It is not enough for Najib Razak and other UMNO leaders to lament the loss of their party’s “wow” factor, or for them to endlessly exhort the party faithful to “re-invent” or “re-brand” their organization. Reform is like sex; merely talking about it is not enough, for without the necessary accompanying actions it will only increase your frustration.
To regain voters’ confidence, the change in UMNO must begin with its top leaders, specifically Najib. He has to demonstrate it through his actions; anything less and he risks frustrating voters and replicating the electoral disasters of Permatang Pauh and Kuala Trengganu nationally.
First and foremost Najib must legitimize his rise to the party’s top position. Being “promoted” by Abdullah Badawi is no endorsement, being that he is a discredited leader. Likewise, being nominated unopposed is no ratification either, especially when the process is hopelessly riddled with “money politics,” otherwise known as corruption.
Second, Najib must display a sense of enlightened leadership. For example, expending his precious time and political capital by intensively campaigning in a by-election that in his own words “would not alter the nation’s political landscape” was neither necessary nor prudent. With the nation facing many critical crises, he should focus on more substantive matters.
Last, Najib must demonstrate that he has the personal qualities and moral integrity to lead the nation. Merely denying that he had nothing to do with Saiful Bukhari, that college dropout who alleged that he had been sodomized by the opposition leader, or that Najib knew nothing of the brutal murder of that Mongolian model Altantuya and the attendant involvement of his hitherto closest advisor Razak Baginda, is not enough. The public deserves better; we demand a more thorough accounting.
Until then, any utterance by Najib Razak about reforming UMNO will ring hollow; do not frustrate voters by unnecessarily raising their expectations. That is dangerous.
Legitimizing Najib’s Leadership
Najib’s only claim to his party’s leadership is that he is currently unopposed for that position. Where the process is open and transparent, being unopposed signifies unanimous approval. That is certainly any leader’s dream and rightful claim of legitimacy.
UMNO’s nominating process however, is deeply flawed, apart from being corrupt. The “unanimous” choice of Najib is anything but. The process is hollow and meaningless. With “money politics” rampant, Najib’s nomination “victory” is irredeemably tainted.
The current nominating process is designed specifically to discourage or more correctly, prevent challengers. It is not a genuine contest. Requiring candidates be nominated by at least 30 percent of the party’s 191 divisions effectively means that at most there can only be three nominees. That is an unnecessary barrier, meant not to get the best talent but to protect the incumbent.
This requirement was put in place only 20 years ago, following the bitter and divisive Mahathir-Tengku Razaleigh rivalry. Before that, and for the first 40 years of UMNO’s existence, its leaders including Bapak Merdeka Tunku Abdul Rahman and the much-revered Tun Razak (Najib’s father) were routinely challenged at the party’s leadership convention.
The party can do without this burdensome nomination “quota rule” as well the equally damaging no-challenge “tradition” for its two top positions. The party’s Supreme Council however, could override both. While many of its senior members are in favor of dumping this onerous rule, Najib remains “neutral.” That is not the mark of someone confident of his leadership ability.
If Najib were to introduce a motion at the next Supreme Council meeting to remove this “quota rule,” that would greatly enhance his legitimacy even if the Council were to vote against it. If the Council were to vote for it, then the party would benefit by opening up the process and the delegates getting to preview many more potential candidates.
Such an open process would also effectively blunt the current corrosive influence of “money politics” as there would be no need to bribe divisional leaders in order to secure your nomination. And at the party’s elections, with over 2,000 delegates, it would be difficult if not impossible to bribe them all. You could influence them only with your ideas and talent, as it should be.
Removing the quota would of course invite challengers to Najib. Tengku Razaleigh would definitely be one; there may be others. There would also be additional candidates for all the other positions.
If Najib were to survive a challenge from Tengku Razaleigh for example, Najib’s stature and legitimacy would be greatly enhanced. That would effectively shut up his many critics.
Of course Najib could lose, and with that, his political career. That may explain his reluctance to tamper with the current quota rules which work in his favor. While such a maneuver would secure his immediate political survival, he would critically jeopardize his party’s chance in the next national elections. Presently many, and not just those outside of UMNO and Barisan, question his ability and legitimacy. Najib would be sacrificing his party’s future just to ensure his short-term political survival.
Articulating His Vision
Even if Najib were to prevail in an open contest, he still needs to articulate his vision for the future of our nation. He has to convince us that he has “the right stuff.” He has to give us his personal manifesto, as it were. And he has to do that now before his party’s convention in March, for at that time he would be more concerned with rallying his troops.
The prevailing perception is that Najib owes his current position merely by being the son of a famous father. To non-Malays specifically, Najib has yet to erase the ugly image of the keris-taunting antics of his UMNO Youth’s days. Additionally his career, while long, is very narrow; he spent his entire adult life in government, getting his paycheck from taxpayers.
Like his immediate predecessor Abdullah Badawi, there is nothing substantial to Najib’s career in politics despite his overflowing resume. His tenure as Defense Minister was marked by the collapse of the Pularek Naval Base just before its official opening, the gross breach of security by the Al Muanah gang at the Grik Army base in Perak, and the now evolving scandal with the French submarine purchase. As for his legacy as Education Minister, good luck in discerning that.
Now as Finance Minister, he remains disturbingly quiet; he has nothing to offer on how to solve the grave economic challenges facing us except to issue bland, meaningless reassurances.
In contrast, Tengku Razaleigh bravely outlined his views of the current economic crisis and his bold strategies to deal with it. Compared to the towering leadership of the Tengku, Najib looks like a novice Boy Scout troop leader constantly looking to his manual on how to lead.
Demonstrating His Integrity
Lastly, Najib must clarify the many sordid allegations and rumors implicating him. Bland denials alone are not enough.
The most damaging, and which requires the most detailed explanation, is his role in (if any) or knowledge of the murder of the Mongolian model and the involvement of his confidant Razak Baginda. That Razak Baginda was acquitted does not clear the matter.
The accusations leveled at Najib are too specific and detailed (including specific SMS texts and cell phone numbers) that they demand a more complete explanation from him. Hiding behind client-attorney privilege as Najib did in trying to dismiss the many SMS between him and Shafie Abdullah, the attorney who was at the time representing Razak Baginda, is inappropriate. For one, Najib was not Shafie’s client, then or now. Indeed at that time Shafie was representing Razak Baginda, until he (Razak) dismissed Shafie. For another, such a “cover” would not sell in the court of public opinion.
Those details of the Altantuya murder, as well as the sordid mess of the Saiful Bukhari sodomy allegation, will eventually be revealed bit by bit in their respective criminal trials. A full disclosure now by Najib would help preempt the inevitable excruciating and embarrassing details.
Najib Razak may become the leader of UMNO and thus Malaysia’s next Prime Minister come this March without bothering to address these three issues. However, the next General Elections will be less than 48 months away after he becomes Prime Minister. If not addressed frontally and openly now, these questions about his ability, integrity and legitimacy would only get worse. Yes, Najib may get his wish, but he could also end up being the nation’s shortest-serving leader, for come the next national election, Najib and UMNO will be buried.
That would be quite a legacy for the son of a great patriot. Perversely then, Najib’s political demise would of necessity trigger and be instrumental in UMNO’s reform. By that time it may be too late to alter UMNO’s fate, but at least you would have fun knowing that you are doing something productive.