PM Najib vows more cash in Malaysians' pockets

Malaysia's premier Najib Razak unveiled a manifesto on Saturday pledging bigger cash handouts, millions of new jobs and lower taxes and crime, as he seeks his first mandate in looming national polls.

Speaking to tens of thousands in a packed stadium just outside the capital, he talked up Malaysia's economic prosperity over his four years in power, promising to do better should he win convincingly in an election expected late April.

"We have fulfilled the hopes of the people. If that was our performance over just four years, imagine what we can achieve in the next five years if we have a strong mandate," he said in a speech telecast live on national television.

Najib, who dissolved parliament Wednesday, has previously said he is "cautiously optimistic" of a "big" win as his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) faces what is seen as the toughest challenge to its 56 years in power.

The vote is tipped to be the closest ever, driven by concerns over corruption, the rising cost of living and high crime under an UMNO-dominated coalition which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.

Najib has worked hard to rebrand the 13-member Barisan Nasional, or National Front, since taking over the coalition in 2009 by launching a series of reforms to strengthen the economy and grant greater civil liberties.

He has reversed a recession, despite global economic instability, with Malaysia recording a 5.6 percent growth last year while keeping inflation and unemployment at 1.6 and 3.3 percent respectively.

Launching Barisan's manifesto, he pledged to gradually increase an annual handout he introduced two years ago for millions of poor households from 500 ringgit ($164) to 1,200 ringgit while lowering private and corporate income tax.

The prime minister also promised to build a million low-cost homes and attract 1.3 trillion ringgit in investment by 2020, creating 3.3 million jobs in the country of 29 million people.

The manifesto outlines plans to expand the fight against crime and corruption by increasing the number of special corruption courts and the police force by 4,000 each year.

But Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Center, said the steps taken to combat graft were merely "procedural and do not tackle systemic issues".

"Najib has instead made a hard sell on his economic track record, but most people don't feel the 49 percent increase in income over the past three years he talks about. That's the disconnect," he added.

Najib is facing his first test at the ballot box and is under pressure to recover from the coalition's shock 2008 election result, when it lost its traditional two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Recently, influential ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad said Najib could face a ruling-party leadership putsch if he does not improve on the 2008 setback.

The resurgent opposition, led by charismatic former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, has gained traction by pledging to tackle authoritarianism and graft and is equally confident of victory.

The opposition currently holds 75 of 222 parliamentary seats and controls four of the country's 13 states.

The Election Commission has said it will meet Wednesday to decide on a polling date, which must be within 60 days of parliament's dissolution. Analysts expect it to be held by the end of the month.

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