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Monday, December 23, 2013

Analysts: Good governance, real reforms will offset Najib’s popularity dip

DECEMBER 20, 2013
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak opens the third annual meeting of
Kelab Umno Pesara Kanan Kerajaan Malaysia (KUPKKM) in Putrajaya
December 9, 2013. His popularity took a hit and slid to a new low of 52 per cent
this month, according to the latest survey by independent pollster
Merdeka Center. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 20 — As he marches forward in his second term as prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak should brace for a tough battle to regain the high public approval ratings he had enjoyed previously, political analysts say.

But they added that the Pahang-born will be able to offset the recent slide in his popularity by employing good governance measures, cracking down on corruption within government and improve his administration’s efficiency.

“It will not be easy for Najib and the BN to recover from this especially as there has been little let up in government spending and public perception of corruption and wastage has not improved... the only way out for the Najib administration is to implement a lean, frugal and clean government,” Dr Lim Teck Ghee, director of Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI) said, in an email response.

He added: “This means zero corruption and zero wastage and higher levels of efficiency and productivity from a smaller number of civil servants.”

The independent public policy researcher noted that Najib’s popularity could take a further dip across race, class, age groups and geographical landscapes in the months ahead when the goods and services tax (GST) takes effect in April 2015 and subsidies are further reduced.

Najib’s popularity took a hit and slid to a new low of 52 per cent this month, according to the latest survey by independent pollster Merdeka Center.

Conducted this month and supplemented by previously unused data from June to September, the survey took place during a time when Putrajaya rolled out a fuel price hike, confirmed the long-delayed GST, eliminated price support for sugar, and announced an increase to power tariffs next year — all of which are seen to have angered Malaysians already struggling with rising cost of living.

A series of subsidy cuts was also rolled out in September, which raised the pump price of the widely used RON95 petrol and diesel by RM0.20/litre to RM2.10 and RM2.00 per litre respectively.

Talk of extensive toll rate increases next year across 15 major highways nationwide have not helped.

Sixty-seven per cent of the 1,005 respondents polled by Merdeka Center cited worsening costs and inflation as their main grouses.

But Dr Arnold Puyok, senior lecturer of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s (Unimas) faculty of social sciences, called on Najib to be bold in carrying out his reform agenda, even though doing so may cause him to lose support among his party, especially among his Umno party members.

He noted that rising prices across the board is one thing, but the prime minister can counter it with a roll out of good government policies and real reforms.

“It’s unfair to force people to dig deeper into their pockets when mismanagement of government funds and inefficiency in public delivery system are still rampant.

“Do not give in to the quixotic demands of right-wing organisations such as Perkasa, drastically improve public delivery system, address corruption and mismanagement of public funds head-on, and uphold the spirit of 1Malaysia and moderation,” Puyok said.

He added: “If Najib does not do the above, his popularity would dip further.”

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) associate professor Dr Samsul Adabi Mamat said the Najib administration’s slew of subsidy cuts and belt-tightening measures could be made more bearable if the government were able to properly explain its necessity to the people.

Today, the prime minister asked Malaysians not to think his government “insensitive” for cutting back on subsidies, and offered his government’s pledge to do everything possible to help minimise the impact on living costs.

Rather than providing concrete reasons to persuade taxpayers though, he merely repeated his government’s position that the moves were necessary and even inevitable to maintain economic stability, although the public would have to bear with rising costs.

“He should provide proper explanation to the people so that it can reduce doubts and overall criticisms,” Samsul told The Malay Mail Online in a phone interview.

Such explanations would be useful to prevent opposition politicians, the UKM lecturer noted, from taking advantage of the unpopular measures to fire up the emotions of taxpayers.

“The introduction of GST is the government’s effort to increase income but that is not popular.

“This comes as the opposition is getting more popular, because it now seemed as though they are defending the rights of the people but they are just taking advantage of the situation to increase their popularity,” Samsul said.

Both Samsul and Puyok were confident that Najib would have sufficient time to shore up his public ratings before his popularity and that of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government he leads, will be put to the test at the 14thgeneral election, due in 2018.

“Najib still has the chance to do the ‘right thing’.

“Najib has to send the message loud and clear: Malaysia needs to change for the better if she were to remain competitive in the globalised world,” Puyok said.

CPI’s Lim, however, cautioned that Najib’s ratings results could be the game changer in Malaysian politics, especially if young voters and the average working Joe who are feeling the higher costs and pinch most, go to the next polls in overwhelming numbers.

“Faced with lower standards of living compared to their parents and futures that are bleak or uncertain, I expect them to vote for the opposition even if the race or religious card is played up by the BN.

“The young generation will feel that they owe nothing to the BN and that a change of government will be the better choice for a brighter future,” he said.

He also said that the deficit has been long in the making as the “most important” cause is the rising government expenditure both in development and operating.

“Operating expenditure especially has gone out of control with the bloated civil service so that as much as one third of it is taken up by emoluments, pensions and gratuities. This is a figure which can only rise,” Lim said.

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