of 24.12.1999
Deputy PM

Man in his own mould

by Ian Stewart

Abdullah Badawi will be a markedly different leader from Mahathir Mohamad if he succeeds him as Malaysia's Prime Minister and president of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno). He will be diplomatic where Dr Mahathir is outspoken. He will be soothing where the present Prime Minister is abrasive. He will also, unless his nature changes in the job, be less authoritarian.

Mr Badawi, 60, was a well-respected and well-liked foreign minister before he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister. He maintained close and cordial relations with his Pacific counterparts from Australia to Japan. He previously held the education and defence portfolios.

In a country where many senior figures have been accused of corruption, linked to sex scandals or alleged to have abused their official powers, Mr Badawi is "Mr Clean" to his colleagues and the public. He is also affectionately known as "Pak Lah" (Uncle Abdullah). An opposition attempt during the election campaign to tie him to nepotism in connection with a government contract awarded to his son backfired because voters did not take it seriously. Mr Badawi pointed out that it was an extension of a catering arrangement held by his family long before he entered politics and had been approved by Anwar Ibrahim, the jailed former deputy prime minister and finance minister, who was the opposition's candidate for prime minister.

Mr Badawi spent the late 1980s in the political wilderness after supporting Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah's unsuccessful challenge to Dr Mahathir for the presidency in 1987. But he returned to cabinet in 1991 and has been a Mahathir loyalist since. Analysts say he will have to toughen his approach in the top job but will come to it with an important asset. He has a religious background which will help him combat the claim by the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) that it is more Islamic than Umno. The fundamentalist Islamic party made strong gains in the election. Mr Badawi has reassured non-Muslim Chinese and Indians, concerned that Umno would embrace Islamic radicalism to recapture the territory it lost to PAS, that his party has a moderate religious stance suitable for multi-racial Malaysia.