Malaysia: New Prime Minister Faces Daunting Challenges

Updated On: Apr 06, 2009
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak became Malaysia's sixth prime minister after taking over from Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who stepped down after leading the country for more than five years.
Najib Razak had served as Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, and is part of Malaysia's ruling party, the National Front Coalition, which has ruled the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1957.
The son of the country's second prime minister and nephew of the third, Mr Najib entered parliament at the age of 23 and quickly rose to prominence. In addition to having served as the deputy prime minister, the 55 year old leader has held a host of cabinet posts including finance and defence.
He takes over at a time when both the country and the coalition face many challenges. The Malaysian economy has not been immune to the global economic downturn, and the National Front Coalition lost its crucial two-thirds majority in parliament last year.
Mr Najib has to revitalize his divided coalition and in particular, UMNO – the main party in the coalition with a membership that numbers three million-strong. His predecessor, Mr Badawi, was largely seen as ineffective in his efforts to end political corruption, liberalise the economy and reform the judicial system. His efforts fell on deaf ears within the party, many of whom insist that corruption and race politics are not problematic. In his farewell address to party members, Mr Badawi warned that the party would perish if it continued to silence critics and discriminate against minority Chinese and Indian races. 
So far, Mr Najib has sent conflicting signals as to his stand on reforming the party’s entrenched corruption and race politics, which are widely seen as the coalition’s most pressing problems. 
Several high-profile politicians have been questioned or punished over vote-buying or corruption, and Mr Najib has made overtures to Malaysia’s ethnic communities by visiting Malaysian Chinese newspapers and speaking of the need to unite Malaysia's many races and groups. 
However, his ascension to power has been marked by a recent government crackdown on Umno's political opponents and on free speech by religious groups.
There will be talk about change and some, what I call, cosmetic changes," says former law minister Zaid Ibrahim. "But in terms of fundamental institutional reforms, I doubt it will happen."
Mr Zaid resigned last year after failing to push through judicial reforms.
"Even if he wants to [push for reforms], he will be faced with formidable opposition from within his own ranks, within his own party. So prospects are dim," Mr Zaid said.
Malaysia also faces intense economic problems as its exports decline amid the world financial meltdown.
Mr Najib unveiled a stimulus package worth $16.2billion last month.
BBC, Najib appointed new Malaysian PM  , 3 April 2009 , http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7980554.stm 
BBC, Saviour of Malaysia's ruling party?  , 2 April 2009,  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7968238.stm 
BBC, Profile: Najib Abdul Razak , 2 April 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7973872.stm 
CNN, Malaysia swears in new prime minister, 3 April 2009,

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