Malaysia’s Hulu Selangor By-election and Harbingers of Reform
April 9, 2010
Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak is clearly gaining momentum in areas he can control, such as economic reform and international relations. His biggest challenge, however, will likely be reform of the political culture of his ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and the coalition it leads, Barisan Nasional (BN). The party and coalition will be tested later this month in the Hulu Selangor by-election.
In truth, the stakes are not as high as with earlier by-elections. Najib has taken control of his government and has made significant headway toward economic revival with his National Economic Model (NEM), pursuing big fish in his push for greater transparency (the Malaysian Anticorruption Commission is questioning a minister in his cabinet, sending a clear message). And relations with major partners such as the United States (he is confirmed for a meeting with U.S. president Barack Obama in about a week’s time) and China are on the upswing. However, the political culture in Malaysia will be a tough challenge for the prime minister. Despite what must be a clear understanding among thoughtful UMNO leaders and strategists, there are party members that continue to try to persecute opposition leaders such as Anwar Ibrahim and others. This effort seems to be politically counterproductive as it highlights UMNO’s weakest link—the defensive status quo faction of the party.
Najib has proven that he has ideas—good ones—and that he has the political will to bring them to fruition. Why not take on the opposition in a competition of good ideas and initiatives rather than using parliamentary procedures and the courts? Wouldn’t the country be better served by political competition for ideas that would win hearts and minds? It would be refreshing to see the fight for Hulu Selangor dominated by such initiatives rather than the arcane politics of past generations.
Ernest Z. Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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