Najib Razak, who is set to be Malaysia’s sixth prime minister, has been in parliament for over 30 years, yet outside of a close coterie of friends and family he is an enigma.
On Thursday, the 55-year old who is the son of Malaysia’s second premier is to be endorsed as the leader of the United Malays National Organisation, the main party in the National Front coalition that has ruled the country for 51 years.
The position effectively guarantees him lead2ership of the country as well.
Although Najib trained as an economist at a British university, he has little direct experience of economic management. He has held the defence and education portfolios as well as his current posts of deputy prime minister and finance minister.
“Najib is the most known unknown,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S.
He has promised to use the current global economic downturn to boost the Southeast Asian country up the economic value chain and to liberalise services, reduce dependence on commodities and oil exports as well as low-end electronics.
He has however provided few clues on how he can do that in an economy that relies on millions of cheap immigrant labourers to produce electronics that account for nearly 40 percent of the country’s exports.
Whether he can do that in a country of 27 million people that imprisons people without trial, divides on racial lines and with a ruling coalition that is still wounded from its worst ever election losses at national and state level a year ago is also moot.
He has been labelled as a hardliner by Malaysia’s opposition which cites recent sedition charges against one of its lawmakers, a ban on their newspapers and pressure on opposition-supporting websites as evidence of a coming crackdown.
Najib initially appeared to promise action to end economic and social privileges for the 60 percent of the population that is Malay and that have been criticised for nurturing corruption and hampering economic growth.
But he recently backed off any “drastic” move.
In his previous ministerial posts he spent lavishly and as finance minister unveiled Malaysia’s biggest ever budget spend of 60 billion ringgit to help stave off recession and layoffs in an economy that is the third most dependent on exports in Asia after Hong Kong and Singapore.
AN ABLE ADMINISTRATOR, BUT CAN HE FIGHT?
The composition of the budget spending showed caution. Only 15-17 billion ringgit was new government spending, the rest came from various investment funds and bank guarantees.
That measure was criticised by some economists for lack of transparency or impact, but it cannily preserved Malaysia’s credit rating and cash for a prolonged downturn where more firepower may be needed as government revenues slide.
Najib is said by people who work for him to have a strong appetite for detail and he is also popular with his staff.
Married for a second time, Najib has five children and plays golf with close political allies from Malaysia’s elite and has close links to business, including his brother who heads Malaysia’s second largest bank, CIMB.
Najib has taken his time to get to the top job, perhaps learning lessons from from the fall of former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim who was over eager in his bid to oust then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and ended up out of government and in jail.
Some say that while Najib is good at details he lacks the capacity for decisive action.
Mahathir, who led the country for 22 years and is still an influential force, damned him with faint praise in a recent interview with Reuters, although much of his anger was reserved for incumbent Abdullah Ahmad Basawi who succeeded him.
“Najib can do well, but we will have to see, because when I asked Abdullah to appoint him as deputy I had a lot of hope for him, but he did not perform the way I expected,” Mahathir said.
There are also issues of character. Najib has been mauled on opposition-supporting internet sites who have linked him to the lurid murder of a Mongolian model, although there has been no evidence and Najib has repeatedly denied involvement.
Nonetheless it provides a rallying point for the opposition and any in UMNO who may wish to attack Najib’s suitability to be prime minister. Those attacks are in public and becoming more intense, with an opposition legislator recently being banned from parliament for shouting “murderer” at Najib.
The honeymoon for Najib will be short, with one parliamentary by-election and two state seat by-elections on April 7.
“Throughout his political career, Najib has never had to fight like this before,” said political analyst Ong Kian Ming.
Najib is good at details but lacks capacity for decisive action