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More of the same enervating and dismal politicking up ahead

Analysts, however, hope more moderate-Malays will speak up to quell discordant voices


Kuala Lumpur

IT would be apt to describe this year as annus horribilis for Malaysia, with three tragedies involving Malaysia Airlines' aircraft MH370 and MH17 and AirAsia's QZ8501.

But arguably more enervating and dismal for most was the non-stop politicking, made worse by the race and religious baiting tactics employed by right-wing politicians and groups.

Analysts suspect 2015 will bring more of the same, but hope more moderate-Malays will speak up to quell the discordant voices in what is expected to be an especially challenging year, given tanking oil prices and a new consumption tax in April.

As Prime Minister, Najib Razak will continue to be called upon to explain or defend his policies. In recent weeks, he has come under attack on various fronts.

Civil groups and the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat have derided him for going back on his promise to repeal the Sedition Act and for acquiescing to Umno's right wing, which fears that greater liberties would embolden Malaysians to seek even more transparency in government.

The Act has not only been retained, it will be beefed up, to the delight of the politically dominant Umno party, which Mr Najib heads. At issue are its vague clauses, and seemingly one-sided application, especially against those critical of the establishment.

1MDB, the "strategic development" company set up in 2009 under Mr Najib's watch, has also come under increasing scrutiny; former premier Mahathir Mohamad has demanded an explanation as to how it benefits the country.

The opaque entity has acquired some RM52 billion in energy and real-estate assets, but has also accumulated mounting debts of some RM42 billion. With faltering oil prices and a weaker ringgit, these debts will become costlier to service. Given this, any default on IMDB's obligations would have serious consequences for the financial system.

Still, the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan does not think there is present danger.

Lawmaker Nur Jazlan Mohamed agrees. He believes the threat will dissipate once 1MDB's energy unit, Edra Global Energy Bhd, launches its initial public offering next year, an exercise that plans to raise a reported US$3 billion.

Dr Mahathir, still considered relevant in politics by virtue of having led Malaysia for 22 years, has also been irked by the government's BR1M programme, which gives annual cash handouts to lower-income households. Although the programme has been marketed as being "a more targeted subsidy" than the fuel subsidy previously available to all, Dr Mahathir sees it as a form of bribery, which breeds a culture of dependency.

But the one aspect of Mr Najib's leadership that has come increasingly to the fore is his absence - and not only of the physical kind resulting from his frequently being overseas on working trips. He has also been lambasted for his failure to haul up inciters and hate-mongers on divisive issues, which has raised questions on his true stance in the multi-ethnic country.

In an unprecedented move, 25 former senior government officials, all Malays, penned an open letter this month, imploring him to take the bull by the horns and to curb rising extremism. They pointed to the need for rational discussions between those wanting a greater role for Islamic laws and those who insist that any Syariah expansion must not contravene the Federal Constitution.

Umno Member of Parliament Nur Jazlan dismissed rumours that Dr Mahathir is working behind the scenes to remove Mr Najib as he did his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, saying: "There is no mechanism to remove him, unless he (Mr Najib) removes himself."

In any event, Umno members know the side on which their bread is buttered, and not many are willing to risk the withdrawal of party largesse.

As Mr Najib's position within the party is secure - he won the Umno presidency uncontested, his deputy Muhyiddin Yasin has expressed a wish to retire and the three party vice-presidents are viewed as being unready for the top job - his lack of conviction to see key reforms through is puzzling.

Mr Wan Saiful said: "People would expect that, because Najib is in a safe position within the party, he could do transformative things. It's baffling why he isn't doing so."

He added that this does not bode well for 2015, which he foresees will be "a very tough" year, economically and politically.

"The government keeps saying the economy is okay, but the feeling on the ground is different. Even official statistics indicate a rise in the number of BR1M recipients because living costs are rising."

He fears an economic crisis could spiral into an ethnic or religious one as well. But because the Malays are the majority, he expects the administration to be more sensitive about their insecurities and demands for more economic protection.

"This will impact Umno the most. The party could become more conservative," he said, adding that this could put the more progressive Mr Najib on collision course with the conservative faction.

The prime minister's critics say attempts at reform do not go far enough, especially on major issues such as corruption or the dismantling of vested interests.

Mr Nur Jazlan believes that Mr Najib will sit tight until he is pushed against the wall. "Why wake up a lazy party? The political situation is expected to be manageable, as Malaysians can still tolerate the economic environment."

The people's pain threshold is expected to remain high, although, if the price of oil remains depressed for longer than anticipated, the national budget could come under pressure.

Less revenue will mean reduced funds for bumiputra programmes and demands for greater Malay economic empowerment.

Mr Wan Saiful says: "There is likely be a vicious cycle in that a weaker economy will contribute to more fraught ethnic or religious relationships, which in turn will have a negative impact on the economy."

Mr Nur Jazlan offered another reason for the status quo to remain: "Umno is confident of remaining in power because Pakatan is breaking up."

Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) appears bent on going ahead with its plans to amend laws in the state of Kelantan, with the ultimate aim of getting the Islamic penal code pushed through in parliament.

As one of three coalition members of Pakatan Rakyat, the Islamic party, by insisting on implementing hudud, has set itself against its more secular partners, which insist that the Federal Constitution remain supreme.