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Why Najib is wrong about reformasi

When Najib declared before residents of Permatang Pauh, Anwar’s long-time stronghold, that the reformasi movement was dead, it wasn’t quite a revelation. We know that Pakatan politicians – the self-styled torchbearers of reformasi – are now willing enablers of Mahathir, the man they previously reviled as the root of all our country’s problems.


Still, Najib couldn’t be more wrong about the bigger picture. The cause of reformasi is alive and well, and he should know – he’s been leading it for awhile now. Before you inundate the comments with outrage, disbelief, and the oh-so-predictable personal attacks (eg. “Eat sh*t, you Umno macai!”), let me explain why.


For decades, reformasi supporters have been most agitated by government mismanagement and crony capitalism. It’s hard not to sympathize with them.


Mahathir’s belated foray into public transport saw his government awarding three urban rail projects (the Putra LRT line, the STAR LRT line, and the KL Monorail) to three different private companies. The approach was thoroughly mystifying, unless one considers the Mahathir government’s notorious reputation for doting on favored businessmen.


What followed was total disaster. After accumulating crippling debt, all three companies went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by government-owned Prasarana. The price tag? RM8.68 billion in total. More disturbingly, this fiasco was far from an anomaly during Mahathir’s rule – again and again, we would see privatization leading to massive losses leading to government bailouts.


Fast-forward to the Najib era. The MRT and the LRT extension projects Najib oversaw were either completed on time and within budget, or (in the case of the former) ahead of time and below budget. Moreover, all the lines are now owned and operated by the government (through Prasarana), and are fully integrated with one another.


Without switching tickets, you can ride on both LRT lines, the monorail, and the MRT. That wasn’t possible before – back when the Mahathir-era lines were under different owners. Who knew one could achieve so much progress just by favoring efficiency over the interests of private sector bigwigs? Mind-blowing, I know.


And it’s not just public transport that has seen an upswing in its fortunes. Najib also brought impressive reforms to Malaysia’s most important government-linked company, Petronas. He replaced its Mahathir-appointed CEO (Hassan Marican) with retired industry veteran Shamsul Azhar Abbas in 2010.


Granted an extraordinary level of independence, Shamsul restructured the entire organization, and strongly shifted company dealings toward meritocracy and competency. No more contracts would be lavished on undeserving businessmen, however politically connected.


Naturally, Shamsul received a lot of hate for the changes he brought – especially from Malay organizations. MTEM (Malay Economic Action Council) accused him of sidelining bumiputera vendors. Perkasa – the Malay rights group supported by Mahathir – demanded that Shamsul resign after he asserted that Petronas belongs to all Malaysians, not just the bumiputera community.


But The Edge summed it up the best: “Most of Shamsul’s woes stem from well-connected business owners who have lost out on lucrative jobs after open bidding became the preferred mode, compared with fixed allocation for local firms done previously.”


Now, Najib could’ve done the politically expedient thing and fired Shamsul, winning brownie points from right-wingers and powerful businessmen. But he stuck by the reform-minded Petronas chief until the latter’s contract ended in 2015. That itself should tell you what kind of prime minister Najib is – the man’s serious about bringing change, even in the face of resistance.


Recall what Najib said at Invest Malaysia 2017: “Under this Government, we are cracking down on crony capitalism. No more sweetheart deals. No more national follies kept going to stroke the ego of one man. No more treating national companies as though they were personal property.


Because it is the people who suffer, and we will not tolerate a few succeeding – and not on their own merits – while the many are denied opportunities, all for the interests of a selfish few.”


Sure, it’s a shot at Mahathir. But hasn’t Najib made good on those words? Wasn’t that the reformasi we were always asking for? A fair government? A competent government?


The truth is, we’ve been screaming our heads off over 1MDB for so long that we’ve missed the ocean for the oil spill. Najib hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for all the things he’s done to correct the worst aspects of Mahathir’s debilitating legacy – and I’ve only mentioned a few.


We couldn’t believe that Mahathir could ever end up as the “top dog” of Pakatan. That was then. So, why is it so hard to believe that Najib is now the de facto leader of the reformasi movement? You wanted change. Here it is.



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