Future spelled out for Malaysia’s next leader

International Herald Tribune | KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, 09-Oct-2008 : Najib Razak, who is poised to become Malaysia’s sixth prime minister, comes from a family of political aristocrats that produced two of the country’s last five leaders.

Respected for his sharp intellect and unflappable demeanor, Najib was always expected to take power someday. But he will do so sooner than predicted in an effort to restore the ruling coalition’s fortunes after a calamitous performance in March general elections.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced Wednesday that he would hand power in March 2009 to Najib, his current deputy whose mettle has been increasingly tested by opposition attempts to link him to corruption, sexual impropriety and even murder.

“He’s a natural successor. … Najib has moved up the political ladder. He has the experience, faced the challenges. He is a very polished politician, well-trained, well-exposed,” said Mohamad Mustafa Ishak, a political analyst at Universiti Utara Malaysia.

“People have high hopes for Najib,” he said.

Najib’s father and uncle served as prime ministers in the 1970s, but Najib, 55, once seemed headed for a corporate life instead.

He earned an economics degree from the University of Nottingham in Britain and returned home to work for the central bank and the national oil company.

Najib entered politics only after his father, Abdul Razak, died from leukemia in 1976. Five weeks later, a 22-year-old Najib was elected into Parliament, becoming the youngest lawmaker ever at the time.

Najib has served in the Cabinet since the 1970s, but his big break came in 1991 when he became defense minister and modernized the armed forces with high-tech acquisitions.

When Abdullah became premier in 2003, he made Najib his deputy and probable successor. Najib was expected to bide his time until Abdullah completed what many expected to be at least two five-year terms in office.

Najib’s status in the ruling coalition has remained intact despite some scandals that have tainted his polished image.

His close associate, Abdul Razak Baginda, was arrested and charged in 2006 with abetting the murder of a Mongolian woman after having an affair with her. Two policemen were charged with killing her and destroying her body with explosives.

Najib, who is married with five children, repeatedly denied involvement in the crime amid opposition claims that he too may have had an affair with the victim. The opposition has also accused Najib of corruption in deals to buy French submarines and Russian fighter jets.

In a recent survey of 1,000 people polled in telephone interviews by the independent Merdeka Center research group, only 40 percent believed that Najib would make a good prime minister, while 44 percent disagreed and the others were undecided. The center said the margin of error was 3 percent.

The government’s loss of its longtime two-thirds parliamentary majority in March elections was the catalyst for Najib to take over the premiership.

The mild-mannered Abdullah, 68, faced months of pressure to let a new leader confront mounting economic headaches and a resurgent opposition, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, that hopes to topple the government through parliamentary defections.

But Najib will be much tougher to handle than Abdullah because he is seen a potentially more decisive and firm leader.

“For Anwar, it’s not a good sign,” said analyst Mohamad Mustafa. “Anwar knows Najib is a tough guy.”

Many believe Najib’s destiny has long been spelled out. Literally.

Years ago, some Malaysians noted that the names of all their prime ministers have begun with the letters in first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s last name.

R for Rahman, A for Abdul Razak, H for Hussein Onn, M for Mahathir Mohamad, A for Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

N for Najib would complete that seemingly preordained course.