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The honeymoon is over

Comment by Steven Gan, Editor-in-Chief of Malaysiakini (From Malaysiakini of January 27, 2006)

Same old, same old. If this has not been clear over the past two years of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's governance, it is now.
Mark this down - January 2006. It's the month which has brought the greatest disappointment to those who have kept faith in Abdullah despite him being a willing partner in the old regime.
The month kicked off with the termination of two top China Press editors for wrongly claiming the Squatgate woman was a Chinese national.
The threat to suspend a newspaper could not have been made by any ministry official. It had to come from the very top - from Abdullah himself.
Clearly, someone had to pay for our humiliating apology to Beijing - the first time we had to say sorry to a foreign government for the abuse of, yes, our own citizen.
But one question still begs to be answered: Why are those who concealed the crucial information on Squatgate - that the woman was a Malaysian - not sacked?
Fast forward a week or two and we run smack into another controversy - the case of the nine non-Muslim ministers.
While it is improper protocol for the ministers to suddenly become NGO petitioners, theirs was made after the 'green light' from Abdullah who had publicly said he was open to amending the laws to avoid another M Moorthy imbroglio. Looks like he wasn't after all.
There was also Abdullah's dramatic reversal on the Islamic Family Law bill after the government made the asinine 'pass the law first and we'll amend it later' pledge.
The flawed bill was indeed passed but not gazetted - probably another first in our history.
Perhaps Abdullah has been oversold by his spin-doctors as a reformist. There is one cardinal rule in politics - you don't promise what you cannot deliver.
This is not to say little separate between Abdullah and his former boss, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. There are differences, and significant ones too. But don't expect the government to completely change its spots simply because it has a new man at the helm.
It is becoming clear that the forces of reaction - those aligned to the Mahathir regime - are slowly getting the upper hand in their battle for control within Umno.
As mentioned in this column before, Abdullah's biggest mistake was not clearing out Mahathir's sympathisers when he was at his strongest - just after the 2004 general elections when he romped home with an unprecedented majority.
It is ironic that Malaysians are already talking about the post-Abdullah regime only two years after the man was elected the most popular leader in the country's history.
However, Abdullah is still Umno's lethal weapon against the opposition, so don't expect a move against him soon, that is, not until after the next general elections.
But for now, expect Abdullah's enemies to undermine his leadership though he would still win the next election but with a less convincing margin. And that fact will be used against him when the knives are out.
Then there are the two other issues which had also cropped up this month - Mahathir's outrage over the sale of Proton's motorbike unit for a song and the Metramac scandal.
The first was Mahathir taking rearguard action to defend his legacy while the second was a stealth message to the old man for him to zip his motor mouth and leave the new administration alone.
The fight for supremacy in Umno is really over Mahathirnomics. To Mahathirists, it's the silver bullet to soothe our economic woes via the mantra 'spend freely and growth will take care of itself'. Abdullahristas don't share the faith.
Mahathirists are at a loss why the government is claiming, time and again, that it has run out of money to fund the kind of mega-projects which excite well-connected tycoons and party faithful alike.
After all, pump-priming the economy had pulled the nation out of 1997-98 financial morass. It worked then, why shouldn't it work now?
Abdullah may know the situation better than anyone. True, we chalked a respectable five percent growth last year but much of it was fueled by the unexpected bonanza in petroleum and palm oil exports. Peek beneath the surface however, businesses are hurting, sentiments are down.
That the government is going to spend less money in the 9th Malaysia Plan compared to the previous five years is an indication of the financial crunch. This is made worse when we have to soon meet our debt repayments for Mahathir's years of profligacy.
This factional fight will continue in the months to come. And with Abdullahristas under siege, it is not surprising that the clampdown on the media has begun, with China Press being the first to be brought to heel.
When Mahathir became PM in 1981, then, too, there was a honeymoon period where the media was relatively free to debate and report on key issues affecting the country.
Let 1,000 flowers bloom, said Mahathir. That lasted three years.
We are just moving into the third year of the Abdullah administration. Déjà vu? You bet.

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