The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin
M. Bakri Musa
[First of Four Parts]
The dynamics between Prime Minister Najib Razak and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin is one of rivalry. They compete rather than complement each other. They give every indication to be the least productive and most dysfunctional ‘team,’ if I can stretch that term. Their relationship has awful feng shui and exudes bad karma.
They are politics’ Labu and Labi, the bumbling hired hands in P. Ramlee’s comedy movie of the same name, who spent their time fantasizing about their employer’s daughter while neglecting their chores.
Alas, leading the nation is anything but a comedic act; it is an awesome responsibility. Najib and Muhyiddin however, are treating their position as they would a trophy wife; with Najib consumed with displaying it while Muhyiddin is busy licking at the chops barely concealing his own desires.
Najib has nothing substantive to show after a year in office. It is emblematic of his inept leadership that when the recently-acquired new Scorpene submarine could finally dive, it made the headlines! Incidentally, that sub was bought during Najib’s tenure as Defense Minister.
We have significantly lowered the bar for and expectations of our leaders. Next, we will be excited if Najib were just to show up! Consider that former Prime Minister Mahathir had praised Najib merely for not dozing off at meetings! As for Najib’s much ballyhooed “1Malaysia,” a check on its website today showed that it is still inviting readers to register to join him for tea on March 13th, a good two weeks ago! Well at least that is better than the fate of his deputy’s blog.
On the major issues, from the teaching of science and mathematics in English to the controversy over the “Allah” terminology, the two are not even on the same page. They are complete opposites. Often that is the catalyst for a dynamic and creative relationship. That however, is true only with highly-accomplished and self-confident personalities. Najib and Muhyiddin are far from being that!
I will compare the current duo of Najib and Muhyiddin to their predecessors, and then suggest a course of action Najib should take to salvage his tattering leadership. I will focus on three preceding pairs: the best and ideal team of Tun Razak and Dr. Ismail; the longest and most enduring partnership of Tuanku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak; and the destructive and dysfunctional combination of Mahathir and Anwar. These three examples (two positive and one negative) provide many relevant lessons for Najib.
Unaltered the present course will lead to a breakup of the two, with destructive consequences to them, their party, and their country. The scale would be many times worse than the Mahathir-Anwar explosion of 1998. The latter crippled the party and deeply divided the country, but only temporarily. In that ruinous split there was a definite victor, the mercurial Mahathir, which made the conflict mercifully not protracted.
If Najib and Muhyiddin were to split, it would come at a time when their party is at its weakest and most vulnerable; likewise the nation. As neither Najib nor Muhyiddin is strong enough or commands sufficient respect and support within the party and country, their split could consume both of them, as well as fatally cripple UMNO.
As for Malaysia, it has come a long way since the traumatic events of 1998 and could thus take the Najib-Muhyiddin breakup in stride. Indeed I would argue that the split would be good for the nation.
Nothing however, is preordained; prophecies need not be self fulfilling. Even bad karma and ill feng shui can be ameliorated. Najib’s future is in his own hands and in the fateful decisions he makes, not with the alignment of the stars or the tea-leaf reading of some village soothsayers.
The first and longest pair was that of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak. It spanned over 15 years and was the most successful the country has ever seen, or likely to see again. Even when the duo broke up following the 1969 race riots, it was done discretely and with minimal public repercussions. The pair remained unique in that they maintained their respect for each other long after one exited the stage. They never uttered an unkind word for the other, at least not publicly. It was a class act right to the end.
Compare that to the nasty things the Tunku and Hussein Onn heaped upon Mahathir when he was Prime Minister, or the scorn and contempt Mahathir poured on his chosen successor, Abdullah.
At the other extreme, we had the initially very promising and dynamic but later proved to be highly destructive and dysfunctional pairing of Mahathir and Anwar. The nation is still playing the price for that ugly split. The pair was like an unstable radioisotope; when it split it continued spewing its toxic radiation, defying all attempts at containment.
The team of Tun Razak and Dr. Ismail that succeeded the Rahman-Razak duo was easily the best and ideal. Perhaps the brevity of their tenure spared them from the inevitable tensions and rivalries. Malaysians today look forlornly to that team, especially considering what is being served to us today.
The Razak-Ismail team was not the briefest; that distinction (if it can be called that) belongs to the immediately succeeding team of Razak and Hussein Onn. That was also the most forgettable pairing. The Razak and Huseein duo demonstrates that it would take both sides to make a great or at least workable team. It is not enough to have only one member shine; a laggard partner would bring the pair down. This observation would be validated many times later, as with the Mahathir-Musa Hitam and Mahathir-Ghaffar Baba pairings.
When both members are lightweights, then we would have a laughing stock of a team, a political Labu and Labi team. At worse it would be a disaster, for them as well as the country. We had that with the Abdullah and Najib; we are now we re-living it with Najib and Muhyiddin.