Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak is undergoing an image makeover designed to appeal to his country’s burgeoning youth vote. The move follows a protest by tens of thousands of demonstrators earlier this year demanding more electoral transparency. Now, as the prime minister tries to boost his party’s popularity, there is speculation he will call an early election for November or early 2012.
Najib has been in power since 2009, when he ousted his predecessor after the worst election performance by his party, the United Malays National Organization or UMNO. The party retained power with a sharply reduced majority and Najib pledged to restore UMNO’s lost prestige among voters.
To do this the 58-year-old politician must win over the nation’s youth. He has been working hard to cultivate what his handlers describe as a “cool image” something akin to a local pop star.
He made an unexpected appearance at a rock concert and gave free beverage coasters to about 200,000 people who follow him on Twitter.
Christopher Dillon, the principal of Dillon Communications, a Hong Kong-based consulting firm that specializes in training senior executives and politicians in communications, says Najib has a tough road ahead while contending with the sometimes overwhelming political presence of former leader Mahathir Mohamad and long standing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
“He’s an old school politician and he’s caught between Mahathir who is the ultimate old school politician and Anwar Ibrahim who is of the same vintage, but is sort of more of a fire brand," he said. "So he’s really got to try and step outside of his comfort zone and become more appealing to the younger voters.”
However, in winning over the Internet-savvy youth, Najib has to contend with the fallout from the July 9 political rallies in the capital. Then, protestors, many of them young, were calling for electoral reform, only to be beaten with batons and tear gassed by police.
Since then, Najib has bowed to demands by the protestors, putting electoral reform on the agenda. He has also announced he will repeal laws that curtail press freedom and freedom of assembly, and grant police extensive powers of detention under the Internal Security Act.
He now speaks often about his affinity with the Manchester United football team and appears at public events in casual clothing. This is a significant change from the stern faced, suit wearing poses that the prime minister is noted for.
Dillon says this is all part of a delicate political balancing act.
“He’s got a very diverse constituency ranging from very very traditional Malay voters to young people who are agitating for change and that means he’s got to try and be all things to all people and that’s always a very very tough thing to do, especially if you’re trying to be authentic," said Dillon. "And young voters are very very carefully in tune to that issue of authenticity. They can smell it if you appear to be fake or somehow forced.”
Najib also suffered a decline in opinion polls following the July 9 rallies, amid claims his government had lost touch with the broader electorate. Local commentators say by conducting a campaign more akin with U.S.-presidential style elections, the prime minister is hoping to boost his popularity, which in turn should improve UMNO’s standing within the electorate.