HONG KONG After Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad's surprise announcement
that he would be stepping down in late 2003, the most-asked question in Malaysia
is: What next? But the more interesting question is: Assuming Mahathir sticks to
his calendar, what does he intend to do with his remaining 16 months in office?
The "what next" question seems straightforward. Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will probably take over. Abdullah, 62, who lacks inspiration but is untainted by the scandals so common within the governing United Malays National Organization (UMNO), may later be challenged by ambitious younger ministers. But given his age and uncombative disposition, Abdullah may be content to be a one-term prime minister.
Whichever UMNO aspirant gets the top job, he will have a fraction of Mahathir's authority and will be enmeshed in politicking. Malaysia will experience a kinder, gentler leadership where institutions from the bureaucracy to the judiciary and even the sultans will regain some independence. Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will be released from prison once he is no longer a political threat.
But the issue for the next 16 months is Mahathir's final legacy. He will be sure not to appear a lame duck. But he knows that in retirement he cannot be a Lee Kuan Yew or Deng Xiaoping, holding no portfolio but setting the agenda. Malaysian politics is different and his offspring do not hold positions of power. So now he must decide whether to concentrate on leaving the country in a mood of post-crisis contentment and the UMNO restored to its former popularity among Malays, or whether to start a last campaign that will leave its mark on society.
Mahathir has always been a man with a mission. His zeal to change Malaysia - sometimes attributed to the fact that he is only partly Malay - led him to be expelled from the UMNO, only to become prime minister little more than a decade later. That determination, backed by ruthless pursuit of power, enabled him to survive at the top for 21 years.
The question now is whether he will use his final months pursuing his vision of the advancement of Malaysia and Malays, or whether he will put party unity and a smooth handover first.
As prime minister, he stepped up the pace of affirmative action for the Malay majority through education and state support and used privatization to try to create a Malay capitalist class able to compete with non-Malays. Government efforts spurred industrialization and foreign companies flocked to use Malaysia as an export base.
At the macroeconomic level, these policies were a success. But Mahathir now expresses frustration at the failure of Malays to build on their advantages, and at their dependence on preferences and subsidies. He probably also regrets concessions to Islamists, made out of political expediency, that are at odds with his vision of a modern, multiracial Malaysia.
Given the impact of Sept. 11 and the recent death of the moderate leader of the main Malay opposition, the Parti Islam, the UMNO would be assured of an increased majority were an election held soon. Mahathir might then be able to use this, and his own prestige, to set in motion an erosion of some of the Malay affirmative action, and a partial reversion to use of English to improve educational standards.
That would delight non-Malays, and the more self-confident Malays. The goal might also appeal to Mahathir's well-known willingness for confrontation. Perhaps only a man of Mahathir's stature can change a national course of which he was once the most zealous advocate.
But others feel that Malaysian stability rests on the UMNO, which rests on majority support among the Malays, which in turn rests on the support and patronage that Malay preferences provide. Indeed, abuse of patronage under Mahathir has hurt the party. So Mahathir may prefer to avoid divisive issues. There is no need for an election till 2004. Abdullah's leadership could be legitimized by handily winning an immediate post-handover election.
By this calculus, the best hope for reining in Malay preferences and authoritarian Islamists may lie with a strong UMNO headed by a man without grand vision but capable of low-key leadership. That could allow the ethnic, political and religious groups to find compromises that reflect Malaysia's pluralism, and allow the institutions that should protect pluralism to regain self-esteem.
Mahathir is never predictable. But as he bows out he may, for once, put unity before zealotry.