IN OCTOBER NEXT YEAR, if all goes according to plan, Abdullah Badawi will become Malaysia's fifth prime minister, succeeding Mahathir Mohamad. A tough act to follow for sure, but maybe also a timely transition. For with the growing popularity of the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia, or Pas, which now controls two state governments on the peninsula, many analysts believe the country's stability is threatened by the spread of conservative Islam, which could scare off investors and upset the country's delicate racial harmony.
In the wake of last year's September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the international community is acutely nervous of encroaching Islamic extremism. Authorities in neighbouring Singapore go so far as to say that members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network remain at large in Malaysia, as well as in other countries in Southeast Asia. And Malaysia is seen as vulnerable specifically because Pas has gained ground and is pushing for the implementation of strict Islamic law in the areas it controls.
But the ruling United Malays National Organization (Umno), which Abdullah will lead when he assumes the premiership, has a poor track record of countering Pas on religious issues. And the public's perception of Umno's membership as being corrupt has bred popular disenchantment, which Pas is exploiting to broaden its support base beyond the rural heartland. (Despite a recent by-election win for Umno in rural Kedah state, an analysis of voting patterns shows that the number of Pas voters did not shrink appreciably).
This challenge from Islamic extremists and hardliners is one that Abdullah is gearing up to tackle--in part by tackling corruption. "The extremists clearly represent a threat to our way of life--the Malaysian way of life," he told the Review in a lengthy interview, the first he has given since Mahathir announced in June that he would resign. "We will put it to the Malaysian people to decide what way of life they want to choose. I am confident the majority of Malaysians will continue to choose a political leadership that upholds the virtues of tolerance, pluralism, modernity and moderation, and not a party that has distorted the teachings of Islam in order to pursue a narrow, dogmatic and politically motivated agenda."
Among the measures Abdullah and his nascent team of advisers are contemplating are a thorough overhaul of the religious education system and a greater concentration on rural development to alleviate the poverty that has played into the hands of Pas. To address dissatisfaction among urban Malays, who are frequently just as poor as their rural cousins, Abdullah is exploring the idea of diversifying holdings in companies to share more of the country's corporate wealth using unit trusts.
These are ambitious changes and strong words from a man many regard as guarded and indecisive: even more surprising, perhaps, from a man who has a strong Islamic educational background and considers himself a devout Muslim. But a lot has changed for Abdullah in the past few months and he appears to have found a firmer voice to match the urgency of the task ahead.
Abdullah will be the first Malaysian prime minister with a strict Islamic background: His father and grandfather were religious scholars and Abdullah himself has a degree in Islamic studies. Armed with Mahathir's support and helped by a group of bright young advisers, the 62-year-old former civil servant has carefully begun laying the foundations of his administration. There are more than faint echoes here of liberal themes and approaches associated with his predecessor, Anwar Ibrahim, as much of the talk around Abdullah's plush office in the newly built Putrajaya government complex is about reform.
"He wants to take away from Pas the debate on good governance and democracy," says Khairy Jamaluddin, a key adviser and Abdullah's son-in-law. The 26-year-old Oxford graduate believes that effective corporate and democratic reform will dilute a key source of support for Pas among young Malay Muslims. In a government survey three years ago, he points out, a majority of students polled said the government was not Islamic enough--principally because it was seen as undemocratic.
Perhaps that's why Abdullah says: "Leaders must lead by example and live the life of good Muslims. I'm not talking about going around dressed in robes and turbans, but exemplifying the core principles of our religion, especially justice and integrity. If we are corrupt and unjust we are un-Islamic."
That's easier said than done. Mahathir got things done by being strong-willed and autocratic. Abdullah, his advisers say, likes to listen to others and fashion consensus. Pas was able to exploit Mahathir's bluntly secular outlook, while Abdullah's religious credentials are unquestioned. Even so, Abdullah's problems will begin with his own party, where his standing isn't yet as strong as Mahathir's.
Though critics say that Abdullah lacks Mahathir's ruthlessness to effect change, Abdullah's advisers insist that when it comes to reform, he'll act tough. "Sure it will be hard. What incumbent political party has ever reformed itself?" asks an Umno official close to Abdullah. "He has to take people out, sack them if necessary."
Abdullah will also have to tackle sensitive social and economic issues if the Islamic threat to Umno's pre-eminence is to be eliminated. These include promoting greater use of the English language in the school system and curtailing the country's 30-year-old affirmative action policies, which were designed to benefit the ethnic Malays, or bumiputras, but which Mahathir has criticized recently as spoiling them.
Echoing Mahathir, Abdullah is critical of the damaging effects of the policy, which he believes fosters corruption and breeds dependency. "Blindly defending special privilege is a self-inflicted insult to the bumiputra community because it's an admission that we cannot succeed without these policies," he adds.
But amongst some non-Malays, there's a fear that Abdullah could go the other way and move to shore up policies promoting Malay dominance, given his Islamic ties and his past support of Malay nationalism. "He knows that Umno has lost Malay support so there could be a renewed Malay agenda," says Jomo Sundaram, of the University of Malaya.
For sure, it's a very secure Malay leader who considers trimming Malay privileges. Even Mahathir has warned that those who seek to do so are "generally regarded as traitors to the Malay race." Considering Abdullah's untested economic management skills, Jomo Sundaram predicts the new leader will take the path of least resistance. "There will be changes at the margins but there won't be fundamental change," he says.
The political risks of tackling the excesses of Malay privilege could push Abdullah to focus on the Islamic challenge, where he is on firmer ground. One way to undermine Pas would be to define for its members a truly moderate and modernist definition of Islam.
In many ways, it's the same search for a liberal Muslim paradigm that Anwar and his followers initiated in the mid-1990s. Abdullah's plans include an annual conference on modern, reformist approaches to Islam, and tackling Islam's image overseas. "Islam's image has been tarnished all over the world, not just in Asia," says Abdullah, who will address the United Nations on the subject in mid-September. His advisers lament a U.S. approach to Islam that is focused on the Middle East and doesn't understand Asia's Muslims.
But the comparison with Anwar doesn't stretch far. Unlike his predecessor, there is no need for speculation about when Abdullah will succeed Mahathir, and he isn't talking about radical changes to the political and economic environment. Contacted through his lawyer in jail, Anwar Ibrahim said of his long time political rival Abdullah: "The concern is that he may lack the resolve to restore democracy and the rule of law, and to effectively combat corruption."
For all the fears about Abdullah's strength and resolve in the face of daunting problems, and the large pair of shoes he needs to fill after Mahathir's departure, Abdullah considers himself up the task. A bureaucrat since the mid-1970s, he has been involved in politics since 1978, when he was elected to parliament. Many observers recall also that he successfully steered a path back into Umno leadership after siding with a rebel faction in 1987. As he puts it himself: "I come from a background of being in the administration a long time. I don't see myself as a stranger groping around in the dark for the switches to see which light to turn on."