Politicians tend to be a squeamish and unimaginative bunch, thinking first and foremost about their own survival. They go out of their way to avoid controversy and ruffling the feathers of powerful interests. Love or hate him, Najib isn’t that sort of politician.
His popularity has taken quite a beating, thanks in part to Mahathir’s relentless attacks. But Najib could’ve avoided this sorry situation if only he had resigned himself to being Mahathir’s obedient lackey. In that alternate universe, Mahathir would’ve been an enthusiastic Najib cheerleader, denying the opening that Pakatan desperately craved.
To put simply, Najib didn’t need to rock the boat. Why pit yourself against the most wily, influential (and vindictive) politician in Malaysian history? We’ve seen what he did to Abdullah Badawi. Just do what the old man wants. Humor his ego.
Najib could’ve built the so-called ‘crooked bridge’ to Singapore like Mahathir wanted. He could’ve continued coddling loss-making Proton with taxpayer funds and protectionist measures like Mahathir wanted. He could’ve scrapped the BR1M scheme like Mahathir wanted.
He didn’t because those courses of action were (and are) immeasurably stupid and irresponsible.
The term ‘crooked bridge’ itself should tell you enough about that harebrained scheme – Singapore wasn’t enthusiastic about it. Proton, Mahathir’s pet project, has been a long-running disaster for not only consumer pockets, but also government coffers and public transportation (You can read about it here).
As for BR1M, the program has been shown to lift the poor and underprivileged, while boosting the local economy. Unsurprisingly, its popularity may explain why Pakatan’s stance on BR1M has been laughably confused – for example, Mahathir was against it, then was open to keeping it, and now wants to scale it down.
Najib, to his own detriment, isn’t one for politically convenient U-turns. Bucking Mahathir on these key issues was absolutely the right thing to do, but it predictably put Najib in his crosshairs. Like Abdullah before him, Najib’s only crime was that he refused to bow to Mahathir’s demands.
Courage, it turns out, is the greatest sin in Malaysian politics. True to form, liberal intellectuals and activists demand it of our politicians, but vilify those who show any trace of it. They, like Mahathir, would much prefer a pliant prime minister who appeases their fantasies and ignores the hard facts.
When Najib introduced the GST and abolished fuel subsidies, they blasted him for being cruel and out of touch. But Najib was merely following the doctor’s orders – just not the one who can’t get over the fact that he’s no longer this government’s ‘top dog’.
Economists, with virtually no exception, have given the GST credit for stabilizing our government’s finances in the face of declining oil revenue. You can read the publicly available reports and statements by the IMF, the World Bank, and the OECD. Not once have they blamed the GST on the need to pay off 1MDB’s debts – as Pakatan does regularly.
Removing fuel subsidies, similarly unpopular, brought an end to a system that ballooned the deficit, disproportionately aided the wealthy, and contributed to climate change. Again, Najib’s approach is fully in line with the broad consensus among international experts (see here: IMF, World Bank, OECD and IEA). The fact that governments worldwide, terrified of voter discontent, regularly fail to curtail their wasteful energy subsidies underscores the depth of Najib’s achievement.
So, give the man some credit. At every turn, Najib could’ve taken the easy way out. He could’ve kowtowed to our former dictator and given us another decade of intellectually bankrupt Mahathirism. He could’ve run record deficits and driven the country into default just to retain his popularity. But for what?
Najib, despite his many flaws, gets one thing that Pakatan politicians don’t – the goal of politics isn’t to acquire power for its own sake. It isn’t to win elections. It isn’t to implement crowd-pleasing policies. And it certainly isn’t to change the government with no clue of what happens next.
No, the goal is to deliver genuine and realistic change. And that means making tough decisions that may well sink your political career. Ask yourself this: When have Pakatan leaders shown political courage in service of a governing agenda? They’ve always shrunk from the task, preferring to delay and deliberate ad nauseum. They’re even too timid to contest GE14 without Mahathir at the helm.
In other words, Pakatan chose more of the same. Najib, in an odd reversal of roles, chose the perilous path of reformasi. It’s a huge risk and it may yet prove to be his undoing. But love him or hate him, Najib has at least shown that he’s not content with business as usual.