MALAYSIA: ABDULLAH BADAWI

A Model Muslim?


Issue cover-dated September 05, 2002


ABDULLAH BADAWI has a host of challenges ahead. In his first interview since being named as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's successor, an exclusive with REVIEW Editor Michael Vatikiotis, Abdullah addresses the sensitive role of Islam in Malaysia, controversial plans to ease up on affirmative action, and escalating demands for better corporate governance.

DO YOU SEE FORGING A MORE TOLERANT, MODERATE ISLAM AS MALAYSIA'S BIGGEST CHALLENGE?

As a person from a religious background and being given the responsibility to lead the nation as prime minister, I must be able to project, not just posturing but in terms of words and actions, that I am a good Muslim, tolerant of people from all other religious and ethnic backgrounds. It must begin with me in order to convince the people.

ISN'T THE PROBLEM THAT YOUR PARTY, UMNO, IS AFRAID OF DEFINING ITS OWN VIEW OF ISLAM?
We are not in the game of one-upmanship with [the Islamic Party] Pas. If Pas decides to be extreme, we are not going to be extreme. Umno is committed to the projection of Islam in a positive light. The question is how this is to be done. We are reacting to Pas a lot at the moment--we have to be more proactive. I don't believe I will have much difficulty in getting Umno to be with me.

HOW MUCH OF THE PROBLEM HAS BEEN REINFORCED BY THE EXTERNAL THREAT OF ISLAMIC EXTREMISM AND THE REACTION TO THE U.S. WAR ON TERROR?
We cannot allow extremism to take root in Malaysia. We have already started our battle against a trend towards extremism and potential terrorism through preventive detention. That action was absolutely necessary. We cannot wait until something serious has occurred.

HOW DO YOU THINK YOU CAN BEST PROMOTE MODERATE, TOLERANT RELIGIOUS THINKING AND BEHAVIOUR?
We must thoroughly clean out our religious education establishment that has partly been responsible for the rise of extremism.

HOW DO YOU ASSURE PEOPLE THAT PATRONAGE WON'T PLAY A ROLE IN YOUR ADMINISTRATION?
I intend to strengthen the current environment of fair play and transparency in the corporate sector. Apart from being morally reprehensible, cronyism distorts efficient allocation of resources and renders politically connected companies uncompetitive and dependent only on government contracts. This flies in the face of enhancing economic competitiveness. There is also the potential for moral hazard, which is why some of these companies were managed in the way they were in the past because there was an expectation of a bailout if they ran into problems.

DO YOU WANT CHANGES TO THE POLICY OF HELPING THE BUMIPUTRA COMMUNITY?
There will continue to be the need for some form of affirmative action and redistribution for the bumiputra community. But we cannot be putting bumiputras in a state of dependence all the time. There must be a time when they are allowed to be challenged and allowed to develop their competitive edge. That's why we say, 'run, throw away the crutches.'

CAN YOU ENVISAGE MALAYSIAN SOCIETY MOVING AWAY FROM RIGID ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS LABELS?
The goal of forging a Malaysian identity is the No. 1 goal for all our policies. We've always believed that education will help us to do that. Although we have generally preferred not to talk about racial issues publicly because of sensitivity, I think we increasingly need some measure of debate, especially among the young generation, about how they see themselves in the context of a multi-racial country. If we suppress their concerns, we may alienate them and only harden any biases they may already hold.

ON ANWAR IBRAHIM: THERE'S THE LINGERING FEELING THAT THE ISSUE OF HIS JAILING NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED.
I don't see Anwar as an element that has to be considered in every move that I make today. I believe you have to do the right thing. If you do the right thing then the people are with you.