Ali Rustam, the chief minister of Malaysia’s small state of Malacca, is one of the most creepy, corrupt and boring politicians I have ever interviewed.
Between a dead slug and Ali Rustam, I’ll take the dead slug any day.
But lo and behold, the man made headlines last week by inviting 130,000 people to a lavish bash for his son’s wedding, which he claims cost “only” $200,000, but others say set him back more than half a million.
Either way, with his political boss, Prime Minister Najib Razak, poised to call a national election premised on prudent economic management, it was an act of astonishing naivety.
It did, however, illustrate how Najib’s United Malays National Organisation has descended to a vessel for Ali Rustam-like wallflowers who are afraid to say boo to a goose, let alone espouse bold new ideas.
The outrage provoked by the matrimonial extravagance made things more difficult for Najib as he agonises over an election date.
The PM’s natural inclination is to take as much time as possible before making any decision – or before avoiding making a decision.
Faced with a tough choice, he prefers to let others jump first and then gauge how they fare before he takes the plunge. Forget loyalty and principles, Najib’s credo is survival at all costs.
Back in 1987, when UMNO faced a divisive leadership crisis, young Najib waited till the last minute before spurning his mentor Razaleigh Hamzah and backing then PM Mahathir Mohamad.
It was a betrayal, but thanks to Najib’s support, Mahathir narrowly defeated Razaleigh and later rewarded Najib handsomely.
Five years on, when, against Mahathir’s wishes, Anwar Ibrahim made a precocious bid for the party’s No 2 slot, Najib belatedly joined Anwar’s Dream Team and won a top party post for himself.
Then, in 1998, when DPM Anwar challenged Mahathir, Najib initially cowered in the shadows like a desperado waiting for a train, before he finally sided with the PM and let the wolves devour Anwar.
Now Najib himself has become PM, inheriting the post after Mahathir’s successor, the lamentable Abdullah Badawi, led the National Front coalition to its worst electoral showing in history four years ago.
With the circle completed, Najib now faces a resurgent Anwar, whose opposition People’s Alliance threatens to capture yet more of the 222 seats up for grabs in the coming election.
It must be called within six months, so the clock is running out for Najib. And this time, he cannot wait for others to jump first; it is his call alone. Facing taunts that he is running scared, Najib’s leadership is already being questioned within UMNO, as well as across the country.
Many in the minority Chinese and Indian communities have lost faith in him due to his pandering to the Malay ground and his one-step forward, two-steps back reforms.
If the Front does not fare better than it did in 2008, Najib is sure to face strong pressure to step down and make way for a bolder, more decisive leader.
Right now, his chances look rather slim, particularly in the key state of Selangor, which surrounds Kuala Lumpur and is the political and economic hub of the nation.
He rashly promised to lead it back into the Front fold after it was stunningly won by the Anwar-led Alliance four years ago, but few analysts think there is much chance of that happening.
In fact, the opposition has performed well there, as it has in Penang. And it has a rock solid grip on Kelantan and may even retake Perak.
Meanwhile, over in East Malaysia, traditionally neglected by the Front, the Chinese opposition party looks sure to pick up seats, particularly in Sarawak.
So, whether Najib vacillates to the very end or goes to the polls after the Haj ends next month, it is an even bet whether he will be PM this time next year.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roger Mitton at [email protected]