Malaysia: Najib treading on thin ice

By Roger Mitton

Although it should be a cinch to guess the name of the politician who did the following things, several perceptive observers were flummoxed when tested over the weekend.

The politician in question visited the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave of Gaza last month, and then went to Davos, Switzerland, to attend the World Economic Forum.

There, he told investors the threat of Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia had been nullified; yet upon returning home, he promptly had three alleged terrorists detained for subversive activities.
Soon afterwards, he was mortified to hear that Singapore’s long-ruling People’s Action Party had lost a by-election in a formerly safe seat after an anti-government swing of 13.5 per cent.

Today, he plans to attend a vote-getting Chinese New Year bash at whiche South Korean superstar Psy will perform his famous Gangnam Style dance.

No, it’s not Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose party does face elections soon and who did visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia last week and who attended Davos in 2011, but not this year.

No, it is Malaysia’s rather vulnerable Prime Minister Najib Razak, who must hold a general election by June 27, and who, as the above actions indicate, is now in full campaign mode.
His trip to Gaza, the first by a non-Arab Muslim leader since 2007, was provocative, dangerous, crudely geared to impress his Malay-Muslim constituents — and highly laudable.

After all, the Hamas-led government in Gaza has been in power since it was democratically elected in 2006 and has more legitimacy than some of Cambodia’s neighbours.

Predictably, the rival Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank condemned Najib’s visit, as did Western nations that noticed it; less predictably, Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim did the same.

Anwar is a rather mercurial fellow. In his younger days, he was a fervent Islamist with revolutionary tendences; today his attitudes, especially his foreign policy, align more with those of the United States.

It is understandable. During his long years of detention and subsequent harassment by former PM Mahathir Mohamad’s authoritarian government, no one supported Anwar as much as the US.
But his echo of Washington’s censure of Najib’s visit to Gaza could be a major misstep.
Najib has cannily defended it as a humanitarian mission and took the opportunity to chastise Israeli belligerence and to offer scholarships to needy Palestinian students.

For a notoriously indecisive politician, it was a bold move that might, on its own, help Najib’s National Front government retain Malay heartland states like Kedah, Perak and Terengganu.
What it will not do is win over non-Malay votes.

Recent soundings are ominous for Najib for they indicate the Chinese and Indian communities will support the Anwar-led opposition.
The PM’s National Front can live with this in peninsular Malaysia where a large majority of the population is Muslim, but if it occurs in the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, then Najib will be toast.

And it could happen, for his overtures to East Malaysians have been hurt by last month’s revelations of a “citizenship-for-votes” scheme whereby hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were given identity cards.

Last month, a commission of inquiry was told by one former official that he accepted more than $25,000 to grant citizenship to illegal Filipino, Indonesian and Pakistani Muslims who promised to vote for the National Front.

The numbers certainly support the allegation. In 1960, less than 40 per cent of Sabah’s population was Muslim; today, it is nearly 70 per cent.

How native-born Malaysians react to this vast fraud in the coming election is hard to gauge, but it is possible that the shock results in Singapore will pale beside what happens soon in Malaysia.


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