Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi officially stepped down today leaving the way open for his deputy Najib Razak to be appointed in his place tomorrow. The unpopular Badawi formally resigned this morning after five and half years in the top job. In preparation for the transfer of power, last week Najib Razak was confirmed as the unopposed leader of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) - the dominant party in the ruling Barisan National (BN) coalition. He will be now be sworn in as Malaysia’s sixth Prime Minister at 10am local time Friday.
Speaking today, Najib called on all Malaysians to support him in his new role. He said he wants to expand on the "One Malaysia" concept, which calls for mutual trust and respect. He said these were important elements for national unity. “We must start by having respect for each other and once this has been developed consciously, we will be more open in trusting one another,” he said. "Of course, this will not happen overnight but it has to be consciously developed."
Najib Razak is the 55-year-old British-educated son of Malaysia's second prime minister Abdul Razak. He is a highly experienced campaigner with 32 years in parliament behind him. Aged 29, he was appointed chief minister of his home state of Pahang and has served as a federal government minister since 1987 in a variety of positions including finance, defence and deputy PM. Najib has fought off a host of corruption charges. The most serious allegation links him to the 2006 murder of a 28 year old Mongolian woman Altantuya Shaariibuu who was the mistress of Najib’s foreign policy adviser.
The murder allegation refuses to go away and as recently as last weekend 10,000 opposition supporters protested and sung songs linking Najib to Altantuya’s death. And he takes power at a difficult time for his party and his country. Voters are disillusioned with UMNO while Malaysia is not immune from the global financial crisis. Southeast Asia's third largest economy has been hit by a slump in exports and manufacturing, and at least 26,000 people have lost their jobs so far this year. In his role as finance minister, Najib unveiled a $16.4 billion stimulus package last month, but conceded Malaysia’s economy could still shrink by a further one percent this year. Najib wants steer the economy away from its manufacturing dependence towards services in a "new economic model". He says his medium-term goal is to raise the share of the services sector from 54 to 70 percent of GDP and establish a knowledge-based economy.
The BN coalition has ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 but had its worst ever election result last year losing a third of the parliament to an opposition coalition led by former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim. For the second time in ten years, the government is trying to stop Anwar’s rise by charging him with sodomy and he stands trial in July.
Meanwhile, the government is using draconian laws to prosecute other opposition figures. Last week it suspended an MP for one year when Opposition member Lim Kit Siang openly called Najib a murderer. They also banned two leading opposition newspapers for three months and police broke up an opposition rally in Kedah, one of three states that will hold by-elections next week. And the state legislature in Perak has been paralysed for six weeks by a dispute over who should govern with Najib also implicated in the impasse having plotted the downfall of the opposition government.
One Malaysian expert says Najib won’t have time for a honeymoon period in the top job. Professor Clive Kessler from the University of New South Wales told the ABC earlier this week that his UNMO has reputation for being high handed, arrogant, and revengeful whenever it gets into trouble and Najib embodies that problem for many people. Kessler says Najib and his likely deputy Muhyiddin Yassin have the economic experience literacy and credibility to deal with the financial crisis but lack authority, credibility and legitimacy to carry their agenda through. “Any political setback will only go to further diminish [that] confidence,” he said.