Najib, Hun Sen prove being nasty pays off
MIRROR, mirror on the wall, who’s the baddest of them all? In this region, by any yardstick, it has to be a tie between Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak.
What a pair of disreputable rascals they are, and because of that, let’s drop the niceties and feel free to point out their unsavoury similarities and how they are politically and socially almost identical.
To kick off, even just on a personal level, they seem as if cut from the same cloth, or more aptly, hewn from the same brutally hard stone.
They are about the same age: Najib is 63, Hun Sen 64, and both have dominant “battleaxe” wives, who are often said to be feared more than their husbands.
Najib’s better half, Rosmah, an archetypal Cruella de Vil, is hard to portray accurately without employing the kind of language usually found in the more outlandish celebrity tabloids.
An addictive shopaholic with the manner and dress sense of a motorcycle momma from the outback who has just won the lottery, a mere glimpse of Rosmah makes ministers and generals discreetly slip away to the gents.
How does she do it? Easy. Najib is so besotted by her that Rosmah’s every wish is his command and whoever disputes that or crosses her is finished.
It is tempting to say that her only regional equal is Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, who is arguably even more influential and certainly more feared.
Any critical comment about her invariably kills conversation dead and elicits mortified looks on the faces of those who know that you don’t mess with the diminutive but lethal Madame Hun Sen.
As well as having wives who deflect even the most rashly brave-hearted of critics, the two premiers are also remarkably alike in that they both owe much of their political success to their immense wealth.
It has enabled them to play the patronage game and to buy the undying loyalty of senior officials, party members and even closet opponents whose own status depends on their goodwill.
Anyone who betrays that loyalty has their throat cut, metaphorically speaking, by being demoted and having funding cut off to their constituency and their re-election campaigns.
Additionally, both Hun Sen and Najib exercise tremendous control over the domestic media in their respective countries and thus stifle any criticism of themselves and the party they lead.
In Najib’s case, it has meant that coverage of Rosmah’s titanic shopping sprees and his own alleged involvement with a Mongolian model and her subsequent murder have been largely squashed. So too, in another odd echo, was the murder of one of Hun Sen’s earlier mistresses, the noted Cambodian songstress Piseth Pilika. Great men get away with this kind of thing and move on.
Just as Najib has blithely ridden out a notorious scandal at the Malaysian investment fund 1MDB, where even the transfer of almost US$700 million from the fund into his personal bank account barely caused him to blink.
Likewise, Hun Sen swatted away a recent report by the international watchdog group Global Witness, which revealed “a huge network of secret deal-making and nepotism that emanates from the Hun family and underpins the Cambodian economy”.
A popular political commentator, Kem Ley, discussed this report on a radio program and was murdered two days later in broad daylight in the middle of the nation’s capital. Of course, Hun Sen was not implicated.
Both he and Najib have become immune to the most blatant revelations of corrupt practices, criminal activity, philandering and other shocking misbehaviour that would topple any other leader.
Press reports, watchdog exposés, global condemnation, the demise of rivals and mistresses, and the occasional – but quickly suppressed – public protests have not dampened the duo’s solid hold on power.
Hun Sen has been top dog in Cambodia since 1985 and he has made it clear that he has no intention of stepping down soon.
His number-one son, Hun Manit, a lieutenant general who, among other things, commands his dad’s bodyguard unit, will almost certainly take over and need the same unit for himself.
Compared to this, his erstwhile twin, Najib, is a relative newcomer having only inherited the premiership in 2009, but after weathering two rather fraught elections, he has finally installed his own team.
Previous ministers and party warlords who’d had the temerity to go against him or against Rosmah have been sidelined, sacked, bankrupted or jailed.
Najib, like Hun Sen, takes no prisoners. You go against him, you are toast.
Could these two regional rogues ever be defeated then? Well, although not impossible, it is highly unlikely to happen in the near future.
They are both clever, cunning and ruthless, and most importantly, they control all the key institutions, including the judiciary, the military and the media. The latter is crucial because it feeds people the notion that services like education, health, electricity and transport are not provided by the state, but by the ruling party, or more bluntly, by Hun Sen and Najib.
So people are grateful, and despite all the curbs and corruption, they opt for services and security over human rights and freedom.
As a result, our regional bad boys, our own Tweedledum and Tweedledee, continue to hold power and will almost certainly continue to do so after the next general elections are held in 2018.
Indeed, it is fair to say that in Cambodia, l’etat c’est Hun Sen. And that now the same is true in Malaysia: The state is Najib.
Mourners attend the funeral of Kem Ley, an independent political analyst who was shot dead in Phnom Penh on July 10, two days after he went on the radio to discuss a report critical of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.