29 April 2003

As Abdullah steps into Dr M's shoes:
... how will KL-Singapore ties fare?

    By Michael Backman

The countdown is on.
The Mahathir era is due to end in October.
So, what will Malaysia be like under Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi?
And what will it mean for Malaysia-Singapore relations?
Mr Abdullah, who is 14 years younger than Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is known as “Mr Clean” to his colleagues.
He has support, otherwise he would not be where he is.
So, he is clean and he has backing - a rarity in Malaysian politics.
But he has no well-defined support base or faction.
And that is not necessarily bad for a man who is to govern Malaysia.
He is a Mahathir supporter. But that has not always been so.
In 1987, he supported Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Dr Mahathir as Umno president and thus Prime Minister.
He returned to the Cabinet in 1991.
He has strong international experience, having served both as Foreign Minister and Defence Minister.
He’s also had the domestic portfolios of Home Affairs and Education.
So, suggestions that he is “untested” are ridiculous.
He is both a moderate Muslim and comes with impeccable Islamic credentials, having pursued Islamic Studies at the University of Malaya and being the son of a religious teacher and the grandson of Abdullah Fahim Ibrahim, a well-regarded ulama.
So, what is likely to happen under Prime Minister Abdullah?
For a start, perceptions of Malaysia in the West will shift closer to reality.
Dr Mahathir has gone out of his way to offend the West periodically.
And so now many in the West, particularly in the Western media, choose to repay Dr Mahathir in kind, by portraying Malaysia and Dr Mahathir’s leadership in tones that are way too negative.
Mr Abdullah is often spoken of as being without charisma or too cautious.
He is seen somewhat in the same terms as Mr Goh Chok Tong was when Mr Goh replaced Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew as Singapore’s Prime Minister.
And yet, Mr Goh is now respected widely and admired in Singapore and is seen as a strong but calming force.
Starting with relatively low expectations is usually a good thing.
And after the can-do approach of Mr Lee and Dr Mahathir, the benefits of a calming, uniting leader should not be under-valued.
Mr Abdullah is likely to bring a greater consensual approach to Malaysia’s government; perhaps a more traditional Malay approach to decision-making.
Ministers might have a greater opportunity to shine and develop in their portfolios and be less inclined to see pleasing the boss as their most important or only role.
So, under Mr Abdullah, we might see greater competence emerge among the Malaysian Cabinet - a widening of ministers’ roles.
This would be appropriate at this point in Malaysia’s development.
After the strong leadership and drive of the current CEO, it’s time for some broadening of the professionalism of the rest of the board.
Dr Mahathir has always been very pro-business (as opposed to pro-market).
Business people are likely to have less influence on government decision-making in an Abdullah-led administration and there will be a return to greater reliance on the advice of senior civil servants.
But the dishing out of contracts will be as important as ever because, while the leader is changing, Umno is not.
Former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin once told me that reviewing who got what contract and checking for balance and appeasement took the lion’s share of his time as Finance Minister.
That will not change overnight.
Dr Mahathir has been very important in demonstrating that it is possible to be direct and outspoken and Malay.
But it’s possible that some of that outspokenness has alienated some Malays and contributed to the split that we now see in the Malay community.
Probably, Mr Abdullah will have a better chance of uniting the Malays.
For a start, he is less tarred by the Anwar Ibrahim issue than is Dr Mahathir.
Almost certainly there will be less emphasis on big projects as spectacles under Mr Abdullah.
Things like the world’s tallest building, the longest runway, the longest shopping mall, these things will be less a hallmark of an Abdullah administration.
And so Malaysia is likely to see a better use of capital in the future.
And the downside?
Mr Abdullah has a reputation for giving away little when he speaks.
He comes across when interviewed as inoffensive, cautious and devoid of strong opinions.
These are the qualities of a Foreign Minister but not of a leader.
Malaysia at the very least needs more openness and transparency, particularly in government decision-making.
Imparting words with meaning rather than waffling will be a personal challenge for the future Prime Minister Abdullah.
And how will cross-Causeway relations fare under Mr Abdullah?
A few weeks ago, I flew from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.
The fact that I’d come in from Singapore caused a minor panic at the immigration desk at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
Ostensibly, Sars was the reason. But three days earlier, I had flown into KLIA from Hong Kong and no one so much as commented.
It seemed that the Singapore version of Sars was more disturbing in KL than the Hong Kong version.
Only one sticking point between Singapore and Malaysia has been solved satisfactorily in recent years and that is the issue of the Malaysian-issued CLOB shares traded in Singapore.
Water, the KTM Tanjong Pagar railway terminus, Pedra Branca (Pulau Batu Puteh to Malaysians) and a host of other issues remain in perpetual dispute.
Possibly, there will be greater scope for sustained positive movement on these issues with Mr Abdullah as Prime Minister.
Certainly, the rhetoric will be less inflammatory.
No longer will references to “war” be tossed around flippantly and goalposts once acknowledged are less likely to shift.
Mr Abdullah is, after all, a former Foreign Minister and a well regarded one at that.
So, diplomacy might suddenly find itself in the front seat after a long absence.
The bottom line is that under Mr Abdullah, while the news on TV3 might get even duller, the process of government and inter-government relations is likely to improve.