THERE was a general sigh of relief when Mahathir Mohamad stood down as Malaysia's prime minister. Malaysians recognised his leadership and his handling of the economy, but after the first decade he became confident to the extent of being arrogant and the institutions of civil society were destroyed and authoritarian measures were put in place.
Abdullah Badawi, sworn in as Prime Minister one year ago yesterday, assumed office in this context. There was a general expectation that he would make necessary changes or reforms to correct the excesses of his predecessor.
And initially he did just that; he recognised the popular feelings of Malaysians that the administration needed to depart from the general policies of Dr M.
His pronouncements against corruption, his commitment to cancel some of Mahathir's mega projects, his assertions that the separation of powers be respected, including of the judiciary, all gave him a very popular appeal among even the more critical professionals and the middle class.
His personality is more conciliatory, more pleasant.
Although we are considered to be political rivals, we have had a civil relationship and I would rate him highly on his ability to carry out these reforms. At a personal level I must admit that without the change from Mahathir to Abdullah I would still be in prison.
And prior to the last election he did take some initial measures. One prominent corporate leader, Perwaja Steel managing director Eric Chia, and one relatively unknown cabinet minister, Kasitah Gaddam, were charged with corruption.
I have my own views on the Perwaja scandal because I tabled the initial PriceWaterhouse report to the parliament in December 1996, much to the anger of Mahathir.
Under Mahathir it would be impossible to imagine any of these personalities being investigated. So Abdullah should be commended because he has caused ripples and fear among the more corrupt political leaders and corporate players.
But then came the elections in March, which were the most seriously flawed in the history of the country.
I have seen glaring evidence of phantom voters, people who have died three to four years ago who were still on the list and voted. And these were just examples we found by random.
These kinds of activities had begun after the ruling United Malays National Organisation lost the Malay heartland in the 1999 election – but I was still surprised, knowing Abdullah personally. I would have rated him higher. I thought his substantive reform would begin with the elections.
He did not need to turn a blind eye to these operations. Abdullah and the Barisan Nasional coalition would still have won a fair election.
I had no access to media in prison except for local newspapers a few days late. I still find there is no opportunity whatsoever for an alternative view, for a critical view, except in the initial few months after Abdullah assumed the leadership. What is democracy without free and fair elections and a relatively free media? After all that Abdullah has said, corruption is still prevalent. In the last party elections in September not all people he supported were elected to the party's top posts. That shows that those aligned with Mahathir are still strong, but I would not think that should be an excuse.
I know Abdullah well enough as a person, I would rate him as a decent man. He has no rancour or megalomaniac tendencies in him. If he listens enough and reflects the needs of society in the few years he has he will be able to make the necessary changes. Malaysian people still have trust and confidence he will do just that.
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"