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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

COVER STORY MALAYSIA

THE NAJIB FACTOR
UMNO's seniormost vice president is one to watch -- and to court

By Sangwon Suh and Santha Oorjitham / Pekan


FOR MOHAMED NAJIB TUN Razak, March 6 starts with a speech at the opening of the "Academia Asia 1998" exhibition in Kuala Lumpur. He then flies to Kuantan, capital of central Pahang state, and is driven to his father's old kampung (village) house in the royal town of Pekan. He lunches with local UMNO leaders while chickens strut around outside in the fruit garden. ("I've never tasted any of the mangoes -- the neighborhood children get to them first" is his good-natured complaint.) Afterward, he is whisked off to a mosque in rural Merchong for Friday prayers, where he gives a short speech to the all-male congregation. A hospital visit and two UMNO branch meetings -- all in different towns -- follow. Then it's back to his father's house for a chat with some of his constituents and a quick shower before catching an evening flight back to K.L.

All in a day's work for a typical politician? Yes, but it could have turned out differently. Najib, 44, is the eldest son of Malaysia's second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, but in the beginning it was not clear if he had the right stuff for politics. For one thing, he was shy; for another, his education in England left him with a pronounced British accent that was seen as a turnoff for Malay voters.

But the charming, urbane father of five (three children are from a previous marriage) has proved his lineage in the past 22 years. Now, says a former colleague, he is a "consummate politician." Najib's political career started in 1976. Then a 22-year-old executive at the state oil firm Petronas, he took up his father's Pekan constituency upon the latter's death and became the country's youngest MP. Today, he holds the education portfolio in addition to being UMNO division leader for Pekan. He is also the party's first vice president (meaning he received the most votes among the three v.p.'s in the last UMNO Supreme Council elections two years ago). It sort of makes him Malaysia's No.3, after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim, who are UMNO's president and deputy president. Says Information Minister Mohamed Rahmat of Najib: "He's a potential leader."

Or a potential loser. In the past, the post of education minister has often been a stepping stone to the premiership (as in the case of Mahathir), but Najib himself admits that it can be a double-edged sword. "It has been the hot seat," he says. "You either excel or go down from this ministry. Nobody goes sideways."

In the UMNO party elections next year, Najib may well find his political savvy and experience put to the test. A possible -- probable, in fact -- scenario is that neither Mahathir nor Anwar is challenged next year. This could mean Najib takes up the post of deputy PM if Anwar eventually succeeds Mahathir. But other scenarios are not so painless. Mahathir could decide that Anwar needs to be challenged, or Anwar may opt to take on the premier. Either way, both men will seek Najib's support, which is likely to prove decisive. "Najib is now in a very strategic position, holding the balance of power should there be any contest for the leadership," says one UMNO watcher. On top of that, someone may make a claim for Najib's own v.p. post. The end result could be that Najib is ousted, or is forced to make a challenge for the post of deputy president. The latter option is admittedly unlikely, not least because it could prove futile for Najib.

But don't count on him being bounced out when the dust settles. He did not come this far simply on the strength of his father's name. "Najib has proven his ability as one of the young members of the party," says Mohamed Rahmat. Two years after becoming a Pekan MP, Najib was made a deputy minister -- the youngest ever. In 1981 he became the youngest UMNO Supreme Council member and, when he was sent to head Pahang state a year later, the youngest chief minister. Then, at 32 he was made minister of culture, youth and sports, becoming the youngest cabinet member in the process.

"Najib has excelled and made an impact in each of his ministry positions," says Michael Yeoh, head of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute. "When he was minister of culture, youth and sports, Malaysia had its best ever performance in the Southeast Asian Games." His tenure as education minister has also been lauded. Under Najib, private universities, three of them, were established for the first time. The number of state universities has grown from nine to 11, while private colleges jumped from 39 to 78.

His stints at Petronas, in various ministries and as chief minister of Pahang have helped Najib build a formidable power base. Najib says he still keeps in touch with his former peers. "I take pride in the fact that I have transcended the normal minister-to-civil servant relationship," he says. "I am no longer the chief minister of Pahang, but my base there is still intact and quite solid." Former colleagues confirm that he maintains ties. "After he had resigned from Petronas and left to become the MP for Pekan, he took the trouble to come back and do our annual assessment," says one at Petronas.

Not everyone remembers him fondly, however. In 1987, Najib, then acting head of UMNO's youth wing, was at the center of a flap over the contentious issue of "mother-tongue" education. Many recall him as a rabble-rouser who tried to whip up anti-Chinese education sentiments and weaken the position of Mandarin-medium schools. Najib concedes that he may have been on the extreme side then but insists that is the nature of the post: "Whoever becomes UMNO Youth leader would have to be seen as a little more radical." Over the years, he says, he has become "wiser" and now appreciates "diversity can be a source of strength."

Another charge his critics make is that Najib is a political opportunist who sits on the fence until he figures out which way the wind is blowing. "Najib is always seen as unreliable," says opposition politician Syed Husin Ali. "In 1987, he crossed over" -- a reference to the UMNO Supreme Council election that year when vice president Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah challenged president Mahathir Mohamad. Though he was said to privately back Razaleigh, Najib switched to Mahathir at the last minute.

Perhaps in line with his fence-sitter image, Najib is coy when asked how he relates to the Mahathir and Anwar camps. "I don't like the word 'camps,' " he says. "I enjoy very good rapport with both the prime minister and deputy prime minister. They know I respect the hierarchy and that I'm a team player." So will Najib continue up the ladder? Shamsiah Abdul Hamid, a Pahang UMNO branch chief, thinks he will -- eventually. "He's qualified to be prime minister, but it's not time yet," she says. "Najib doesn't want to bring people down in order to rise."

Curiously, though, history is not on his side. Mohamed Rahmat points out that past prime ministers have always chosen the third v.p., rather than the first, as their deputy. "The first vice president has never become deputy president and deputy prime minister," he notes. "The third spot has been the lucky spot." But history can always change. And Najib can take comfort in one additional fact: the post of third vice president is currently vacant.


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