Malaysian leader plays it cool to charm the young

AP News
Posted: Sep 21, 2011 2:06 AM
Malaysian leader plays it cool to charm the young

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's to-do list is suddenly looking like a pop star's.

In the past two weeks, he has made an unexpected appearance at a rock concert, indulged in a radio prank call and offered free beverage coasters to some of his 200,000 followers on Twitter.

The 58-year-old politician is working hard to impress young Malaysians by cultivating what is being called a "cool" image in the latest part of his ruling coalition's campaign to reverse a decline in support ahead of national elections expected by mid-2012.

"The 'cool' campaign is a brilliant one," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the chief of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, an independent Malaysian think-tank. "The prime minister is taking a very different approach by going presidential-style with this campaign, so that some people will think of him and vote for his party by default."

Najib's strategy comes after many young adults joined tens of thousands of demonstrators who marched in Kuala Lumpur in July to demand greater transparency in electoral policies. A police crackdown using tear gas against the demonstrators sparked a slide in Najib's approval ratings and accusations that the government was out of touch with what people want.

Since then, the British-educated leader has turned to populist measures to regain support. He stunned Malaysians last week by announcing the biggest overhaul of national security regulations in more than a generation, including plans to scrap a decades-old law allowing detention without trial.

Now, Najib is showing his lighter side to Malaysians who know him mainly as the suit-wearing leader who has often seemed stern in public since he took office in 2009.

On Tuesday, several popular radio stations aired rare interviews with Najib, allowing him to banter about his passion for England's Manchester United football club. He successfully answered a question about a female band in an on-air contest and helped two disc jockeys pull a phone prank on their producer.

Najib also surprised Kuala Lumpur concertgoers last weekend by coming onstage at a stadium show featuring American rapper Nelly and Asian rock celebrities. Sporting a short-sleeved blue T-shirt, he took a photo of the cheering audience and posted it on Twitter, where he also recently gave out coasters to winners of a history quiz.

"Nice to know some of u think I am cool!" Najib wrote on Twitter this week. "I just want to engage the young (generation). They are the face of future Malaysia."

Najib's efforts have predictably drawn mixed reactions. While some praise him for trying to appear approachable, others question his sincerity and urge him to focus on battling problems such as rising prices, corruption and racial discrimination.

"Stop trying to be 'cool' and pls get back 2 running the country. Ur the Prime Minister, not the High School President," Twitter user Kavilan N. wrote.

Wan Saiful of the think-tank said Najib's charm tactics could nevertheless complement his concrete policies, such as allowing political reforms and boosting foreign investment. And while the strategy isn't enough to make opposition loyalists switch allegiances, it could sway youngsters who have only a casual interest in politics, Wan Saiful said.

Malaysia's three-party opposition alliance wrested more than one-third of Parliament's seats in 2008 elections, when Najib's National Front coalition suffered its worst results in five decades of rule. Analysts say Najib's attempts to bolster his popularity point to early polls next year before his coalition's mandate expires in 2013.

"Najib is managing to put himself in a space that no other politician occupies," Wan Saiful said.