Nov 13, 2003

Malaysia's new premier: Altered stakes

By Manjit Bhatia

Malaysia's fifth prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, cannot afford to be seen as a card-carrying Mahathir loyalist. His predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, left Malaysia with a legacy of risks that Abdullah must reduce and not intensify by continuing with his ex-boss's policies. Yet from all indications, Abdullah is going to do just that - embedding his premiership in Mahathir's legacy. This is both wrong and foolish.
There's been much nonsense by media commentators and analysts about loyalty to Mahathir finally paying off for his toadies. Curiously, Mahathir had bypassed chief crawler Najib Razak, the defense minister, and son of Malaysia's second premier Abdul Razak. Najib's supporters are desperately jockeying to install him as Abdullah's No 2. Although Najib has partisan UMNO (United Malay National Organization) support, Mahathir distrusted him enough to overlook him.
Abdullah is seeking to come into his own. But throughout his time as Mahathir's deputy, he barely made a whimper about the man he replaced, Anwar Ibrahim, and his ongoing victimization by Mahathir, his craven thugs in cabinet, the politically skewed judiciary and the highly dishonest, incompetent and politicized police. Two things would be bothering Abdullah: upcoming national and party elections, which he must win to gain true legitimacy in his own right; and factional brawling so intense that it could topple him sooner rather than later.
Without clear-cut UMNO factional support, Abdullah looks dead certain to abide by Mahathir's rules. Even now Abdullah's factional support within UMNO remains unclear. He'll have to wait until the next general elections and secure sizeable legitimacy in his own right from Malay voters - including winning back those massively lost in the 1999 poll to the Islamic party PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia) - and from non-Malay voters, before he even thinks of purging UMNO of Mahathir loyalists and deadwood from cabinet and government. And there are enough of them.
But this Abdullah must do if more innovative, progressive, equitable and transparent policies are to emerge for navigating Malaysia through the morass of complexities of the 21st century political economy at the local, national and international levels. For example, Abdullah must dismantle the National Economic Action Council (NEAC), which on the one hand is no longer relevant, and which, on the other hand, as K S Jomo has said, resembles the 1969 National Operations Council, which was run by Najib's father, Abdul Razak.
The NEAC had become Mahathir's "kitchen cabinet". The policy elite resides here, running roughshod over the "formal" but mostly incompetent cabinet. The latter's members lack the honesty and commitment to establish the foundations for an open, democratic government and for good economic governance in Malaysia. They're more inclined toward racial chauvinism to protect their own interests and of vested interests within their parties for a share of the spoils of state power.
So talk of imminent policy changes on the heels of leadership change is singularly naive, the kind of tripe unthinkingly flaunted by Western observers, especially journalists, with local journalists none the wiser (or educated and honest enough) to correct such imbalances. Notwithstanding the overt materialist symbols, Malaysian society has fundamentally retained remnants of a feudalistic social order, which determines the nature of the Malaysian state and its power. It shares broad similarities with Japan's Liberal Democratic Party state. Both Malaysia and Japan are in essence one-party states, like Singapore and Zimbabwe.
In this order the structures and institutions of patron-client relations are entrenched, with all the accouterments of factionalism, machine politics, corruption, cronyism, nepotism, patrimonialism, populism, fictive kinship and brokerage. Here, notorious forms of political clientelism far outweigh visages of modern politics of a modern Malaysian nation. Within this order the state is more authoritarian, not less, the regime is more illiberal, and not one given to cultivating liberalism or democratization, other than espousing democratic tendencies.
Even where patronage politics do change they do not transcend the feudal order; they merely enlarge feudal politics from within without cracking its container. Powerful competing interests that cut across class and race in Malaysia will struggle to maintain this order in which state largesse is distributed among them. But they also control the largesse through their political access to and influence within the Malaysian state. Their vast accrual of financial wealth has been through the state, which protects them from direct foreign competition. Which explains why there have been few if any real reforms - certainly none worth crowing about - in Malaysia since the Asian crisis.
Abdullah speaks of protecting democracy in Malaysia, but that's impossible: democracy hasn't existed since the race riots in 1969. Authoritarianism has brutally circumscribed democracy, if not murdered it. The Economist magazine recently wrote that, after Myanmar, Malaysia is Southeast Asia's most repressive country. It's not wrong. But under Abdullah authoritarianism will be further entrenched, even though Abdullah won't be able to concentrate executive power in his hands as Mahathir had, and precisely because of this.
After Mahathir's exit, UMNO is readying itself for deeply splintering factional battle again. That's why he has repeatedly called for political bickering within UMNO to stop. Malay hegemonic power within UMNO will be decentralized, but Abdullah won't be able to control warring factions. Abdullah, who's basically an honest man, has been taking his time in choosing his deputy. He'll want someone he can trust - someone who won't turn on him at the UMNO elections, and undermine his authority and "legitimacy" until that time.
UMNO's factions are struggling for influence over policy development and management. Abdullah is an Islamic scholar; he doesn't understand economics, and he's not a consummate political animal, either. It's hard to see democracy flowering again in Malaysia under Abdullah, since UMNO is scarcely democratic to begin with. Nor are any of the political parties in Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition.
UMNO's rival factions will ensure that democracy doesn't seed in Malaysia, knowing it'll work against their interests. Under Mahathir money politics grew stronger still. Under Abdullah it'll be amplified, as will corruption. Judicial independence in Malaysia will continue to be bastardized to protect the powerful and corrupt Malaysian elite. Abdullah's major hobbyhorse - to rid Malaysia of corruption - is just political hype; unlike Mahathir, Abdullah hasn't and most probably will not be able to take UMNO by the scruff of its neck. More, Abdullah has no real policies of his own. That'll make his legitimacy, even if he wins national elections, still questionable, particularly in foreign economic markets, on which Malaysia overly depends for its prosperity.
Unless Abdullah quickly wins powerful UMNO factional support for his leadership, he's likely to be toppled by an internal party coup before too long. The longer he takes in choosing his deputy, the more the knives will be sharpened against him. So, too, Abdullah's choice for his No 2. Which is why Mahathir's retirement from politics is far from final. Interestingly, Mahathir hasn't resigned from his parliamentary seat. The threat of anarchy within UMNO shouldn't be lightly dismissed. For that reason Mahathir loyalists and his capitalist cronies will bring Mahathir back until a "more suitable" successor can be found.
And that's another problem: there are no competent leaders in UMNO. Strikingly, in multiracial Malaysia, only Malay Muslims can be premier and deputy premier. In fact all the key ministries - prime minister, deputy prime minister, home, defense, finance, education and law - are "owned" by UMNO Malay Muslims and are non-negotiable in multiracial Malaysia. Whereas Indonesian since Suharto has taken some small steps toward political liberalization, Malaysia has in fact regressed. Ordinary, amateurish, inept and shady politicians, most without credible educational background, skills and intellectual ability, constitute the Malaysian cabinet. But Abdullah is reluctant to reshuffle the cabinet, much less replace it with better-educated and able new blood.
These are the key risks Malaysia faces going forward. If Abdullah is serious about executing his office with "integrity, trustworthiness, efficiency and fairness", he must demolish the relics of feudal rule that Mahathir had created in state institutions and structures. Otherwise Malaysian "society" won't move forward as one people (bangsa Malaysia) but remain deeply divided, inequitable and suspicious of each other. This is Mahathir's legacy, much as Margaret Thatcher had left for Britain and Ronald Reagan for the United States in the 1980s.
Clearly Abdullah is in trouble already. One of Mahathir's last shenanigans before retiring was ordering the Malaysian Electoral Commission, a tool of the regime's, to create some 20 new constituencies. The bulk of these will favor UMNO in a shamelessly elaborate scheme of gerrymandering. Real fear runs deep through the veins of UMNO (and the ruling coalition), specifically of the erosion of its legitimacy principally among traditional Malay Muslim voters, and of being whipped, again, by PAS, with the pro-Anwar Barisan Alternative Party also picking up votes if not seats. Such a prospect will add another problem for Malaysia: like Hong Kong and other authoritarian and neo-authoritarian societies, rule of law will give more ground to rule by law.
The problems facing Abdullah can either weaken or strengthen him politically. If Abdullah doesn't take power definitively, and soon, it'll be no surprise if the Malay-hegemonic feudal state comes under serious siege by powerful factions of the rentier-parasitic capitalist classes. They'll seek to extract more rent from the state while jostling to wield greater political influence over state policy. There'll be more corruption, not less; more abuse of political power, not less. Moreover, the politics of state patronage will also see the dominant classes also extract greater state protection of their interests against pressures for reforms from inside and outside Malaysia. It's an ominous form of a state-organized protection racket since, under Mahathir, the state has both organized and monopolized the means for violence. Whether Abdullah can muster the same state apparatus as Mahathir had is doubtful.
Abdullah hasn't the personality cult or commitment for producing genuine democratic change. That much is already clear. And here's the irony: as deputy Abdullah seemed strong; as prime minister he looks to have become suddenly weaker. It'll seriously jeopardize his leadership and he will very possibly be unseated as UMNO president. For politically expedient reasons he'll have to be an autocrat, like Mahathir. His image is patriarchal but his demeanor will be patrimonialist.
Still, the bottom line for Abdullah is that without strong factional UMNO backing he won't resile from Mahathir's legacy of waste and abuse. If he does make a move too soon on changing course from Mahathir's, he'll probably feel a million deadly cuts from the knives being sharpened by Mahathir loyalists ahead of the next UMNO poll. Abdullah will take the safe route, if only to protect his weak flanks. But then a golden opportunity for real change in Malaysia has already been squandered - worse, even before it could begin.

Manjit Bhatia is an academic and writer in Australia. He specializes in international economics and politics, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region.