Najib: 40 years and 2nd lease of life

THE 'TAIJI MASTER': An artist painting Malaysian Prime Minister Najib. The 63-year-old will mark his 40th year in politics next month. Thanks to his experience and party's support, he survived the political crises that struck him last year.


    Jan 19, 2016

    Najib: 40 years and 2nd lease of life

    IT HAS been a nostalgic week for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

    The media has been brimming with articles and documentaries about his late father and Malaysia's second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein.

    Malaysia's second prime minister was one of a kind.

    He rose to power on the embers of the racial riots of May 13; his policies were bold and impactful but the candle burned out too soon.

    He was only 53, in the hot seat for barely six years when he died of leukaemia in London on Jan 14, 1976.

    Mr Najib, the eldest-born, has been quite central in the string of events commemorating the 40th anniversary of his father's death.

    His emotions bubbled to the surface and he teared up when paying tribute to his father at a seminar on Thursday.

    At 63, he has outlived his father by a good 10 years. He has also outlasted Mr Razak as prime minister. Mr Najib will mark his own 40th year in politics next month.


    Mr Razak's death was an immensely sad and poignant junction in the lives of his wife Rahah Noah and their children.

    It also pushed Mr Najib into the world of politics. He was then only 23. It was unlikely he had politics on his mind but he was the first-born and was expected to rise to the occasion.

    He took over as MP for Pekan after winning the seat without a contest.

    Feb 21 will be 40 years to the day of the start to his political career. Politics can be such a ruthless game and it is amazing he has survived this long.

    His more visible contemporaries from back then include Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, 78, and Lim Kit Siang, 75.

    Mr Najib has often told his close political circle that politics is a "marathon run".

    If that is so, then he is Umno's marathon man and also the great survivor given the way he swam to shore after a tumultuous 2015.

    Every single one of those 40 years in politics has been spent in positions of some responsibility and power.

    He was immediately appointed a deputy minister in 1976. In 1978, he contested a state seat within the Pekan parliamentary area and went on to become menteri besar (chief minister) of Pahang.

    There had been a crisis between the palace and the then menteri besar who had to resign and Mr Najib was a timely solution. His ties with the Pahang palace is still as smooth to this day and that says a lot about his finesse with regard to the Malay rulers.

    He first mentioned his four decades in politics at the Umno General Assembly last month.

    "It was his way of telling us that it has been a long journey, with lots of ups and downs," said Kapar Umno division chief Faizal Abdullah.

    It was not a sentimental message but a pointed reminder to his audience and particularly to those trying to topple him that he is no pushover.

    As one political insider pointed out, Mr Najib is a product of the system. It is in his blood; he knows where all the nerve points are and which buttons to press.

    But he has often pointed out that, throughout his career, he has contested a post only when it became vacant. He has never tried to topple an incumbent.

    "He went up step by step. He knows the terrain, he is very experienced and he has seen it all. That's why it is not easy for anyone, including Mahathir (Mohamad), to take him on," said Mr Faizal.

    It took Anwar Ibrahim a mere 11 years from the time he became Permatang Pauh MP to become Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Najib was born with a silver spoon in his mouth but it took him 28 years to become Deputy Prime Minister and another five to reach the top post.


    But nothing in all those years could have quite prepared him for his annus horribilis in 2015.

    It was terrible being the target of attack by the once formidable Dr Mahathir but he made it through.

    There are two ways to remove a sitting prime minister.

    One is via his party and the other is through a vote of no confidence in Parliament.

    In Mr Najib's case, Umno stood by him, the powerful division chiefs rallied around him and the endorsement he received at the party assembly last month said it all.

    On top of that, he has the numbers in Parliament.

    But Dr Mahathir and the 1MDB issue have damaged him in a way that no one else could.

    Although Dr Mahathir has backed off somewhat since the rationalisation plans for 1MDB were put into place, Umno politicians think the elder man is merely waiting for the next opportunity to attack.

    The perception in Umno is that Dr Mahathir no longer cares whether his attacks on Mr Najib will also bring down their party or Barisan Nasional.

    The chasm between the two men is beyond repair.

    The irony is that surviving Dr Mahathir has also strengthened Mr Najib's hand in Umno.

    "When politicians survive this kind of crisis, they come out stronger than before because they would have defeated or eliminated their key opponents and enemies," said a former Putrajaya official.

    The best example is Dr Mahathir himself. His political might grew each time he defeated or axed those who were against him such as Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh.

    "Those who were predicting Mr Najib's demise last year did not realise he is such an experienced party man. He understands the Umno psyche.

    "At the end of the day, as long as the party is with him, he will be there," said a long-time friend of Mr Najib from his days as Umno Youth chief.


    Mr Najib's political longevity is also thanks to the political network he established during his years in the youth wing. He continued to cultivate them even after he moved up the party.

    Recently, he was seen visiting PAS president Hadi Awang in the National Heart Institute (IJN). But he had gone to IJN specifically to visit Johor politician Nasir Safar, who was also hospitalised there.

    Mr Nasir is from his old Umno Youth circle and was one of those who stood by Mr Najib last year. Mr Najib is not a touchy-feely person but they held hands as they posed for a photo.

    This network of friends and allies forms an important part of his support base.

    They rise together as a batch and when he is in danger, they are there behind him.

    Some of his friends in Umno refer to him as the "taiji master", in the sense that they had not anticipated many of his survival moves.

    In any case, he outmanoeuvred the old maestro.

    Now that the party is in calmer waters, some of the Umno division chiefs joke that what Mr Najib went through last year was reminiscent of the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

    The movie's title comes from a Chinese idiom in which the tiger and dragon refer to concealed danger and people with hidden skills. The idiom is often used as a reminder to never underestimate anybody.

    Mr Najib's annus horribilis is over. This year will present a different kind of challenge as he grapples with the economy.

    Forty years and a second lease of life - that is more than any tiger, dragon or politician could ask for.