KUALA LUMPUR, September 9 – Marked a milestone of sorts for Prime Minister Najib Razak. On that day he exceeded the tenure of his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. Abdullah served for five years, five months, and three days, the extra day thrown in with the 2008 leap year. Najib had his too in 2012. The traditional time lines for a new leader are the first hundred and first thousand days. For Najib that was July 12, 2009 and December 18, 2011.
The “First 100 Days” is President Roosevelt’s (FDR) phrase. To him that was the best or most opportune period for a new leader to reshape the course of a nation. Did he ever? The “First One Thousand Days” also referred to FDR, the title of a book by his senior aide. The expression now is associated more with Kennedy’s Camelot days in the White House. In my profession, thousand days refer to the period before a child’s second birthday when good health and nutrition, as well as parental involvement and a stimulating home environment, are critical. Najib had little to show by all three time lines. Today he struggles and is in fact desperate to be relevant. He is less criticised, more ignored – a much worse fate for a leader.
Najibs’ one hundred days
In a television interview on his hundredth day in office, Najib pleaded for his administration to be assessed after a full term, not a hundred days. Fair enough, after all he is no FDR. The end of Najib’s first term came and went with the May 2013 election that saw his coalition’s worst performance, surpassing the humiliation suffered by his predecessor. Abdullah took responsibility for his debacle and resigned, albeit after much prodding. Najib continued on. When he assumed office I predicted that with Malaysians now sensitised to and less forgiving of incompetence having been through with Abdullah, Najib would have an even briefer tenure. Alas, I was wrong; I overestimated Najib’s sense of honour or responsibility. He has neither. So unlike Abdullah, voters would have to kick him out, and do so in no uncertain terms. A point to remember come the next election.
Najib announced his brave economic liberalization moves soon after taking office. At the first resistance however, he did not just flip flop like Abdullah but reversed course. He assured his Umno Putras that their favourite rent-seeking activities would not be curtailed but in fact enhanced. Over five years and an election later, Najib is still busy buying favours. Then there was the Commission of Inquiry he was forced to set up to investigate Teoh Beng Hock’s death. Teoh was a “friendly” witness who died after being interviewed by the anti-corruption agency in the early hours of the morning. Later, a few days before Najib’s hundredth-day anniversary, there was a massive but peaceful Bersih 2.0 rally which he had earlier declared illegal.
That notwithstanding, there were its leaders – a beaming Ambiga Sreenivasan and Poet Laureate Samad Said–getting an audience with the King. Apparently His Majesty too ignored Najib, and so soon into his tenure! If Abdullah was a main-main (play-acting) or “practice” Prime Minister, then Najib is the sacrificial zinc anode one. He attracts the corruption, ugliness, and extremism of his supporters. Then when weighted down with the accumulated accretions, voters would toss him out, sparing the nation. Najib, however, collects those corrosions way too fast. Malaysians must consider chucking him sooner. I had suggested doing that during the last parliamentary budget debate on October 2013. There will be another opportunity next month.
Najib’s one thousand days
Najib’s thousandth day in office went unheralded. Not even he took notice, and for good reason. He had nothing to show for it. In a speech Najib was forced to defend his 1Malaysia. “It is a philosophy, not a mere slogan,” he insisted. Poor fellow, when you have to defend or clarify what you mean three years on, it could not have had much of an impact. By his thousandth-day Najib had forgotten or ignored his earlier “courageous” move to liberalize the economy. He was back to his bribing ways, offering RM400 million to the mostly Malay bus companies’ owners. Despite many more and ever generous giveaways to buy his way into the election, Najib fared worse than Abdullah.
Najib outlasting Abdullah
A few days before Najib exceeded Abdullah’s tenure, Teoh’s death haunted Najib again. To recap, a lower court had earlier declared an open verdict, meaning, no one was at fault, incredulous though that may seem. The family appealed, and a few days ago in a landmark and unanimous decision, the Appeals Court set aside that verdict. The court went beyond and declared that his death was caused or accelerated by unlawful acts by individuals unknown, inclusive (my emphasis) of MACC’s officials. Justice Mohamad Ariff asserted that the interests of the family and the public required the case to be further investigated. Justice Ariff is indeed Yang Arif, the honorific exclusive for judges. It means wise and knowledgeable.
That is a rare public rebuke from an increasingly assertive and independent judiciary; a good omen for Malaysia but a bad one for Najib. That was not the only past to haunt Najib. His earlier commitment to do away with the sedition and internal security acts was exposed for the fraud that it was when he charged his prominent critics, including law professor Azmi Sharom, for sedition. The Economist was wrong when it concluded that those charges hurt Najib’s image as a reformer. The man was never one. That tag merely reflects smart packaging, like his earlier string of high-profile international “interviews” later exposed to be unabashed infomercials. Even CNN and the venerable BBC were snared.
Najib’s memory must be faulty as he is oblivious of these inconsistencies. This May he vowed “no bailouts” for beleaguered Malaysia Airlines. Today he declared the over six billion-ringgit infusion as “investment” and equating it to a patriotic duty! Kata di kota, goes an old Malay wisdom, but with Najib, kata di lupa. Our word (kata) must be as dependable as a fort (kota); otherwise forget (lupa) it. Malaysians cannot forget Najib as his image appears everywhere, rivalling the gaudiness and ubiquity of North Korea’s “Dear Beloved Leader.” Malaysians can however ignore him, and they are doing just that.
Former Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim sums up Najib best. Referring to Najib’s questioning the opposition’s “loyalty” to the Sultan of Selangor, Zaid wrote on September 8, 2014, two days after Najib exceeded Abdullah’s tenure in office, “This cheap political trick… should not come from a Prime Minister. … Instead of telling the people … the complexities of democracy and how constitutional monarch and political leaders should conduct themselves, the PM took the lazy route of inflaming the feelings of the Malays …. For a man who talks about the great transformation for the country, this is irresponsible conduct and most disappointing.” Malaysians cannot ignore an irresponsible leader. That would be height of irresponsibility.