Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Najib to issue more access cards to tycoons, seek Mahathir's counsel

A steady stream of politicians – old and new – has beaten a path to Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s office and home since he became prime-minister-in-waiting in early October.

Some of them have offered advice on how to run Umno and the country; a few have lobbied for position in the new administration and several have cautioned him against making the mistakes Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi made when he occupied the top position in the country.

Of all the messages and advice offered, one has caught his attention and that of his supporters - the danger of opening too many battle fronts in his early days in office.

Even Abdullah’s most loyal supporters say that he and his aides spent far too much time fending off attacks from business interests, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, former politicians, civil servants and the alternative media than governing.

This was especially true after the euphoria of his massive election win in 2004 fizzled out and after it became apparent to the power brokers in Umno that the man from Kepala Batas had no appetite to use the instruments of power in the effective way that his predecessor did.

Wanting to show that he was his own man and would not be enslaved to big business, Abdullah made it clear that certain individuals would not be given unfettered access to the Prime Minister’s Office as they were used to.

Access cards were withdrawn and a clear message was sent that it would not be business as usual for these tycoons. This approach, while popular with the press, certainly created a moat of enmity between these powerful businessmen and the PM. Several of them became key financiers of the anti-Abdullah force that hounded the prime minister in the last three years.

Looking back, it also may have been a strategic mistake to alienate Dr Mahathir, to equate corruption with the civil service and focus on the warts in the powerful police force with the setting up of a Royal Commission.

Sure, all these moves to improve the public delivery system and rehabilitate the police force pushed up Abdullah’s ratings (it never dropped below 65 per cent before March 8) but it also meant that he was opening up many battle fronts.

A government official, with knowledge of the workings of Abdullah administration, told The Malaysian Insider: “Too much time was spent looking back and warding off attacks rather than moving forward. On hindsight, too many wars were being waged and this was counterproductive and did not allow the administration to focus.’’

Why did this happen? Inexperience. Arrogance.

Buoyed by the strong electoral support and the belief that the country was craving for sweeping change, Abdullah and his team set about wanting to change everything, forgetting that coalition building and compromise is part of the country’s political DNA, overlooking the fact that many of the adversaries were more skilled in destabilising the system and fighting in the trenches.

Najib’s supporters say that he will try and accommodate as many interest groups and individuals as possible when he becomes prime minister. And this includes seeking Dr Mahathir’s counsel and working with other power brokers in Umno and the BN.

With a slowing economy and a stronger Opposition in Parliament to consider, Najib knows that he cannot sound or behave like someone challenging tradition or traditional powers when he becomes the PM in March.

Otherwise, he too may spend too much time watching his back. Just like Abdullah.

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