Opinion: Malaysia Needs Tengku Razaleigh Now

The current parlous state of affairs in our country reminds me of one of my favorite songs from the 1960s, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” only with the Joe Dimaggio reference changed to fit today’s crisis in Malaysia:

Where have you gone, Tengku Razaleigh? / A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. (woo woo woo)

While Paul Simon’s lyric was melancholy whimsy about a famous baseball player, the feeling in Malaysia is deeper and speaks to our need for someone to rescue the country from the mess surrounding Prime Minister Najib Razak, his wife and much of the United Malays National Organization power structure.

The quickly unfolding scandal of the past week prompted by press reports about US$700 million from a government investment fund finding its way into Najib’s bank accounts has only added further confirmation to what many Malaysians already know: the long-standing UMNO dominated political structure is rotten at its core. A leader is needed not just to replace Najib with another tainted personality but to begin a fundamental housecleaning that addresses deep-seated corruption and the distortions of the race-based policies of the past several decades.

Enter Razaleigh?

The only politician from either side of the aisle in Malaysia today who is widely perceived to be a man of integrity and honor and who might be trusted to restore some credibility to government is Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, known by everyone here as Ku Li.

A former finance minister and Malaysia's longest-serving Member of Parliament, Ku Li has been a marginal figure in Malaysian politics since 1987, when he quit the cabinet after challenging Mahathir Mohamad for the leadership of UMNO. It was a bitter battle that saw Mahathir emerge as the strongman of his generation, a role he seems to think he has never relinquished.

By stepping into the shadows, Ku Li avoided the scandals of Mahathir’s government and the subsequent sleaze that surrounded first Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and now Najib. Anyone who has been at center stage is tainted. As a result of this history, Razaleigh is seen as a statesman rather than a mere politician.

Sadly, instead of seizing his moment, Ku Li is staying true to his character by waiting for the prime minister’s office to be handed to him by consensus rather than aggressively going after it.

This is not the time to be aloof. This is a crisis and our future as a nation really does hang in the balance. Ku Li needs to make a move, as numerous people of good will have urged him to do. He must not leave this to fate or the opportunity to clean up the UMNO system will be lost.

Accept the challenge

When – or if – Najib steps down or is ousted as prime minister, the biggest challenge facing his successor will be how to repair the fissures that have inflicted deep scars on the national psyche and the country's institutions. Razaleigh seems to be the only person able to lead this mammoth task. If Mahathir and his ally Daim Zainuddin return to take over power in UMNO, they will return the party to the way Mahathir built it during his 22 years in office, a corrupt and rent-seeking system for Malay elites with little real attention to the kampungs beyond frightening them with tales of coming Chinese dominance.

As an elder statesman who abides by the founding principles not only of UMNO but the nation, Razaleigh, 78, is a throwback to the days when Malaysian politics, while often rambunctious, still had a noble purpose. Compare that to the widespread perception today that most politicians from UMNO and its Barisan Nasional coalition partners are simply out for personal gain and to graze at the trough of the national wealth.

Given his status and principles, there is growing bewilderment about Razaleigh's silence on the latest scandal. The money apparently sloshed into Najib’s accounts from 1 Malaysia Development Bhd. and the many related and mounting scandals are a national disgrace. It is all, finally, too much.

Perhaps Razaleigh's reluctance to publicly chastise and challenge Najib stems from loyalty to Najib’s father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, the country's second prime minister.

Tun Razak handpicked the then-youthful Razaleigh to help establish Bank Bumiputra and later charged him with setting up and running the national oil corporation, Petronas. Some say that within UMNO circles at the time, it was known that Tun Razak explicitly endorsed Razaleigh as a future prime minister. But others are less charitable. They believe that Razaleigh's current approach is calculated: he may be positioning himself as a candidate for a senior post in a cabinet reshuffle widely expected to be executed by Najib soon after the Aidil-Fitri celebrations later this month. Of course, that will depend on whether Najib is still in office by then.

The worry for many of us is that by his silence, Razaleigh risks losing the credibility and general good will he enjoys both in elite circles and among grassroots UMNO members. "He needs to speak out, and soon. The longer he is out of the public eye on an issue of such import, the higher the possibility that he will become just another footnote in history," said one observer.

Let me add my voice to this. Sir, your nation needs you. Our lonely eyes really are looking your way.

*Mohd Hussein Yussof is the pen name of a Malaysian political observer who must remain anonymous.