By VIJAY JOSHI / AP WRITER
KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Najib Razak took office Friday, inheriting myriad challenges, including a flagging economy, a racially divided society and a moribund ruling party.
The 55-year-old, British-educated Najib replaced Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to become the country’s sixth prime minister. Abdullah resigned Thursday as part of a power transition dictated by the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in the wake of massive losses in last year’s general elections.
In a simple ceremony at the national palace, Najib swore to “pour my full loyalty into Malaysia and preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” He wore traditional Malay dress—a black tunic and loose trousers with a knee-length gold-embroidered cloth tied around the waist—and was accompanied by his wife, Rosmah.
Najib, who is expected to announce a new Cabinet lineup next week, faces a mammoth task ahead in healing the country’s politics, society and an economy heading for recession.
“Unlike Abdullah who inherited a battleship in full steam, Najib is taking over a battered ship,” wrote analyst Joceline Tan in The Star newspaper.
Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, has been hit by a slew of depressing economic data in recent months. Exports, the economy’s mainstay, plunged 28 percent in January, the largest drop in 28 years. More than 26,000 people have already been laid off this year. The economy is expected to shrink by 1 percent in 2009.
Najib, the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, also faces a belligerent opposition, which accuses him of corruption in a deal to buy French submarines when he was defense minister. It has also alleged he was linked to the killing of a Mongolian woman, who was the estranged lover of a close friend. Najib has denied the allegations as “malicious lies.”
“If he doesn’t work this out, it’s going to be a shadow that is going to remain for a long time,” said Denison Jayasooriya, a researcher at the Institute of Ethnic Studies at the National University of Malaysia.
Najib’s rise to the premiership is as much a story of Abdullah’s political decline.
Abdullah took office in October 2003, riding a huge wave of popularity as he replaced Mahathir, a manipulative and sharp-tongued leader who brooked no opposition or dissent during 22 years in office.
In contrast, the soft-spoken Abdullah captured the hearts of Malaysians with promises of reforms in the judiciary, police force and civil service. He pledged greater political freedom and more political space for critics.
Most promises fell by the wayside, although he ushered in limited freedom of speech.
Conservatives in his party say that was his undoing, as it bolstered the newly resurgent opposition led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
In the March 2008 elections, the ruling National Front coalition, led by UMNO, suffered its worst results in the 51 years it has been in power. It failed to get a two-thirds majority for the first time in 40 years, conceding 82 seats to the opposition in the 222-member Parliament. It also lost an unprecedented five states.
The loss was largely a result of ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities switching allegiances to Anwar as they chafed against decades-old policies that give preference to majority Malays in jobs, education and business.
Najib’s first test of popularity will be during three special elections—one for Parliament and two for state assemblies—on April 7.
Opposition leaders say there are signs that Najib will crack down on political dissent.
Government officials have barred opposition politicians campaigning for the by-elections from repeating accusations linking Najib to the 2006 killing of the Mongolian woman.
“I think we are going to face a much bigger clampdown. The bad days are coming,” said opposition lawmaker Tian Chua.
Associated Press writers Julia Zappei and Sean Yoong contributed to this report.
Timeline of Key Events for Malaysia’s New PM
A chronology of key events during the life of Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Najib Razak
— July 23, 1953: Born in Pahang state to Malaysia’s second Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein
— 1974: Najib earns bachelor’s degree in industrial economics from Nottingham University
— 1974-76: Works as public relations manager at Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned oil company
— 1976: Wins a Parliament seat from his late father’s constituency in Pahang at the age of 22. He wins the seat seven subsequent times and still holds it
— 1978-86: Holds deputy minister posts in the energy, telecommunications, education, and finance ministries
— 1986-99: Becomes full minister, heads various ministries, including defense
— Jan 7, 2004: Appointed deputy prime minister of Malaysia
— June 2008: Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announces Najib will succeed him following election losses for the party
— March 26, 2009: Najib wins presidency of ruling party unopposed
— April 3, 2009: Najib is sworn in as Malaysia’s 6th prime minister
Source: Associated Press