six by-elections since last year’s polls, notes Chin.
Najib at a Umno press conference
Within the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, however, Chin observes that Najib is not mending rifts quickly enough over the BN’s performance in the general and by-elections. The BN convention promised by predecessor Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to regroup the coalition has also not taken place.
“Umno did not lose as many seats as MCA, MIC and Gerakan did. Najib is implying that BN’s problems are not Umno’s problem but is the component parties’ problem,” says Chin.
The premier doesn’t help his coalition members either, or their voter base, when he provokes the opposition with the PAS-Umno unity talks idea. MCA has opposed it, saying that it will result in the “Islamisation of Malaysia”. This, however, was before Najib said that Umno was open to talks with PAS. The rest of BN has been silent, which indicates the power play behind the scenes even if the talks are off for the time being.
Democracy and dissent
Najib hasn’t scored well on promoting democracy and handling dissent. Key Performance Indicators in these areas have already been proposed for him.
Not Najib’s most endearing moment (l-r: Najib, with the three
Perak independents Nasaruddin, Hee and Jamaluddin)
“In fact, he has appeared to be more of a hardliner,” observes Chin.
Beginning with the Perak power-grab, little else Najib has done or could do would likely endear people to the BN short of a snap poll in the state. The same Merdeka Center poll showed that 44% of total respondents wanted fresh elections for Perak, and another 18% supported by-elections in the seats of the three independents who triggered the crisis — Jelapang, Changkat Jering and Behrang.
What about Najib’s release of Hindraf leaders and others from Internal Security Act (ISA) detention? That’s what every incoming prime minister does, anyway. A promise to review the ISA? Not enough for civil society groups who want it repealed.
(Corrected) Police interfere with a candlelight vigil for ISA detainees,
13 Sept 2008 (pic by Danny Lim)
What about his promise for a freer press? So far, actions haven’t matched words. Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim has appeared less embracing of the new media and more restrictive compared to predecessor Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek.
Najib didn’t make any promises about the police, but he has not done much to reign them in either. Police continue to erode their own image by breaking up DAP dinners, arresting peaceful dissenters, and lawyers attempting to see their clients in the lock-up.
Indira Gandhi’s Muslim convert husband attempted to
convert their three children to Islam unilaterallyOn religion, Najib appears to have struck the right note with non-Muslim Malaysians with the cabinet’s decision not to allow the unilateral conversion of minors to Islam. It is a political gamble for him, but his intentions will only be known once amendments to the relevant laws are brought to Parliament.
In any case, Chin believes Najib was merely reacting to the problems experienced by non-Muslim Malaysians. “He didn’t change anything in the system.”
It’s the economy
Despite his “1Malaysia” slogan, Najib may have ended up highlighting differences more than similarities.
“With 1Malaysia, Najib has subconsciously reinforced the distinction between bumiputra and non-bumiputra in people’s minds,” Chin opines. Ironically, the Merdeka Center poll found that 60% of respondents believe that race relations will improve under Najib.
The prime minister has his work cut out for him — patching over these differences and trying to keep everyone happy, hopefully in time for the next general election.
But, if the Merdeka Center poll is anything to go by, addressing the economy would be the way to do it. Reviving the economy and curbing price hikes was listed as the most important reform by 17% of respondents. Only 1% felt that emphasis on democracy was important. And an overall 62% had confidence in Najib to manage the economy.
So here’s to the economy under Najib, and democratic reforms will have to wait.
And by the time of the next general election, it will be interesting to see where Malaysians stand.