As grotesque as it was, Najib sought desperately to adopt the Obama image of a change agent.
Najib Tun Razak has kept to his chosen self-image of a presidential prime minister by calling for a general election only after completing a full four years in office.
In fairnesss, he might even be allowed a measure of self-congratulation, for having stayed the course and completing his “term”, even if it is only in his imagination that his four years as PM can be compared to the fixed four-year term of the US president, and only in his own imagination could he be compared to Barack Obama.
With his image handlers, he has worked hard at projecting himself in the Obama mould — even down to the solecisms of his swearing-in and the King’s proclamation of dissolution and his frenetic adoption of new media savviness and online cool.
His projection of himself in the image as Obama, as absurd as it may seem, could be seen as early as June 2009 when the US president made the semi-obligatory phone call, engineered by the State Department, to the newly-appointed prime minister. Najib recorded it thus in his blog:
“It was our first conversation with each other as Heads of State and we exchanged congratulatory wishes on our respective appointments.”
Well, to start with, there’s only one head of state in Malaysia, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. For Najib to usurp the King’s position is an act of lese majeste if not possibly treasonous, and I’m surprised that the Keeper of the Ruler’s Seal, the Grand Chamberlain, or other official at Istana Negara did not send an official letter of reprimand to crack the PM on his knuckles.
And again, in trying desperately to put himself at par with the president of the United States, he chose to talk about “our respective appointments”. Wrong.
Barack Obama was not appointed to his job, he was elected president of the United States. Najib was appointed prime minister by his head of state. As prime minister, he is head of government — but not head of state, even though Najib chose to call himself that. Obama, however, is both head of state as well as head of the US government.
Najib is well aware of this, having spent his entire working life in politics and government, besides being a titular Pahang chieftain. That he chose to use the words “head of state” and recorded them in his official blog is a reflection of his own needs to project himself as being one of the big boys.
Unfortunately, he effused them with the cheap reek of the social climber’s over-reaching need for recognition, to be considered among his betters. It bore the cheap reek of the image-builder, more conscious of how he seems and less bothered about what he is.
More grotesque was Najib’s desperate striving for the image of a reformer, of a Obama-like barrier-crashing leap to the top. But the contrasts could not be more obvious.
Obama, the half-breed son of a Kenyan immigrant, the outsider from Hawaii and Illinois, achieved the US presidency in a culmination of decades of efforts by a coloured minority class to cut through centuries of majority-class repression and oppression.
Najib, the English-educated member of the political aristocracy, the consummate insider, sauntered into his father’s constituency, and strolled into the prime minister’s office after a lifetime cruising through the corridors of Malaysian power, always an insider, always a member of the majority, always in the inner circles.
As grotesque as it was, Najib sought desperately to adopt the Obama image of a change agent. He tried, or seemed to try, to shatter the obstacles of social and ethnic privilege that his own majority ruling class had placed in the path of the coloured minorities of Malaysia, while also trying to placate the lumbering fat cats of his class.
His personal efforts, projecting a presidential demeanour and style, were very much at odds with the rest of his party well-ensconced in decades of privilege. His appearances of reaching out — at coffee-shops and stalls, meeting with Chinese educationists, attending minority religious festivals — were personal, thus presidential, seeking to overwhelm a party image of self-serving and self-satisfied indifference with that of a personal image of responsibility and of making an effort.
Ultimately, these efforts are likely to be seen as misplaced.
It is not Malaysian society that needs to change, it is Umno. It is not the leader of Umno who needs to be seen as relevant to Malaysian society, it is Umno itself that must tear away the scab of domineering top-down father-knows-best condescension and reveal the pus in its flesh.
Najib may have meant well, but personal efforts, and being personable, are not enough. He took the easy path, the presidential path, to project himself.
But he is not the president of Malaysia, merely the president of Umno. It is not Malaysia that will elect him as president, merely Umno delegates.
And in his presidential four years, he failed to cause the only meaningful type of changes that would realistically be a catalyst to institutional and systemic change.
The real test of change, the one that Najib has failed, was to change Umno itself.
For change without is nothing without change within.