Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia's new leader and fifth prime minister since independence, is known by the Malaysian public as "Mr. Nice Guy", owing to his politeness, courtesy, integrity, and incorruptibility.
Unlike many contemporary Malaysian politicians, he has not indulged in business deals, commissions, amassing wealth, or abuse of his official positions. There is no indication that he owns more than the family home in Penang, in addition to a stake in Dewina, a small food-processing company controlled by his brother.
On the religious level, the new Malaysian leader is known for being a devout Muslim, but without ostentation. He is the first Malaysian premier with a strong Islamic educational background.
Moreover, both his father and grandfather were well-known religious scholars. His religious credentials, therefore, cannot be questioned by the country's Islamists who have frequently cast doubts over his predecessor's adherence to Islam.
Because of such qualities, many Malaysians believe that Abdullah is the right man for meeting Malaysia's present requirement of good governance, public morals, national consensus and an anti-corruption drive. They argue that Malaysia badly needs a leader who is capable of managing the country's internal and external affairs quietly, rather than managing them in the controversial manner that prevailed during Mahathir's years in power.
However, his advantages are countered by some weaknesses. According to his detractors, he is bland and indecisive, particularly for a country that has grown accustomed to Mahathir's ruthlessness of effecting change.
He lacks the leadership talents, rhetoric, political manoeuvering and persuasion , all of which are necessary to keep the leader in touch with the masses, hence meeting the challenge caused by the rise of political Islam and threats of Muslim terrorist organisations. As summed up by an observer, "he has a high degree of goodness and decency that is not appropriate for the world of politics that is based upon deviousness and deceit."
In addition, Abdullah has limited understanding of the economy and does not enjoy a solid base in the business and finance community. This constitutes a challenge for him, given the fact that nearly everything in Malaysia's political system revolves around economics and the entrepreneurial class.
Abdullah was born in November 1939 in Kepala Batas to a prominent family from northwest Penang state. His aging mother, Kalyan Hassan, 79, still lives there alone after the death of her husband in the early 1970s and the departure of her two sons to Kuala Lumpur.
He obtained a degree in Islamic studies in 1964 from the University on Malaya, an academic institution that gave Malaysia most of its former and present political elite. Soon after graduation, he joined the Public Service Department as assistant secretary.
Meanwhile, he became a member of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party that led Malaysia to independence from the British in 1957, and of which his father was one of the founding members.
Between 1969-1971 Abdullah served as a principal secretary to the National Operations Council, which ran Malaysia during emergency rule under Abdul Razak Hussein, who later became prime minister.
His actual entry into national politics dates back to 1974 when he resigned his post as deputy secretary-general of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport in preparation for parliamentary elections. In the 1978 general elections, he successfully contested and became a lawmaker, occupying the same parliamentary seat that his father had retained until his death.
By 1979 Abdullah became deputy minister of Federal Territory, handling the affairs of the newly created territory of Kuala Lumpur, a post that made his name quite common in local media.
Within less than two years he was elected to the UMNO Supreme Council, and simultaneously was appointed as a minister in Premier Mahathir's office. From these two posts, he made vast strides within the government and party hierarchies, becoming minister of education and one of UMNO'S three vice-presidents in 1984, and minister of defence in 1986.
However, his political career came to a halt in 1987 as a result of his miscalculation of siding with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, then minister of industry and trade, in the latter's unsuccessful challenge of Mahathir for UMNO's presidency.
Following Mahathir's triumph, Abdullah was marginalised and sacked from the cabinet. However, he successfully steered a path back into UMNO leadership, forcing Mahathir in 1991 to forgive him and bring him back into the cabinet as minister of foreign affairs, a portfolio which has not been looked upon highly in Malaysia due to the prime minister's influential role in foreign policy-making.
Abdullah's gains from leading the country's diplomacy between 1991-1999, therefore, were confined to the introduction of his name to the outside world.
Since his return to government in 1990, it has been clear that Abdullah learned the lesson of 1987. He remained keen on dispelling any doubts that his boss could have concerning his loyalty and sincerity. Accordingly, he firmly sided with Mahathir in all the latter's political confrontations in the 1990s and afterwards.
With the No. 2 post in the country became vacant following the dismissal of Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim in September 1998 for alleged moral misconduct, Mahathir looked at Abdullah as his successor, bypassing such prominent UMNO figures as the Education Minister Najib Razak.
Shortly after being named as deputy premier, he was entrusted with the post of home affairs minister, a position that Mahathir had to give up following accusations of instructing the police to beat and torture Anwar Ibrahim in prison.
Opposition forces held Abdullah responsible for Anwar's "humiliating" trials and "unjust" court judgements, saying that he, as home affairs minister, continued the clamping down on basic rights.
At the time, many analysts argue that Abdullah would not continue for long in the No.2 post and that he would quickly become Mahathir's fourth victim, referring to the three previous deputy premiers – Anwar, Ghafar Baba, and Musa Hitam – none of whom became premier. However, what happened on 31st October was contrary to all expectations.
Finally, Abdullah's staying in power will largely depend on the outcome of the next year's general elections.
If UMNO, under his leadership, succeeds in preventing the fall of new states in the hands of the Islamists, his position will certainly be strengthened.
Otherwise, the ruling party will look for a new leader, specially with the fact that Mahathir's departure has moved the ambitions of many young UMNO figures to contest for the party leadership.
The writer is a Gulf researcher and writer on Asian affairs.