KUALA LUMPUR - Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak is widely seen as Malaysia's prime-minister-in-waiting. Being the number two in Malaysia, of course, hardly makes one a shoe-in for the premiership. Over the past two decades three deputies have been unceremoniously dumped, thwarting their political ambitions.
The most infamous axing involved former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's charismatic deputy Anwar Ibrahim, who at the peak of his popularity was imprisoned on charges of sodomy and corruption in what was widely viewed as a political witchhunt orchestrated by Mahathir.
Najib, 53, is the eldest son of Malaysia's popular second prime minister, Abdul Razak, and nephew of the third prime minister, Hussein Onn. But his chances are not being gauged by pedigree or political standing alone. Unlike some of his deputy premier predecessors, Najib has been careful not to outshine his boss, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.
On a number of occasions he has publicly declared his loyalty to Abdullah, while insisting that the premier has support at every level of the conservative ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
At the same time, Najib has built strong bonds with the party's old guard, making a contrast with the understated Abdullah. The premier's early attempts to curb graft and restore government integrity, accountability and transparency irked some senior UMNO members, but more recently his high-profile campaign has lost steam. Najib comes off as authoritative and eloquent, if not a bit guarded and calculated, when commenting on issues of national interest.
After becoming the nation's youngest member of parliament ever at the age of 22, and with his current high standing as deputy prime minister and defense minister, Najib gives the impression that what he determines usually gets done. And should he eventually take the reins of power of this fast-developing though anxious majority Muslim nation, it remains a puzzle how exactly he would differentiate himself from Abdullah, not to mention his predecessor Mahathir.
That political moment of truth could be around the corner. In June, Mahathir started to level accusations against Abdullah, his hand-picked successor, for being weak, indecisive and allowing his family to benefit from government contracts. Mahathir, 80, hasn't let up since, and the criticism is exacting a toll on Abdullah's credibility inside and outside the party.
This has raised new speculation that UMNO could eventually split into opposing Najib and Abdullah camps. Najib has sought to quell the speculation by declaring his unwavering support for Abdullah and UMNO, which he appears to genuinely view as a source of national strength and unity.
Yet while Abdullah and Najib are cordial in public, there is, according to party insiders, no love lost between the two long-time cabinet colleagues. One account has it that Mahathir preferred to make Najib his successor, but, made wary by former deputies trying to outshine him on his political departure, chose the soft-spoken Abdullah to protect his own interests. In return, it's believed that Mahathir demanded that Abdullah choose Najib as his deputy and groom him for eventual succession.
Indications so far are that Najib is patiently waiting his turn and that Abdullah plans to ride out his term, which expires in 2009. UMNO party elections are scheduled to be held next year, and some analysts predict that Abdullah will call a snap national election some time after March to consolidate his power before party problems further unravel.
But as more Mahathir loyalists line up behind Najib, arguably UMNO's most powerful and respected member, there is a risk of a UMNO-splintering power struggle. Some political analysts contend this could tempt Abdullah to bring former deputy prime minister Anwar back into the UMNO fold. Anwar, widely viewed as a strong reform advocate, is officially barred from politics until 2008, the year before Abdullah's term ends.
Najib, in an exclusive interview last week with Asia Times Online at his sprawling office at Putrajaya, the administrative capital outside Kuala Lumpur, said: "Anwar cited that he's siding with [the Justice Party]. He has made many, many statements that he ... has no intention of joining UMNO. So I guess we will see Anwar as part of the opposition in the landscape of Malaysian politics." Judging by his body language, though, Najib clearly preferred to change the interview topic.
Najib readily acknowledges the challenge of transforming Malaysia from a manufacturing-based economy into an innovative, knowledge-based one. "We have to realize that the world is more and more competitive, and I don't think that's quite sunk in across the board in Malaysia," says Najib during the interview. "Unless you go out there, in New York, say, then you realize, looking at Malaysia, through that prism, that you really must put your act together."
In multi-racial Malaysia, that has historically meant preserving tolerance and harmony between the majority Muslim Malays and the sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities. "It is delicate. Once you upset the balance, you unleash forces which you may not be able to control," says Najib. "So we are very wary of doing something that might upset the apple cart."
Striking that balance has involved a controversial affirmative action program, known as the New Economic Policy, introduced by Najib's father in 1971 to help the Malays catch up with the more economic-minded Chinese and imposing curbs to freedom of expression and thought, such as the broadly worded Sedition Act, which criminalizes speech that may "excite disaffection against" the government, or promote "feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races".
The social contract has produced mixed results. It was implemented in response to the 1969 race riots between the ethnic Malays and Chinese, which at the time threatened to tear the young country apart. The program was originally designed to last 20 years but has since been extended indefinitely by the Malay-led government, leading to growing resentment among the Chinese and Indians and a stigma of welfare dependency among the Malays.
Meanwhile, Malaysia's restricted political and social environments for the sake of racial unity has simultaneously stifled creativity and the development of the dynamic workforce necessary to see through Malaysia's dream of becoming a developed nation by 2020. The government's long-term racial balancing act is failing to adequately address modern economic and social challenges, say critics. However, Najib takes issue with such criticisms.
"Policy-wise UMNO is a very pragmatic party," he told ATol. "We don't have any fixed ideology ... because of that we're able to adjust UMNO's policies according to different circumstances." As an example, he cited how UMNO recognized early on that the nation's private sector was weak and through its policies turned it into a viable engine of economic growth.
Yet last month Najib called for a reexamination of UMNO's race-based policies. "UMNO will not succeed if we just continue to defend the [racial] status quo," he said, according to news reports. "Yes, we can build this and that using the [political] powers that we have, but can we change the attitude of the Malays? That is what we should ask ourselves, as this is the factor which will determine whether Malays can progress further."
At other turns, Najib has reaffirmed his commitment to race-based policies, with the belief that it will placate all of Malaysia's ethnic groups. "UMNO will continue to be a party that protects the interests of the Malays and Muslims and brings prosperity to all the people in the country," he said in August. To do this, he told ATol, the emphasis must be on growth and distribution - but growth first. "Only with growth can we have equal distribution."
But there's an increasing sense around Malaysia that the changes UMNO has made haven't gone far enough. It's become axiomatic - even Malaysia's leaders make the point - that Malaysia has a first-world infrastructure but a Third World mentality. Najib openly admires other countries where social and economic development have synergized, citing America as a prime example. "We do admire a lot of things about America - the fact that they allow creativity to flourish in America. In other societies you don't get that."
British-educated, Najib cuts a worldly profile. "I am equally comfortable sitting in a surau in my constituency or having dinner at Simpson's on the Strand," Najib was once quoted as saying, referring to an upscale London restaurant. Najib does not seem to share Mahathir's inferiority complex toward the West, nor does he share the former premier's impulse to scapegoat the West for Malaysia's problems.
Many feel that Malaysia needs a more worldly leader to reach out to the West and maintain the country's competitive edge. The question, of course, is whether Najib would translate that knowledge and perspective into political action should he ever become prime minister.
With its myriad races and simmering tensions, Malaysia is not an easy place to govern, and this has over the years informed UMNO's cautious, conservative approach - even though the party's strong majority has given it the power to implement policies almost at will. Previous governments have arguably erred toward abuse and complacency rather than reform. Increasingly that is the on-the-ground perception surrounding Abdullah's stalled fight against corruption, cronyism and nepotism.
It's unclear how much that would change under a Najib-led administration. Najib has in his long political career established a vast network of loyalists, comprised of political and bureaucratic veterans and powerful business brokers, both domestically and overseas. "He is the most well connected politician in Malaysia," notes Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, director of the Institute of Malay World and Civilization, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
"He's been in six different ministries, and this has helped him build relationships among many different people. And he's shown an ability to dish out the goodies, country-wide, from Kedah to Johor," he added, referring to two states at opposite ends of Malaysia's peninsula.
Najib's power sources begin close to home. His brother Nazri is the chief executive of CIMB, Malaysia's biggest investment bank which maintains a global presence. Nazri and two other brothers, Nizam and Johari, are also involved in GP Ocean Food, the country's biggest integrated fisheries group. Najib's cousin is Hishammudin Hussein, education minister and son of Malaysia's third prime minister Hussein Onn.
Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor, is also said to wield significant political influence. Najib reportedly maintains close ties with the state oil giant Petronas and with many prominent businessmen, including tycoon Vincent Tan. Najib also "holds the dollar bags of the Defense Ministry," as one Kuala Lumpur-based analyst, requesting anonymity, puts it.
Transparency is scant in Malaysia. The Official Secrets Act, for instance, restricts access to information of public interest, making it difficult to accurately gauge the extent of Najib's influence and connections. Economically, Najib may prove to be a cross between Abdullah and Mahathir. In his public speeches he has called for streamlining approval procedures for potential foreign investors. He has applauded a number of Abdullah's economic policies, including the targeting of value-added large-scale agriculture and hi-tech as future sources of domestic growth. And like Abdullah he has emphasized the need to return to fiscal balance.
Toward that end, Abdullah has scrapped a number of mega-projects that Mahathir initiated. Najib, however, has left the door open to restarting some of those projects, including a deferred double-tracking rail project. As with Abdullah, Najib would also likely pursue a more Western-friendly foreign policy than the sometimes combative Mahathir did. "[The US] respects our sovereignty ... if, for example, they want aircraft carriers to cross our territory they ask for our permission. It's a healthy relationship," says Najib in the interview.
At the same time, it doesn't appear Najib would stray much from Malaysia's draconian tradition toward civil liberties and human rights. He has been known to support restrictions on the media and has defended the use of civil liberty-curbing laws, such as the Internal Securities Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial. Significantly, Najib's office oversees Suhakam, the government's human-rights commission.
"His role has been to dampen Suhakam's role in dealing with rights issues," contends Tian Chua, information chief of the opposition Justice Party. "He has helped Suhakam avoid tackling controversial human-rights cases." Najib has said Malaysia will introduce democratic reforms, but "it must be an evolution not a revolution, not through street demonstrations because this will create anarchy and chaos".
Likewise, Najib has done less than some would have hoped in tackling endemic government corruption. After UMNO's 2004 elections there were numerous allegations of money politics. Rather than calling for an independent investigation, Najib's response was to urge those making the allegations to come forward. Last year, amid criticism that the Abdullah administration's corruption drive had netted only one high-level politician, Najib said, "This is the start of UMNO's fight against money politics. We will continue to pursue it." But no high-level politicians have been formally charged since.
Elsewhere, Najib has said that allegations of vote-buying within UMNO should be an internal affair and not probed by the Anti-Corruption Agency. When a code of ethics was introduced by Abdullah in 2004, Najib publicly applauded the move, saying it would deter government officials from abusing power. Critics, however, say the new code is in the main toothless, falling well short of requiring politicians and officials to declare their assets before taking office.
Najib said during the ATol interview that he favors new measures to strengthen investigative procedures in corruption cases and to empower the now weak disciplinary commission. And he sounded genuinely concerned about how corruption and corruption allegations could damage UMNO and the nation. Says Najib: "Once the party's corrupted you elect the wrong leaders."
In the preface to his latest book, Globalizing Malaysia, Najib stresses the need to turn Malaysia into a "balanced society", one that is caring, knowledgeable and economically vibrant, saying Malaysians must be prepared to "make adjustments and sacrifices as we tread our way forward". Najib's 31-year political career may well lead him to the premiership. But taking the country forward socially, economically and intellectually will likely require breaking with that same past.
Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, has worked as a freelance foreign correspondent and previously co-hosted a weekly political/cultural radio call-in show in the US.