Wednesday, June 2, 2010

All the PM’s (New) Men

The recent Cabinet mini-reshuffle is yet another glimpse into Najib’s gradualist and cautious approach to rebuilding both the inner core of his administration as well as, more broadly, the Barisan Nasional itself. It should not come as a surprise to most of us that whilst the last 24 months or so have been somewhat of a wild rollercoaster ride for Najib, underneath it all there has been a series of systematic efforts to rebuild and revitalise Barisan Nasional. In many ways, by necessity this process has had to be gradualist and incremental in nature – and for the most part, there has been an explicit willingness on his part to go beyond mere cosmetic changes.  

Given all the political baggage, internal feuds, and not to mention embarrassing loss of credibility of the MCA and MIC leadership over these recent months, Najib has had no choice but to deal with this new reality. This new reality, one that I believe has been fully evident since Badawi’s departure, is about overcoming the paradox of the old politics that defined much of Barisan Nasional.

To put it simply, Najib understands that if he is to succeed as prime minister and salvage Barisan Nasional for the foreseeable future, he cannot afford to surround himself only with the ‘yes Tuan’ types from the MIC and MCA. That, after all, has arguably become one of the distinct and defining traits of what had become so wrong about Barisan Nasional. And Najib’s new tact, if we can call it that, is to try and walk a fine line between trying to convince public opinion (especially those voters who used to religiously support the MCA and MIC) that he understands their message and is committed to responding to their concerns, whilst having to be mindful of the pressure coming from the ultra-extremists within UMNO.  

One cannot ignore the fact that Najib has had to cautiously navigate through some treacherous waters as the leadership struggle in the MCA played out. More recently, we saw the screws, both from within and outside of the MIC, tighten on Samy Vellu – another glaring thorn of the old politics. Whether there was any truth around Vell Paari’s allegations that the brass within UMNO was orchestrating Samy’s exit, let’s just say Najib will not be shedding any tears when that day does arrive.   

Beyond wanting to understandably cultivate a new breed of faces and leaders within some of these Barisan Nasional parties, Najib has also been willing to bring in a new generation of non-Malay players into the various bodies of the executive branch to serve in strategic roles. These individuals, often not highly visible in the public eye are also ones who have typically opted not to be associated with the old politics of the MCA and the MIC. They have thus historically been individuals who have stayed away from becoming beholden and controlled by the party political apparatus of the MCA or MIC – and thus without the baggage of the old politics that comes with being party insiders or cronies.

Indeed, this new breed of individuals have typically distinguished themselves as being independent voices, and individuals willing to provide candid feedback and counsel to Najib and the government rather than indulge in the bum-licking and pandering that prevailed for far too long from those self-invested political operatives within MIC and MCA. 

Yet, to some extent, of course Najib cannot simply abandon the party operatives in these Barisan component parties. Hence, whilst the leadership struggles within these parties continue to fester, in due course control of these parties is bound to shift into the hands of more acceptable faces. And incidentally, some operatives within the MIC, for example, recognise this reality, and have been willing to risk political banishment by Samy – for the time being – by conveniently changing their tune and appearing to stand up to the grip of Samy and his ‘old politics.’ Thus, by jumping ship now, these party operatives are trying to repackage themselves and lining themselves up to come back into the party as “reformers” for having stood up to the old politics of the MIC. 

On the other hand, Najib is not putting his eggs only in the usual old Indian and Chinese political hierarchy within the inner-circle of these parties. In some ways, he is by-passing these party operatives and increasingly turning to independent and constructive non-Malay professionals and corporate leaders to bring them into the fold of the executive’s machinery and as credible informed voices capable of helping Najib steer the reform and rebuilding programmes. In line with this pattern, it is not surprising that we also hear about gestures by his representatives to court the leadership of the Human Rights Party or having had his representatives hold clandestine contacts with P. Waymoorthy in London. It is also consistent with his move to not appoint the usual non-Malay political suspects from the MCA or MIC to various consultative and advisory bodies; opting instead for fresh independent voices from outside the stale and discredited MIC and MCA. 

All these developments, taken together, paint a picture that is undeniable and one that shows Najib tilting toward engagement with credible non-Malay voices. Indeed these tentative signs suggest that Najib is willing to listen to credible non-Malay voices outside of the traditional party circles of the MIC and MCA who have been prone to only telling the prime minister what they think he wants to hear rather than what he should hear.

So whilst the most recent mini reshuffle of the Cabinet is interesting in itself, it is but another part to a wider process of reform underway within the executive branch – a reform marked by embracing new, more credible voices and a willingness to recognise the failures of the old politics.

These are the prime minister's new men, a chorus of new independent voices who are being included into advisory roles precisely because they're not the 'yes Tuan' types still typical of the opportunistic cadre of the old and new guard within the MIC and MCA.  

If Najib has it within him to be receptive to these independent professional and corporate leaders and constructive voices, he may just have a fighting chance – the UMNO ultras notwithstanding - to make some genuine reforms happen.
G. Krishnan