Page last updated at 23:51 GMT, Thursday, 2 April 2009 00:51 UK

Saviour of Malaysia's ruling party?

Malaysia's main ruling party, Umno, is in crisis after 52 years at the heart of government. The BBC correspondent in Kuala Lumpur, Robin Brant, asks whether the newly-elected leader Najib Razak can reverse its fortunes.

Najib Razak

Najib Razak has taken over as leader of a huge political movement which is accused of being corrupt, complacent, detached and facing a life or death battle.

That is not the verdict of a staunch opposition critic but the man Mr Najib succeeds - outgoing prime minister Abdullah Badawi.

With its three million-strong membership and more than five decades in power, Umno - the main party in the National Front coalition - is an unparalleled force in this country.

But both the former leader and the man replacing him think that the party is facing "death" if it does not change.


Najib Razak is the ultimate insider. He has been in frontline politics for most of his adult life, and is now about to follow in his father's footsteps to become Malaysia's prime minister.

At 55 he is an authoritative figure who commands respect.

He has talked of the necessity of change, after his government suffered a humiliating fall in support in last year's general election.

But there is scepticism that he will emerge as a reformer.

"There will be talk about change and some, what I call, cosmetic changes," says former law minister Zaid Ibrahim.

Outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi (26 March)
Mr Abdullah said Umno faced "a life and death situation"

"But in terms of fundamental institutional reforms, I doubt it will happen."

Mr Zaid resigned last year after failing to push through judicial reforms.

"Even if he wants to [push for reforms], he will be faced with formidable opposition from within his own ranks, within his own party. So prospects are dim," Mr Zaid said.

Excess baggage

Corruption is "not a big problem", one supporter told me at Umno's recent annual assembly.

"Small problem," added another, as he pinched two fingers close together, as if holding a sugar cube.

That is not the view of most people outside Umno, though. Corruption is arguably the biggest problem the party faces.

It has eroded trust and engendered complacency and arrogance. Najib Razak has to tackle it.

Over the past few weeks there has been an effort to send out a strong new message.

Several high-profile politicians have been questioned or punished over vote-buying or corruption, but it's only a start.

As Najib Razak prepares to take over as prime minister, opinion polls suggest that support for him - and the government - is disappointingly low.

Part of this is down to the baggage Mr Najib brings with him. The most damaging is an allegation linking him in some way with the murder of a Mongolian woman in 2006. He strenuously denies any involvement, and says he never met the woman.

"I think I've done enough to clear my name," Mr Najib told me in an interview last year.

"I've come out very clearly, very confidently - my conscience is clear."

Nevertheless, the issue will still follow him into office. "There are perception problems relating to him," said Ibrahim Suffian, from the polling company Merdeka Centre.

Potent symbol

Najib Razak is very experienced. He has held four cabinet jobs in the run-up to becoming prime minister.

Umno delegate signs a candidate list
Umno delegates attended a recent conference to decide on new leaders

In that time, the country which he is about to lead has been transformed. Three decades of rapid economic growth have made it an Asian success story.

He, perhaps more than anybody, knows that transformation was only possible because of stable ethnic relations.

This country is made up of three dominant ethnic groups; Malays, Chinese and Indians. All are Malaysian, yet all are not treated equally.

The most potent symbol of this is the National Economic Policy (NEP). Almost 40 years old, it guaranteed preferential treatment for the country's majority Malays, to help them rise out of poverty.

But the special treatment that ensures Malays get extra university places, cheaper loans and the bulk of government jobs still persists, despite the fact the many people think it is no longer needed.

It has become a precious symbol of dominance for the Malays, but is seen as discrimination by the Chinese and Indians.

Najib Razak has hinted at reforming the NEP - a policy which his father introduced in 1970. But he has backed away from promising radical change.

Alongside tackling corruption, reforming the NEP may be the biggest test of his credentials as a man of genuine change.

Fresh start

Critics say that Mr Najib is certain to be an authoritarian leader - a practitioner of what's euphemistically known here as "strong government".

They point to a clampdown on the opposition over the past few weeks.

A senior member, Karpal Singh, is facing trial for sedition. The leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, goes on trial in July accused of sodomy - an allegation he's faced and been cleared of before.

Two opposition newspapers were also suspended recently by the government.

An advisor to the prime minister-in-waiting told me that Najib Razak wants "a fresh start".

But many fear these recent actions are a portent of what is to come, as the mighty Umno seeks to claw back support and save itself.

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