The Real Crisis in North Korea–A Perspective


May 21, 2017

The Real Crisis in North Korea–A Perspective

by Gianluca Spezza

PhD candidate at the International Institute of Korean Studies, University of Central Lancashire, and founding contributor at NK News

https://www.irinnews.org/opinion/2017/05/18/real-crisis-north-korea-not-one-you%E2%80%99ve-been-hearing-about

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The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been in the news a lot lately, with the DPRK testing new missiles and the United States moving a naval strike group off the Korean peninsula. The commentary almost always revolves around strategic issues, especially North Korea’s nuclear programme.

In focusing so narrowly on the country’s military and its leader, Kim Jong-un, however, the debate largely overlooks the North Korean people.

This has two major implications. First, it perpetuates an image of the country that is not in line with reality. In fact, the younger Kim does not enjoy the kind of monolithic influence held by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, or his father, Kim Jong-il. Power structures in North Korea began to disintegrate under Kim Jong-il and are now widely ramified. Security apparatuses are no longer under one single point of command; neither are military corps. This is something that the administration of US President Donald Trump seems to be oblivious to, but it should take into account when formulating policy.

Second, and most important, the world’s myopic attention to Kim Jong-un precludes recognition of the nearly 26 million people that live in the country. They represent the true issue at stake, once the current regime – which is living on borrowed time – is gone.

What do we know about DPRK and its people?

Oddly enough, since the early 1990s the international community has accumulated a larger knowledge base on North Korean society than intelligence agencies have ever had on its military. Yet, most media insist on reporting obsessively on the latter. This is shortsighted.

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The Hermit Nation–Kim and his Military Men

The questions we ought to ask instead, if we are to understand where the country is headed, are: What is the current state of North Korea? What do we know about its society and economy? What kind of country will emerge once the regime is gone?

These questions matter, because with each crisis, the possibility of regime change or collapse becomes more real. With that, the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe increases, and neither South Korea nor China are well prepared to respond.

North Korea represents an anomaly, for both aid organisations and experts of international politics. But things are changing.

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For a long time, the country may have deserved its moniker of the hermit kingdom. But today, after 22 years of humanitarian assistance and development, the DPRK is an aid-dependent country, stuck in a paradoxical situation. Its economy crashed in the mid-1990s and never recovered, while its social indicators went from good, to terrible, to decent over the last two decades.

The North Korean development indicators for children’s welfare, as well as immunisation and education, are well above countries with a much higher GDP, but the economy does not reflect this relatively healthy development status. The DPRK produces very little of value, and its people find survival in the black market rather than state-provided jobs.

North Korea, in other words, has the economy of an underdeveloped country, with levels of social development of a middle-to-high income country. It is time to take a look at the country beyond military parades.

How did North Korea get so poor?

Upon the demise of its first leader, Kim Il-sung, in 1994, the DPRK faced a combination of domestic and international factors that negatively affected all sectors of society and state institutions. External circumstances included the loss between 1991 and 1993 of its main allies and economic partners, the Soviet Union and China. In addition, in 1993, China started to demand payments at regular market rates for oil and fuel, which had until then been provided at very low prices and constituted the main source of energy for the DPRK.

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In this rapidly changing international scenario, the DPRK, which had become heavily dependent on subsided trade with its former communist partners during the Cold War, found itself with no economic safety net. At the same time, the country was hit by a series of droughts and floods, along with a sudden shortage of energy sources. This devastated an agriculture system almost entirely dependent on chemical fertilisers and mechanised irrigation.

With diminishing amounts of food, the effectiveness of the Public Distribution System that regulated the allocation of basic goods decreased gradually, forcing the population to seek alternative means of subsistence. Housewives, factory workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and students alike had to fend for themselves in order to secure food and heating material during winter.

The crisis caught many North Koreans by surprise, and it was aggravated by economic mismanagement. It should be noted that the Public Distribution System did not collapse altogether, but the degree of functioning of the system varied between different provincesBetween 1994 and 1998, GDP declined by almost half. This, in combination with the progressive dysfunction of the PDS, severely reduced access to food, medications, and primary goods, leading to a famine and to the general deterioration of the population’s ability to withstand further calamities.

The economy: China dominates

Today, it is safe to say that, in effect, China runs North Korea’s economy. Chinese currency is widely used in the unofficial markets that have mushroomed around the country since the crisis of the mid-1990s.

China gets the lion’s share of trade with North Korea and provides the bulk of its food and energy. Luxury items, if and when they manage to come into the DPRK, do so from across the border region of Yanbian or Chinese ports.

To be sure, North Korea does have a few economic niches, but these too are largely influenced by China’s presence. The DPRK’s significant mineral resources are almost exclusively exploited by Chinese companies, and Chinese visitors make for the majority of customers in North Korea’s trade fairs and Special Economic Zones.

In other words, simply by looking at the economy of North Korea, one could surmise that as long as China is there to support it, the country could muddle along with no substantial changes for a very long time. A look at North Korean social indicators, however, offers a different perspective.

Demography is destiny

The key indicators of a country’s state of health and future prospects are its social statistics, particularly those on demographics. According to combined data from the Central Bureau of Statistics in Pyongyang, the World Bank Institute, and the UN gathered in 2008, and data by UNICEF gathered in 2014, the DPRK’s average population growth rate for 1990-2004 was 0.9 percent, or equivalent to that of upper middle-income countries. The same data provide trends for 2004-2020 that place growth at 0.4 percent, or equivalent to that of high-income countries.

At the same time, North Korea’s birth rate dropped to 16 per 1,000 people in the late 2000s – the level of middle-income countries – whilst the fertility rate is slowly approaching the levels of most Western countries. It sits between parity – two children, which is the minimum requirement for a population to continue replacing itself over time – and one child or none per couple, which is deemed not enough to avoid extinction in the long run. The latter is where Germany, Italy, and most EU countries are at present.

What does this mean for the future of North Korea?

If we read population increase as an indication of economic and social stability, the DPRK looks further removed from the so-called “failed states” it is often compared to – like Somalia, Yemen, or South Sudan – which are all on the verge of famine (or, in the case of parts of South Sudan, already experiencing it). North Korea is in fact undergoing the same “cradle crisis” that characterises advanced countries, from Japan to Germany.

However, the same statistics, viewed from the standpoint of overall death rates and infant mortality rates suggest the DPRK is right there with low-income countries. Its average death rate is as high as 11 per 1,000 people, and rates of infant mortality that have not yet fully recovered from the 1990s crisis.

This has a number of implications: North Korea doesn’t have the problems that South Korea has at the moment, with an increasingly aging population placing stress on the social welfare system. As a matter of fact, the DPRK welfare system has been simply downsized and slowed to a minimum since the 1990s. Today, North Koreans live on average six to eight years less than South Koreans and about nine years less than the Japanese.

In Malthusian terms, this means that the government has less to worry about in the short-term. Considering the chronic economic stagnation, most North Koreans alive today could well get old before they even have a chance to elevate their economic status.

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At the same time, with a slow but steady recovery from the famine and the crisis of the mid-1990s, the DPRK seems to have reached a level of relative social comfort at which most middle-to-high income countries stop having enough children for the maintenance of native population. At this stage, they will slowly begin to fade out unless they adopt open immigration policies – an option that is unpopular in South Korea and Japan, and next to impossible in the DPRK.

If the trend continues – and the figures from 2008 and 2014 suggest it will – North Korea may one day run out of people to maintain its workforce. That would be one more reason for the regime to push towards reunification. While its rival state south of the demilitarised zone is also growing older, it is still twice as populous, and immensely richer by comparison. Still, if nothing changes at the economic level, any effort of reunification will require the equivalent of a mini-Marshall Plan for the entire peninsula.

This is the real North Korean conundrum: The country has faced challenges it is hard to imagine any other regime surviving: famine, floods, droughts, economic collapse, energy shortages, sanctions, and leadership changes. This has left a North Korea that is a mass of contradictions.

Few consider that the country making headlines for its nuclear technology has a basket case economy, but also one of the highest literacy rates in the world. There is no other country with such low economic indicators that can at the same time build and at test nuclear devices and achieve universal literacy, while still being aid-dependent.

Is aid the answer?

To explain the North Korean anomaly, we have to look at the nature of aid itself with three key questions: What is aid? Why is aid provided? Is it accomplishing what it is supposed to?

From an economic perspective, we can think of aid as a measure of socioeconomic welfare, like the one used for families and individuals, but on a much bigger scale. Welfare policies are supposed to work as a safety net in times of emergency – fostering growth and preventing recession when families and individuals go through hardships. At any rate, welfare is conceived to be a temporary measure and aid doesn’t come for free.

Aid represents an extension of foreign policy from donor states to recipient nations. Donors and international organisations expect recipients to correct their course and adopt policies that move them towards a free market economy, and adherence to international treaties on human rights, environmental protection and sustainability.

North Korea has become chronically dependent on aid since the mid 1990s. Yet, it has remained impervious to outside pressure for change. When it shows any degree of compliance with international norms, it does so only in fields where its interests converge with those of international organisations. Education and environmental protection are two examples.

On the other hand, North Korea has no relationship with global economic bodies like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. It makes no concessions on the issues of nuclear proliferation and allows no inspections from human rights organisations. But its population does require foreign assistance in order to survive.

The socioeconomic emergency that swept the country between 1995 and 1999 was rooted in a combination of political, climatic, structural, and geopolitical factors. By 2005, the government declared the food emergency to be over and asked a number of NGOs – but not UN agencies – to leave. Nevertheless, the country has continued to rely on foreign assistance, just as the UN agencies at work in the DPRK kept monitoring a situation that requires periodical emergency assistance, year in-year out, in combination with development programmes.

If North Korea were a family, or an individual who has been in need of aid for 22 consecutive years, would this be considered normal? It’s unlikely. Yet, aid needs to reach the people of the DPRK on a yearly basis or a new humanitarian emergency may break out, according to the UN.

There is a consensus among humanitarians that as the North Korean people have no say on their government policies, they should not be the ones suffering the consequences. Therefore, the international community has responded with aid. However, a look at what North Korea has become since 1995 reveals that aid has not made North Korea strong enough to stand on its own.

This is the most pressing problem with North Korea, aside from its periodically aggressive military posture. The country needs aid because what once was a functioning infrastructure for a command economy, in which the state plays the primary role, has ceased to exist. More than this, it needs important economic and political reforms. Currently however, North Korean politics withhold economic restructuring and growth. At the same time, aid agencies and donors tend to look at technical issues and do not tackle the lack of political decisions that could steer the country away from perpetually looming humanitarian disasters.

 A new approach?

Aid has been invaluable in pulling the country out of the humanitarian catastrophe of the mid-1990s, and it has helped North Korea maintain decent levels in development indicators such as health and education since then on. But aid cannot help the country provide a decent standard of living on its own for its people. That can only be done through political reform.

The real political story about North Korea today is that the “Stalinist fortress” – the impenetrable polity devoted to hardline communism – is no longer Stalinist, nor a fortress. North Korea scholars and South Korean government experts concur in saying that Kim Jong-un holds a fraction of the power that his father and grandfather wielded.

The elites that have emerged from two decades of black market activity are aware that there are only a few obstacles to a reunification that could see them prosper, while lifting millions of North Koreans out of poverty. These factors are their “political guilt” (for they contributed to keeping the country in a state of repression over decades), and the risk of losing whatever wealth they have accumulated.

If the United States and South Korea could agree to leave some of these families in power, providing them amnesty, they could ask in return for a soft removal of the Kim family, and open the door for a gradual economic rebuilding of the country. Financial incentive, or the lack thereof, in North Korea is the key issue. The average annual income in North Korea is a little below $1,000. In the South, it is over $30,000. No amount of foreign aid can ever bridge this difference.

The Kuala Lumpur Logo–Reality vs Myth


The Kuala Lumpur Logo Controversy–Reality vs Myth

by  Tan-Zi-Hao

Does a tacky logo point to the return of authoritarianism in Malaysia?

When institutional failures are commonplace, institutions are expected to fail. This cynical expectation may be passed off as sarcasm, but it is intrinsic to a growing sense of political detachment between the Malaysian government under Prime Minister Najib Razak and the people. Worse, the authorities have a vested interest in maintaining, rather than closing, this gap, to deter more direct political participation.

Kuala Lumpur’s new logo, recently released by the city council Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL), was never destined to be  popular. Rather, it is the public’s reactions that give it currency.

When it was first unveiled online, the logo prompted ridicule. Within the span of a week, a free template was created, in addition to several step-by-step tutorials , allowing netizens to make their own version of the logo with just a few clicks. Social media was immediately awash with parodies and caricatures, with netizens customising the logo with personal or corporate names, repurposing it for reasons other than its own initial intent.

This  is the Reality since 2009

While one could however laud the creative aftermath of this controversy, the reactions in fact display more cynicism than optimism. The parodies are suggestive of a growing detachment between  the Malaysian government and the people, one that amounts to a credibility gap. But this gap should not be understood solely as a problem. Rather, it is an ideological façade perpetuated by the authorities to consolidate their power.

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After the negative reception of the logo, DBKL responded that the design cost RM15,000, inevitably creating a greater stir. The logo received its second wave of media coverage when Visit KL, the Tourism Unit of DBKL, released a video on YouTube (removed from the official Visit KL channel, but re-uploaded by a private organisation) showcasing a row of tin ingots gradually crackling and breaking apart to reveal the logo. The tin ingots are supposed to symbolise Kuala Lumpur’s history “as a major tin mining and trading centre”, whereas the serif font selection is supposed to display “an Islamic scripture character with a modern twist”.

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Nonetheless, any clarification provided by DBKL will never suffice. Be it RM15 or RM15,000, the reactions will be the same. In Malaysia, cynicism has been thriving during most of Prime Minister Najib administration, escalating with the 1MDB fiasco. It is a symptom that has developed over an extended period of time and out of repeated institutional failures. That these failures have become a norm means that not only are failures commonplace, they are expected to be so.

The expectation of failures feeds into cynicism and the credibility gap. This phenomenon should not be underestimated. Within the broader contemporary state of affairs, cynicism becomes integral   to the political economy of the nation-state. To the Malaysian authorities, failures are ideologically productive: failures, again and again, produce cynical expectation, deepen political detachment and expand the tolerance for more scandalous failures.

If the banality of repeated failures cultivates cynicism, cynicism furthers the banalisation of failures and completes the crisis of political detachment.

Far from being a standalone problem, this crisis should be read against the context of the privileging of the personal over the public domain. It is a moment where political actions become more about the individual rather than the collective. . Parodies of the controversial Kuala Lumpur logo point to this direction. Amid the breakdown of the public political realm, accruing personal cynicism can only be satiated through further individualisation of political expression. That is, in this case, through the personalisation or customisation of the logo.

The credibility gap has effectively disempowered the public and has deterred the possibility of more direct political action. The Kuala Lumpur logo controversy and the subsequent reactions are but a sign. Resistance is now impelled to operate in a separate discourse of politics, which can resist and react accordingly without the gap ever closing, because it has been decoupled from the hegemonic operation of power.

The response towards the Kuala Lumpur logo has taken up a form that fuels political detachment. Increasingly, resistance has to capitalise on this detachment for more radical advocacy. Yet, it is on the very same detachment that the hegemony of power thrives. It is in this fashion that authoritarianism in Malaysia is returning.

Through the maintenance of credibility gap and political detachment, institutional failures are constantly rehearsed to accustom the public to expecting failures with amusement rather than anger. The crisis of institutional credibility has become so  ordinary that recurrent failures sit within one’s comfort zone. And as the cronies do what they do best, resistant politics can only react more radically by deepening the sense of political detachment, and implicitly, by making failures ever more tolerable.

 Tan Zi Hao is a postgraduate student in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He is also a conceptual artist whose artworks can be viewed at www.tanzihao.net. As both artist and writer, he is interested in the arts, language, cultural politics and mobilities.

http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2016/06/13/the-kuala-lumpur-logo-controversy/

China’s Ambassador Tells Malaysia to Stop the Racism


September 26, 2015

China’s Ambassador Tells Malaysia to Stop the Racism

by John Berthelsen@www.asiasentinel.com

http://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/china-ambassador-tells-malaysia-stop-racism/

china_ambassador_huang_mugshot_tmiAmbassador Huang

Huang Huikang, the Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia, is expected to be summoned to the country’s Foreign Ministry on September 28 for a remarkable visit last Friday to the center of a Chinese area threatened by Malay-supremacy thugs to say the Chinese government is opposed to terrorism, extremism and any forms of discrimination based on race.

Such an action by an Ambassador, not just in Malaysia but anywhere, is virtually unheard of. By any measure, it constitutes unprecedented interference in domestic politics and is viewed by critics as a raw assertion of Chinese power. China is now Malaysia’s second-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting to US$28.2 billion in 2014 and may well be the largest, since Malaysia’s trade with Singapore is US$33.3 billion and Singapore acts largely as an entrepôt, shipping goods on to other countries including China.

Huang’s stroll through Chinatown was a clear indication that China would not tolerate any form of criminal intimidation. But it has also raised serious concerns in the ethnic Chinese community that what is regarded as mainland ham-handedness could make it worse for them rather than better.

Nonetheless, despite the allegations of affront, Huang’s visit to the Petaling Street area appears to have played a role in bringing to a halt, however temporary, growing threats and intimidation by so-called Red Shirts led by a United Malays National Organization Division Chief named Jamal Md Yunos against Chinese hawkers and merchants in the area, the epicenter of the urban Chinese community, home of the historic 127-year-old central market and to hundreds of Chinese street hawkers and traders. Police arrested Jamal Yunos and warned Red Shirt protesters against marching through the area. The Red Shirts had been scheduled to march through Petaling Street today, Sept. 26 amid outright threats of violence.

The Red Shirt protest is closely tied to Malaysia’s deteriorating political situation, in which critics say the Prime Minister is attempting to use a perceived threat by the Chinese, who dominate the economic landscape, to attempt to dominate the political one as well via the Democratic Action Party, the predominant ethnic Chinese party. Najib’s position is threatened by not just the domestic political equation, but by investigations into allegations of money laundering and corruption by the US, Swiss, UK, French and Singaporean governments. 

He and UMNO officials have responded by blaming an international conspiracy to bring down parliamentary democratic rule in Malaysia. Add that international conspiracy the Chinese community. On Aug. 29, the good government NGO Bersih brought hundreds of thousands of protesters against to the streets in a two-day rally dominated by the Chinese, giving UMNO the opportunity to characterize the rally as a DAP stratagem to wreck the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition.

As tensions have grown, the Red Shirts have flung insults including Cina babi, meaning “Chinese are pigs,” seemingly with the support of officials linked to UMNO. Last week, police had to use water canon to drive back Red Shirt protesters attempting to force their way into the Petaling Street area, allegedly to demand that authorities raid traders allegedly selling fake goods or running other illegal activities.

Mahathir Mohamad, the 90-year-old former prime minister attempting to bring down Najib, charged last week that Najib is paying the protesters to distract from charges that US$861 million had mysteriously appeared in his personal bank account in 2013. Some of the protesters have acknowledged that they have been paid although Najib, in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, denied he had done so.

Huang, wearing a batik shirt, presented mooncakes to the traders in recognition of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, which begins on Jan. 29. Reading from a prepared statement, he said that: “Nobody has the right to undermine the authority of the law or trample on the rule of law. The Chinese government has always pursued peaceful co-existence in international relationship and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. But with regard to the infringement on China’s national interests, violations of legal rights and interests of Chinese citizens and businesses which may damage the friendly relationship between China and the host country, we will not sit by idly.”

“I think Najib has brought (the Ambassador’s action) upon himself,” said Din Merican, a longtime academic and blogger now teaching at a university in Cambodia. “His racist rhetoric is raising international concerns since in a globalized world, there are many stakeholders. Najib must show that he can protect the interest of foreign investors who have stakes in Malaysia. Fanning the flames of racial hatred and Islamic bigotry is not an option for him. China is sending a message to Najib to stop going overboard with his racism.  The non-interference argument can no longer be used when human rights are being abused with impunity. The Red shirts are Najib’s paid proxies. The besieged Prime Minister is looking for a pretext to declare emergency rule to extend his political life. He knows that UMNO and Barisan Nasional will lose the general election in 2018 if he remains Prime Minister.”

Ambassadors “don’t do that,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist and fellow at the Penang Institute in Penang. “I find it extraordinary because Ambassadors don’t do things in public.You go make a call, you don’t leave a trace”. Wong pointed out that the Ambassador didn’t make a clear distinction whether he was speaking for Chinese nationals or Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese as well.

“That is a no-no in Malaysia,” Wong said. “Some ethnic Malays feel uncomfortable with the idea that a Chinese Ambassador is acting in a way that he appears to be representing the Chinese here. I would be offended myself if he is saying that. If he wants to express concern, he should be doing it privately.

Najib catches much of the blame from observers over Huang’s move, although Gerakan and the Malaysian Chinese Association, two ethnic Chinese component parties in the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition led by UMNO, come in for their own share of criticism.

“Najib is fomenting this to save his political skin,” said a Malay businessman who declined to be quoted by name. “But Gerakan and the MCA haven’t got the balls to stand up to him.”

“Malaysia views his remarks seriously,” a foreign ministry official told local media. “It is tantamount to interfering in Malaysia’s domestic affairs.”

Armand Azha Abu Hanifah,  a member of UMNO’s youth wing executive committee, demanded an apology from Huang for both the government and the Malaysian people.

Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamid–Jocelyn Tan’s Positive Spin for Najib Razak


August 2, 2015

Malaysia:  Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Zahid Hamid- The Positive Spin for  Najib Razak

by Jocelyn Tan@www.thestar.com.my

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IT was late afternoon by the time the Prime Minister showed up at Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil’s Hari Raya open house in Damansara Heights. It was still crowded because many of the guests had lingered on when they heard that Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was coming.

Najib often wears red for Wanita UMNO dos and he stood out in his crimson batik shirt. His face seemed rather flushed although the day had cooled down and someone joked that it must be the political temperature out there.

It had been a super stressful day – he had just sacked Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and also brought the axe down on long-time loyalist Dato’ Seri Shafie Apdal, who had turned against him.

The last time something like this happened in UMNO was when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad sacked Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from the Cabinet and party.It was big time politics and the first thought that crossed the minds of many was that Najib had “done a Mahathir” or as a former UMNO Youth leader put it, Najib had taken a leaf from Mahathir’s playbook.

The ripples from the Cabinet reshuffle have yet to subside. After all, Muhyiddin is UMNO Deputy President and Shafie is one of three Vice-Presidents.

About half an hour after Najib and his wife arrived at Shahrizat’s house, the new Deputy Prime Minister and his wife arrived. It was one of those moments – everyone wanted a piece of Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

The presence of the top two was not purely social. The pair were sending an important signal that Shahrizat, the leader of the backbone of the party, is with them. The timing could not have been better.The new No.2 had also had a stressful day, but it was a happy type of stress and some said he was smiling non-stop.

Actually, Dr Ahmad Zahid is one of those natural smilers whose face crinkles up whenever he smiles. The Prime Minister had indicated to him a day earlier but still, he felt rather overwhelmed when it finally happened.

He is the new flavour of the month and everywhere he goes, there are cameras clicking away.

Dr Ahmad Zahid has had a tough guy reputation ever since he took on the Home Ministry job. He has managed to clamp down on organised crime and is popular among the police force. But behind that likeable smile is a rather jantan (masculine) personality and you really do not want to get on his wrong side.

But his image within UMNO is quite different. The UMNO crowd sees him as a people’s politician, someone who is completely without airs and whom the common folk relate to.

His handshakes are firm, he looks people in the eye and he does not hesitate to give friends and long-time associates man hugs. Once, when he met PAS President Datuk Seri Hadi Awang in Mecca, political rivalry was pushed aside and Muslim brotherhood kicked in. He wrapped his arms around the elder man and they held hands and chatted like old friends.

His parents were religious teachers in Bagan Datoh, where he grew up, and that part of his upbringing comes through in the way he carries himself. He was the first Umno leader to have a surau in his house, long before it became the fashion among the Muslim elite.

He is one of the few UMNO leaders who appears at certain public functions in jubah and kopiah, and many had noted that his acceptance speech for the top post was flavoured with Quranic verses.

Dr Ahmad Zahid’s appointment is seen as one of those timely moves in assisting Najib to consolidate the party. The new No.2 is charismatic and can be entrusted to champion the Malay cause and quench Muslim sentiment.

But back to Najib. His party is seeing a new side to him now that the velvet gloves have come off. Very few in his party thought he had the nerve to drop his deputy but he not only chopped his deputy, he also showed his former loyalist the door.

Muhyiddin had gone against the instruction to all Cabinet members that only Finance Minister II Datuk Seri Ahmad Husni Hanazlah was authorised to speak on the 1MDB issue while investigations were ongoing. He crossed the line not once but twice.

Shortly after a video of Muhyiddin slamming the 1MDB issue at an UMNO event in Janda Baik went viral, Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Zambry Abdul Kader had told aides that was not the way to do things.

“If anyone wants to go against the President, he should resign first. As long as I am in the party, I will defend the president and PM,” he had told his aides.

Najib had said it was a difficult decision to make. Muhyiddin is his senior by a few years and Shafie goes back a long way with him.Moreover, said UMNO supreme council member Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek, Najib had lent his clout to help the two men win in the last UMNO election and he had not expected them to turn against him.

“Loyalty and teamwork are very important to him. The PM does not scold people. He doesn’t raise his voice or lose his temper even when (he is) angry. He has been too nice and accommodating. I think some people crossed the line,” said Ahmad Shabery.

The reshuffle, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with it, is the Prime Minister’s prerogative. Even Muhyiddin acknowledges that.It is quite apparent that Najib’s desire to stay on was greater than Muhyiddin’s desire to become Prime Minister. Moreover, the reshuffle came on the same day as his appointment of a new Attorney-General. Beneath Najib’s polished Malay gentleman demeanour lies some very shrewd survival instincts. Those who continue to cross him will probably regret it because having tasted blood, it will be easier the next time around. In fact, he may even come to enjoy the taste of it.To put it in Manglish, his Cabinet members would not dare to “play-play” with him anymore and, as they say, it is better to be feared than to be loved in politics.

His tough line with opponents in his party and Cabinet has, quite surprisingly, drawn him grudging regard from some quarters. For too long, he was known as Mr Nice. But he has shown that he is willing to use the sword.

“I have a feeling that some people like this kind of toughness. It is, in some strange way, equated with leadership and taking charge, especially where the Chinese are concerned. Chinese history and literature are full of such stories of strategic survival,” said Fui Soong, CEO of the CENSE think tank.

All of this should not be taken to mean that the 1MDB issue will go away any time soon. Najib’s team will need to manage the issue and provide answers, closure and more importantly, rebut some of the absurd things popping up every other day.

The latest was another claim by UK-based Sarawak Report claiming that Najib would be charged in court soon. It turned out to be another fake document and was immediately shot down by the Attorney-General’s Department. Najib will continue to come under smear campaigns by groups like Sarawak Report.

But he is now quite unassailable within UMNO because there is no one big enough to challenge him.

His Deputy President is out in the cold and of the three UMNO Vice-Presidents, one has been promoted, another has been chopped and the third is his first cousin.

It is all kao-tim (settled), as the Chinese would say. Politically speaking, it looks like a pretty smooth Machiavellian stroke. He and his new Deputy will now have to go down to assuage the ground over what has happened.But the media interest is about to move on to something new, namely a possible conclusion to what has been described as the greatest mystery in aviation history.

A piece of wreckage or flaperon believed to be part of MH370 has been found washed up on the French Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar.It was one of those goosebump-inducing type of news – after all these months, the sea currents have carried a part of the aircraft to an island with the uncanny name of Reunion. It is as if the lost souls are reaching out to be reunited with their loved ones.

Airline disasters and political issues have seemed intertwined in dominating the news in the last year or so. And it is about to happen again.