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Changing to stay the same in Malaysia

The line in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s famous novel The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”, neatly sums up the mood in Malaysia.

The country is doing well and most people want it to continue doing well, but if it is to do so, then things will have to change.

Income inequality, institutionalised racial preferences and curbs on human rights and freedom of expression cannot go on as they are.

That is not good news for the National Front led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, which has led the nation since independence more than half a century ago.

Let us be honest, Najib has matured into a decent chap. Between him and most of the region’s other leaders, it would be hard not to favour him.

Yes, he has his faults, among them an inability to relate to common folk – in wet markets, hawker stands, even among campaign crowds. It is perhaps understandable: he is of royal lineage in Pahang state and has never wanted for anything, including wealth, women and power.

And as a son of the country’s second prime minister and a nephew of the third, he had an easy passage into parliament and thence into the cabinet.

But since then he’s had ups and downs, which have had a chastening impact on his political development and helped motivate him to introduce laudable reforms, like his attempts to improve civil liberties.

Unfortunately, they have met resistance from Malay chauvinists in his own party and he has lacked the backbone and electoral mandate to stand up to them.

So while the state-controlled media extol his plans, people find little has changed and critics still encounter hostility, with bloggers, whistleblowers and even cartoonists being detained.

Said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch: “Najib’s reforms have been mixed. Repressive laws have been repealed, but often the replacement legislation has been as bad or worse from a rights perspective.”

Aside from that, Najib faces lingering doubts over his role, when he was defence minister, in the alleged kickbacks paid in the purchase of two French submarines several years ago.

That issue, and his ties to Razak Baginda, the man who negotiated the sub deal and who was later implicated in the murder of a Mongolian model, may return to haunt Najib.

Faced with incriminating documents recently uncovered in France, Najib may have to echo what Chico, one of the Marx Brothers, once said: “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

For sure, it won’t be easy, and now, just over three years after inheriting the top job from his lamentable predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, Najib must face the electorate as PM for the first time.

Under his leadership, the Front will almost certainly win the most seats, but how big a majority will it be?

Former PM Abdullah was forced out because, with him at the helm, the Front lost its two-thirds majority and surrendered five states, including powerhouse Selangor.

Najib, who can read signs of discontent among non-Malays and the middle-class as well as anyone, knows it will be touch and go whether he can improve on the 2008 result.

With that in mind, he has stressed to party members that as long as they win a working majority, even by just a few seats, it will be enough, they will retain power.

In fact, soundings suggest they will actually improve and should win back Kedah state and may even, although it will be tough, regain Selangor.

That should compensate for the loss of some Chinese-majority seats in East Malaysia and the realisation that opposition-held Kelantan and Penang are gone for the foreseeable future.

So Najib should squeak home. And that may be the best outcome for Malaysia, since then he will have a real mandate to start to change things and thereby allow them to stay the same.

Contact our regional insider Roger at rogermitton@gmail.com

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