28 June 2002

'Mr Clean' may not sweep in after Mahathir

By JAMES CHIN

ON THE surface, it looks as if the political transition in Malaysia is a done deal. By November 2003, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will succeed Mahathir Mohamed as Malaysia's fifth prime minister. The ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (National Front), has endorsed this long transition period, assuring all that it will be good for everyone and promote political stability. But nobody seems to believe this.
Since Mahathir's announcement, the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange has lost more than 10 per cent of its value.
The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as a done deal in the murky world of Malaysian politics. In fact, it is uncertain if Badawi will even get the top job.
One must remember the fact that Badawi was appointed Mahathir's deputy not because he had the most support within the United Malays National Organisation but rather he was the candidate with the smallest number of enemies.
Generally speaking, Badawi is seen as a lightweight in UMNO. He was never able to control his home base, Penang, because that was the base of Anwar Ibrahim, his predecessor with all the charm and charisma. Anwar is currently languishing in jail after falling out with Mahathir in 1998.
Badawi is being widely seen as ''Mr Clean'': however, he is not ''unusually'' wealthy. In UMNO circles, money politics is often the key criterion for getting to the top, and money is one item Badawi lacks.
This, of course, does not mean he has no backers who can remedy this deficiency. Many wealthy businessmen would be more than happy to ''invest'' in Badawi.
So we can expect a lot of manoeuvrings behind the scenes between now and November next year. Many of Badawi's opponents will no doubt try to weaken Badawi to such an extent that he will withdraw from the top job voluntarily. Badawi faces many dangers - from the factions in UMNO to the other component parties in the BN.
An entire generation of leaders are there because of their close links to Mahathir and these people do not like the idea of Badawi and his cohorts taking over and making changes.
Badawi will also have to balance the interests of the murky world of ''Malaysian Inc'' - the group of businessmen who get preferential treatment from Mahathir, from mega-projects to virtual monopolies in sectors of the economy.
These people can harm Badawi if he is not careful. Several of them are already in panic mode; one businessmen took out a full-page advertisement in the leading English daily calling on Mahathir not to step down.
Two upcoming events may determine Badawi's future. First his choice for deputy prime minister. Strictly speaking, Badawi does not have to indicate his preference until he formally assumes power. But, with the long transition period, there is tremendous pressure on him to name someone now.
Picking a deputy is no easy task. Mahathir himself has had four deputies. Pick the wrong one and he will be Badawi's albatross. The big headache for Badawi is that the current UMNO vice-presidents, who are the leading contenders to be Badawi's deputy, are also his main rivals.
Second, a general election is widely expected in mid-2003. Badawi will be expected to lead the BN campaign. If BN wins big, he can claim a personal mandate. If BN does not do well, it is almost certain that Badawi will shoulder the blame.
Finally, there is uncertainty in Mahathir himself. If Badawi is unable to consolidate his position between now and November, there is every reason to believe Mahathir will not step down as planned. In many interviews, Mahathir has stated he will not give up power until he is certain that the ''right person'' takes over - although he has never spelt out the requirements in detail.
He has failed miserably on three previous occasions and there is no reason to think that his current choice, Badawi, has the right stuff for the top job.
James Chin is the author of Mahathir's Administration: Performance and Crisis in Governance, Times Books, Singapore, 2001.