KUALA LUMPUR–When Mahathir Mohamad retired as Malaysia’s prime minister last year, his successor was asked if he could fill the shoes of the Goliath who had towered over Southeast Asian politics for 22 years.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi replied: “I don’t know how big his shoes are, but I have my own shoes.”
The quiet self-assurance Abdullah displayed that day has been the bedrock of his one year in office, demonstrating that he is no longer in the shadow of the man who handpicked him to be Malaysia’s prime minister.
Since taking office one year ago this week, Abdullah has presided over one of the most radical political makeovers Malaysia has gone through, occasionally by reversing Mahathir’s initiatives.
“Abdullah’s emphasis seems to be on the well-being of the people,” said Goh Chee Meng, 27, a marketing executive. “He tries to make friends, not foes.”
Abdullah, 64, halted Malaysia’s era of expensive infrastructure projects; tacitly approved the release from prison of Mahathir’s former deputy-turned-nemesis Anwar Ibrahim; and healed ties with countries that were often the target of Mahathir’s famously acidic tongue.
“Abdullah has his own excellent vision for Malaysia,” said Agus Yusuff, a Malaysian university political lecturer. “He is more democratic than Mahathir, but we still have to wait and see whether his policies are ultimately as effective.”
Mahathir retired as a lionized figure among Malaysia’s 25 million people on October 31, 2003, after firmly establishing the country as a booming Southeast Asian tiger economy.
When Mahathir became prime minister in 1981, the country was a tropical backwater, reliant on rubber and tin mining. Today, with an annual per capita income of US$4,036, it is on the verge of being classified as a developed country, and one of its biggest tourist attractions is the Petronas Twin Towers, formerly the world’s tallest buildings.
Abdullah does not have his former boss’ magnetism or charisma, and some worried that he lacked support within the ruling National Front 13-party coalition.
But he swiftly stamped his authority. He shelved a $14.5-billion railway project Mahathir had championed and launched an anticorruption crackdown that led to the arrest of a tycoon allied to Mahathir.
Abdullah’s “policies sit very well with the business community,” said Nicholas Zefferys, president of the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce.
Abdullah has worked to shore up ties with countries such as the United States, Australia and Singapore, which traded barbs with Malaysia in the past over bilateral disputes, Mahathir’s human rights record and his abrasive criticism of Western policies.
But the biggest turnaround was the September 2 release from prison of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who marshaled street protests against Mahathir in 1998 and was subsequently arrested and sentenced to prison terms totaling 15 years for corruption and sodomy.
Indeed, Abdullah, who is known as a pious Muslim, has buoyed his popularity by avoiding Mahathir’s penchant for belligerently berating his political rivals.
In March, Abdullah secured his own five-year mandate when the National Front won 90 percent of the seats in Parliament, one of its best electoral results ever.
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"