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An Old Hand Will Be Malaysia's New Prime Minister

  • Luke Hunt

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has resigned, and Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak will replace him. During Mr. Abdullah's administration, the ruling UMNO party saw its worst electoral performance in more than 40 years, and he agreed to resign in favor of his deputy. However, Mr. Najib brings with him his own political baggage.

Najib Razak, who takes office Friday, faces tough challenges as his UMNO party struggles to win over moderate Malays, the Chinese and Indian communities and young voters. UMNO, which has dominated Malaysian politics for more than 40 years, last year saw its worst election result ever.

Mr. Najib was elected UMNO's head on Monday. As party chief, he replaces Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as prime minister. Mr. Abdullah resigned after five years in office. During his term, he failed to curb corruption and to bolster the flagging economy.

Opinion polls show the electorate is tired of corruption and wants a fresh face at the helm. This could put the Mr. Najib, 55, at a disadvantage.

He grew up in eastern Malaysia as part of the country's political aristocracy. His father Abdul Razak was Malaysia's second prime minister. After earning a degree in industrial economics from a British university, Mr. Najib returned home to win a seat in parliament at just 22 years of age. He has since served as defense and finance minister and has been the deputy prime minister for the past six years.

Din Merican, a retired central banker, diplomat and now a prominent Malaysian opposition blogger, says Mr. Najib's government must address public concerns about corruption, and treat dissident voices, particularly bloggers, with respect.

"You see politicians overnight becoming multi-millionaires with huge contracts, inflated contracts, all these kinds of things," said Merican. "That's why the rallying cry is also for good governance, transparency and accountability."

Opposition members fear Mr. Najib's rise could signal a return to the days of Mahathir Mohammad, who ruled Malaysia with a firm hand for 22 years. That could mean a crackdown on dissent and less transparency in government. The new prime minister, however, vows to implement economic and political reforms.

Mr. Najib also faces questions about his behavior. His name has been linked to secret commissions involving the purchase of submarines from a French company. And opposition members say he has been connected to a glamorous Mongolian translator murdered near Kuala Lumpur.

However, Vejai Balasubramaniam from the University of Malaya argues that what matters most between now and the next election, not due until 2013, is the ailing economy.

"What I'm trying to say is, if Najib is able to bring about steady and more evenly developed economic growth then he should be able to carry the general populace behind him," said Vejai Balasubramaniam.

Given the collapse in commodity prices, particularly palm oil, which is an enormous contributor to the Malaysian economy, this could be a tall order for the new prime minister.

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