Last weekend, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak joined the club of the "Most Clueless Leaders," following luminaries such as Ben Ali, Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, and Qaddafi. Why? Because he did not learn anything from all the upheavals in the Middle East, and through his thoughtless actions, he managed to galvanize the opposition and sour the public's mood toward his government.
What happened last week? First, we have an organization called Bersih (meaning clean in Malay) that has clashed with the ruling party UMNO. While UMNO declared that Bersih has a plan to overthrow the Malaysian Kingdom, Bersih countered that it supported the constitutional monarchy and what it really wanted was a reform in the electoral system that it saw as very unfair. After things got heated, the King of Malaysia wisely intervened to cool down the situation.
It was a great move. The Malaysian monarchs seemed to have learned from the experiences of the Middle Eastern autocrats and their own neighbor Thailand. They seemed to understand that the more they intervene in the politics, imposing their views contrary to the will of the people, sooner or later, the discourse will turn to whether the Monarchy is still relevant to the country. King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand is currently still revered in Thailand. People still recalled that he was instrumental in ending the despised military regime of Thailand. His wife and the crown prince, however, could not share the same popular adulation due to their personal misconducts and their selfish interference in politics. So by trying to mediate both the government and the opposition, the Malaysian monarch took the high road, thus remaining immune from any political fallout.
By doing that, however, they pulled the rug from the bottom of Premier Najib's arguments. At that point, to save face and probably so he could control the opposition further, he offered the National Stadium, the biggest stadium in Kuala Lumpur, for a political rally. The opposition gladly accepted. For the opposition, it was a great way to showcase their discipline. Additionally, the fact that the government offered the stadium for its use meant that Bersih would receive exposure from the mass media.
Had Najib just contented with this arrangement, Bersih might have gotten the media exposure they wanted, but that's it. The government, wary of a heavy turnout, instead declared that the deal was off because Bersih, being an unregistered organization, could not apply for the permit to hold the rally, thus breaking the agreement. He also threatened to forcibly quell the demonstration.
A Saturday street rally went on as planned, and the state cracked down in response. There were 1667 arrests and many injured, including one death. The government was seen as overreacting. People were outraged. International groups were aghast. If Prime Minister Najib was trying to humiliate Malaysia on the international stage while at the same time galvanizing the opposition, he succeeded spectacularly.
Basically, he broke the cardinal rule in mass-movement politics: never give your opponent the high ground. So now everyone says the Malaysian government is undemocratic for reneging on its promises. Had the opposition received the stadium that it wanted, it might have gotten something out in the news, but that's it. Nothing new, nothing much to see.
In fact, it would have been very easy for the opposition to do something stupid, thereby handing Mr. Najib a major victory. For one, the opposition is comprised of a mishmash of various ethnic and religious based parties. There are PAS, Malaysia's own Moslem Brotherhood. There are Chinese associations that usually don't get along with each other and with the PAS itself, but are united because they are tired of the corrupt UMNO. There are also Indians in this group. Considering the fact that ethnic balance in Malaysia is around 50% Malays, 40% Chinese, and 10% Indians/Tamils, then we have a volatile mixture and it was easy for the opposition to self-implode.
Instead, Mr. Najib gave everyone a pinata to hit, someone they commonly hate and loathe. By overreacting to Bersih, Mr. Najib is pulling a "Ben Ali." Keep in mind that Malaysia is also one of the most wired nations in the world and currently debates are raging on the net and the opposition is winning.
It is still too early to write an obituary of Mr. Najib's career. Still, a future book on the collapse of UMNO will surely give a prominent chapter to this episode, because here's when Malaysia government's credibility was undermined.