Friday, July 10, 2009

Najib’s 100 days: Transformational Leadership has arrived

THIS IS IT! Malaysians yearning for a post Mahathir Prime Minister who can bring Malaysia to greater heights is over. Judging by Najib's first 100 days performance, I am convinced that the wait is over. Transformational leadership has arrived. Najib! He is the man that we have been waiting for to fill the void left behind by Mahathir as Malaysia's Prime Minister. To me, thus far, Najib has under promised and over delivered. As a transformational leader, Najib is not expected to make all the right decisions all the time. Suffice for him to lead with creativity, guts, passion and perseverance and most important to be ready, willing and able to listen and engage voices of dissents.

Look at his agenda so far: liberalization of the financial and other sectors, dropping of the 30% Bumi equity requirement for Malaysian firms seeking listing, key performance indicators for government servants, serious and open engagement with Singapore, a commitment to explore alternative energy such as nuclear power.

And, less vigourously, there is the environment, oh, and cushioning the blow from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He's also promising to take action on immigration/ human trafficking, health care, and education. These are all bold moves and will require resources of time, effort, and an investment of political capital.

The good news is that so far, the response from citizens has been supportive, according to the Merdeka Centre, an independent polling house. The Merdeka centre research shows Najib’s approval rating has jumped from a low of 46% less than two months ago to 65% today. That’s an impressive improvement.

Admittedly, he can’t do it all on his own and a leader is only a sum of all the parts. And many of the various czars and stars of his administration will have to be at their best to match the smarts, style and panache of the PM. The good news is that his powerful team of Ministers appear to be keeping their personal needs under control and are getting behind the PM. Anyway, it is early days for many of his ministers so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are learning and learning fast.

So, for the sake of this exercise, I’m just going to focus on Najib’s performance since taking office, and not the performance of the cabinet. The obvious issues are the Stimulus package, the early days of 1Malaysia and most recently, the Liberalisation initiatives. But I’ve also addressed other issues such as the Altantuya case, foreign policy and the media. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Stimulus Package

For much of 2008, Malaysia believed it would not be affected by the global economic crisis. However, once Najib took over the important finance ministry, he moved quickly to acknowledge the severity of the situation and appeared to distance himself from comments that Malaysia would be insulated from the worst of the fall out.

The most recent stimulus programme, announced by Najib in March is a bold RM60billion fiscal package. Some of the funds will be spent on infrastructure projects whilst the rest is aimed at protecting jobs and funding new jobs created in the Government for those who lose their private sector jobs.

It’s too early to say what effect the stimulus will have on the economy. Key will be quick and effective implementation. There have been mumblings from the private sector that the money is not appearing quickly enough or has not even appeared but this could be typical private sector whingeing. What do you think?

Liberalisation Initiatives

Any initiative that makes Malaysia more competitive deserves high marks. To be taken seriously, the liberalization had to begin with the eradication of race-based investment quotas and within weeks of assuming office, Najib eliminated the requirement for 30% stakes being offered to Bumis. He then went on to announce further liberalization of the financial sector. This was a smart move as growth in the financial sector (including insurance) has averaged 8.8% annually for 3 years, compared with real GDP growth of 5.6% per year in the same period.

These business friendly policies are key to attracting the right kind of foreign investment, making Malaysia more competitive and moving us up the value chain.

Foreign Policy

The PM’s early trips abroad have been a qualified success and in less than 100 days he has managed to set a new tone in Malaysian diplomacy. His first trips were to Singapore and China where he has ratcheted up ties with two countries that will play meaningful roles if Malaysia is to realize its dream of moving up the value chain.

Although seen as symbolic by many (it was Najib’s father who normalized ties with China back in 1974), the trip to China laid the foundations for some potentially important initiatives for Malaysian firms in China as well as negotiations for Chinese investment and/or participation in mega projects in Malaysia that could see some major announcements before the end of the year.

A telephone call from Barrack Obama to Najib could also see the beginning of an improvement in relations with the new US administration. Expect a trip to the US before the end of 2009.


1Malaysia is a great concept and deserves the support of every single man, woman and child in Malaysia. We simply cannot go on with our racial approach to just about every element of our lives. Based on 12 focus group discussions that I conducted from 12th to 21st June, 2009 Najib’s challenge would be to allay fears of two significant groups ie The Malay who felt that 1Malaysia would means the end of Malay Agenda whilst significant number of Chinese and Indian who thought 1Malaysia as more of Najib’s way to win support of Chinese and Indians. Time will reveal the truth and I am confident Najib would prove the two groups wrong for doubting him.

Other key issues

The Altantuya case

Malaysia is a gossiping society. We love to talk and hear about other people and public figures appear to be an easy target. Yet throughout the whole Altuntuya affair, Najib has dealt with the issue effectively, elegantly and with a certain amount of refinement. The trial by independent media has assumed all along that he is guilty and yet there is, despite the efforts of the prosecution and one imagines a multitude of private investigators hired by whom we know not, not one shred of evidence or proof of his or any member of his family’s involvement in the murder. We are all innocent until proven guilty. Despite years of rumours, not one piece of evidence has been unearthed to suggest he is linked to the murder. Enough, let’s move on.

Without a doubt, Najib has started off well. But there is still a lot of work to be done. UMNO is still hampered by allegations of incompetence, nepotism and corruption. MIC is in disarray and there are leadership issues in Sarawak. Does Najib have the resolute toughness that successful Prime Ministers have to display? I believe so, but only history will tell if I am correct.

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