Tuesday 16 December 2003

Malaysia's new premier facing hard
task following Mahathir

By Abdar Rahman Koya
"...the question on everybody’s lips in Malaysia these days is: how will Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the new prime minister, fill the vacuum left by Mahathir? While Mahathir’s 22 years in power were spent on establishing and consolidating his ‘leadership cult’, and his status as the man who developed Malaysia from an economic backwater to an industrialised country with its own automobile and heavy industries (a rare achievement for a Muslim country), Abdullah may suffer from the disadvantage of not having influence on the judiciary and police, two institutions which Mahathir used effectively to hold onto power."
Riding high after his speech at the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in October, Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Mohamad finally kept his promise by stepping down after 22 years in power. He seems to have followed the advice from his mother which he used to tell the media when he was asked how he maintained his health and youthful appearance: "You have to stop eating when you’re enjoying your food most."
Friends and foes agree on one thing: that Mahathir has emerged from the unpopularity caused by his vile treatment of Anwar Ibrahim five years ago partly by his political talent. But the "war on terror", which took the Muslim governments by surprise, terrorizing these regimes into joining the crackdown on Muslim activists, required him to be tactful when playing domestic politics, in order to avoid angering Uncle Sam. Even that he managed, maintaining a ‘balanced’ anti-terrorism diet: arresting so-called Muslim terrorists and condemning the US’s war on terror, thereby making sure that Muslim support, both at home and abroad, remained intact.
Of the many Muslim rulers, it is clear that Mahathir has emerged a champion, knowing well that even lip-service will deceive unsuspecting, naive Muslims. Mahathir’s comments on the Jewish control of the world and his condemnation of Israel earned praise from many Muslims, little realising that this was the man who condemned anti-Israel student protesters in his country not long ago as "stupid" for opposing his government’s attempts to establish ties with the Zionist state. But even taking his recent anti-Israel speech at the OIC summit at face value, the frenzy of condemnations that followed only serve to prove the Zionists’ great influence in the world, with even the US congress passing a vote endorsing military sanctions on Malaysia.
Mahathir’s final acts in office bring out one characteristic that distinguishes the veteran former prime minister’s rule from that of other dictators: he was not beholden to outside powers, and had always depended on domestic support. This is unlike the situation in the Middle East and neighbouring Indonesia and the Philippines, where the political future of rulers is determined by the CIA or by the former colonial masters. Thus even at the height of the political crisis after Anwar Ibrahim’s dismissal in 1998-99, no amount of condemnation from western powers could have made him resign, which is a fact that the opposition parties have acknowledged.
Given this reality, the question on everybody’s lips in Malaysia these days is: how will Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the new prime minister, fill the vacuum left by Mahathir? While Mahathir’s 22 years in power were spent on establishing and consolidating his ‘leadership cult’, and his status as the man who developed Malaysia from an economic backwater to an industrialised country with its own automobile and heavy industries (a rare achievement for a Muslim country), Abdullah may suffer from the disadvantage of not having influence on the judiciary and police, two institutions which Mahathir used effectively to hold onto power.
Still, much of the country’s condition has not changed, and the illusions some people had about ‘change’ and ‘reform’ under the new premier have proved to be just that. Just one day after taking oath, Abdullah replaced the country’s police chief. That itself is an indication of what is in store under the new premier. A week into his premiership, the police announced the arrest of 13 young students under the notorious Internal Security Act, which allows Abdullah, who is also the home minister, to hold them indefinitely without trial. The thirteen, most of whom are in their teens, were studying in Karachi until they were accused by the Pakistani authorities of having ‘terrorist’ connections; upon their arrival in Malaysia, they were immediately accused of being members of the so-called Jema’ah Islamiah, the organisation that governments in south-east Asia insist exists, despite having failed to prove it. Various human-rights groups and even Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission have condemned the arrests of the under-aged students, saying that they violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Already some people expect Abdullah (known in the mainstream media as Mr Niceguy) to be more ruthless, because he has no real grassroots support in the ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). He has the rare distinction of not being ‘elected’ as deputy president of the party, which made him the deputy prime minister by default, in the tradition of ‘democratic’ anomalies. Unlike his predecessor, Anwar Ibrahim, Abdullah’s popularity in the party is untested, and his only advantage is that he comes from a traditional ‘religious’ background — an advantage needed desperately by UMNO these days to fight its main rival, the opposition Islamic Party (PAS). Both have been locked in battle to win the support of the Malay Muslims. Since Anwar Ibrahim’s downfall UMNO has been short of such ‘Islamic cosmetics’, making PAS more attractive to the younger generation. Thus Abdullah must thank PAS for influencing Mahathir’s decision to appoint him as his successor.
At the moment no one can say how Malay Muslim support is divided between UMNO and PAS. One thing few would deny is that the "Anwar factor" has paled into near insignificance. The National Justice Party (Keadilan), which was born after the political crisis of 1998, has failed to shine, hardly surprisingly as it is led mainly by former ruling-party members whose main cause is the loss in their own positions in the business and political world. Even the popularity of PAS and its being viewed as an alternative by moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike has not lasted. PAS’s appeal, which boomed during the height of the crisis, now risks being reduced once again to the rural areas.
The latest ‘document’ issued by PAS, outlining its vision for an Islamic State in Malaysia, is just one example of the setbacks Muslims must experience when working within the ‘democratic’ straitjacket. The document is an overview of how PAS intends to govern the country by Islamic principles. There was not much to say in reply when its enemies argue that the principles and visions contained in it lack practical value in a country half of whose people are non-Muslim, who in turn control most of the country’s economy. Some PAS leaders’ concern about peripheral issues (such as women dressed in Islamic attire and mixed queues at supermarket check-outs) have already put the party in a bad light. Coupled with this is the lack of leadership at its core, with many impatient ‘young’ PAS leaders hoping to win parliamentary seats in the next general elections, which are due next year.
It will be interesting to see how Abdullah contains PAS’s appeal among Malay Muslims, a large part of whom may still remember the Anwar episode and could give sympathy votes to PAS. The kind of magnanimity many expected Abdullah to show upon taking office — releasing Anwar Ibrahim on bail and taking steps to overturn his conviction — has not appeared. Abdullah may need to consult his former boss on how to survive in such a situation. Whether or not he can master the doctor’s art will be seen in the next few months.

14 December 2003

Malaysia’s Abdullah shows signs of stepping
out from Mahathir’s shadow

(AP)

KUALA LUMPUR - Often considered the quiet man of Malaysian politics, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was always going to find it tough emerging from the shadow of the country’s long-dominant political leader.
But following a cautious start after taking over as prime minister from Mahathir Mohamad six weeks ago, Abdullah has started to flex his leadership muscles.
Abdullah’s actions indicate he is not afraid to break with his former boss, who led the country for 22 years before retiring on Oct. 31 and still has considerable influence in the halls of power.
In recent weeks, Abdullah has reversed two major Mahathir economic initiatives, held off naming a deputy despite Mahathir’s open support for one candidate, and fired a leading newspaper editor who cheered for the Mahathir camp.
Also, Abdullah has signaled that the days of so-called mega projects - Mahathir’s pet projects, which gave Malaysia the world’s tallest buildings, a state-of-the art Formula One racing circuit and a gleaming new administrative capital - may be over.
Abdullah says he’s more interested in education, agriculture and fighting cronyism.
Abdullah, known as the “Mr. Nice Guy” of Malaysia’s often-brutal factional politics, never openly criticizes Mahathir, who groomed him for the top job and was ruthless in putting down any challengers.
But “people should not be surprised that Abdullah has his own style,” said Shahrir Samad, a senior member of the ruling United Malays National Organization. “Abdullah is his own man, he will not be like Mahathir.”
Last week, Abdullah scuttled a US$14.5 billion railway project Mahathir had pushed hard for, saying it was too costly. Shortly before retiring, Mahathir had awarded construction contracts for the project to his tycoon friend Syed Moktar Al Bukhary.
Barely a month earlier, Abdullah halted another Mahathir plan - to list a government-held plantation cooperative, Felda, on the stock exchange - saying it needed further study. Small holders had opposed the listing plan.
The railway decision triggered market speculation that other large projects, including the massive Bakun hydroelectric dam in Borneo, which Syed Moktar is also involved in, may also be reviewed.
“Abdullah is making the right moves,” said Agus Yusuff, a political lecturer at the National University of Malaysia. “Fighting corruption and doing away with grandeur projects will score points with voters.”
Abdullah is expected to call national elections by mid-2004, and will face internal party elections soon afterward. A strong showing by his UMNO is pivotal to Abdullah’s chances of keeping his party presidency - and the prime minister ship - in the party elections.
Some observers say it is too early to say if Abdullah is truly concerned about ending the corporate favoritism that became the norm in Malaysia, or whether his talk is political rhetoric.
Mahathir used major infrastructure projects to whip up patriotism, and accused critics who questioned their value of wanting to keep Malaysia down. His Cabinet, including Abdullah, went along with it.
But Abdullah now says his priorities are less grandiose.
“There are many projects we have to give priority to,” Abdullah said last week, explaining why the railway deal would be deferred. “These include health care, education, agriculture and other socio-economic projects to ensure the well-being of the people.”
One of the first signs of Abdullah’s new toughness came last month, when he had Abdullah Ahmad fired as editor in chief of The New Straits Times, an UMNO-linked newspaper, saying he had damaged Malaysia’s ties with Saudi Arabia with his articles.
Abdullah Ahmad, an experienced UMNO politician with close links to Mahathir, had also repeatedly championed Mahathir’s choice, Defence Minister Najib Razak, for the post of deputy prime minister.
Filling the No. 2 job is one of the touchiest issues confronting Abdullah - the post has often been a springboard for challenges against sitting prime ministers - and he has repeatedly deferred making the appointment.



Published 12/9/2003

Analysis-Malaysia, one month on

By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
UPI Business Correspondent

SINGAPORE, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- It is now slightly over a month that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has taken over the reins in Malaysia. While the political handover from Mahathir Mohamad was smooth sailing, this first month has been a quietly eventful one with Abdullah announcing he would tackle corruption head on, while improving efficiency in the public sector.
The new prime minister has aimed to reassure the international community that key economic policies would remain and that his government remained pro-business, and the business community certainly likes what it is hearing.
"We see strong leadership, a pro-business focus, and a Prime Minister committed to efficient and transparent governance to support sustained economic growth and development," said General Electric's Michael Gadbaw, who is also the chairman of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council's bilateral group for Malaysia which just met privately with Abdullah and key members of the Malaysian Cabinet.
Businessmen have been impressed by the new government's emphasis on promoting the need for an efficient and clean civil service and on eliminating bureaucratic red tape and believe these efforts will go a long way towards attracting foreign direct investments. Investors have also been encouraged by the smooth transition of power, but are also noting that the style of the new leadership is starting to emerge as slightly different from his predecessor.
"Abdullah's first month in office has shown him to be a decisive leader who is focused as much on the micro aspect of government as his predecessor, Dr. Mahathir, was focused on the big picture. Abdullah's personal emphasis on detail, especially in eradicating corruption and improving efficiency in government offices, has demonstrated his "on-the-ground" approach to solving problems," says one economist with a large U.S. bank.
Concerns that Mahathir, who ruled the country for 22 years, would be pulling the strings from behind the scenes have completely evaporated, as Abdullah shows himself as a determined leader pursuing his own agenda, even though general macro-economic policies remain unchanged.
Observers point out that Abdullah has yet to announce his choice of deputy prime minister, despite Mahathir's open support for the appointment of Defence Minister Najib Razak. Indeed, some commentators have been speculating that the sacking of the editor of the New Straits Times last month (the largest English speaking newspaper) was because of his open support for the appointment of Najib. The prime minister has said the editor was sacked because he wrote an article about authoritarian Muslim regimes which offended Saudi Arabia.
During his first month in office, Abdullah has strived to show himself as a man close to the people, visiting remote corners of the country and pressing hands with ordinary Malaysians. His soft-spoken personal style is quite different from Mahathir's outspoken outbursts.
The truth is the prime minister is already in campaign mood. The general election has to take place by next November, but Abdullah has been hinting at the possibility of a snap general election, which analysts believe could take place in March or May.
Such a snap election would also allow Abdullah's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to capitalize on the lingering positive sentiment generated by Mahathir's retirement and although his tough stance on graft will go some way in helping him secure the next general election, as Malaysians have responded very favorably to the announcement, it will be far from an easy walk over.
"I think from a personal perspective this will be Abdullah's main challenge next year. He has to win the general election with big mandate," says Tse Chern Chia, analyst at CSFB.
The election result will be a crucial test of his leadership and the legitimacy of his government. Beside having been appointed by Mahathir, Abdullah was also appointed -- rather than elected -- as UMNO deputy president after Anwar Ibrahim was send to jail in 1998.
"The Prime Minister has made several public statements against corruption since his accession. While much remains to be done against graft, his anti-graft statements have gone down well with the public. This should help to strengthen the position of the ruling coalition party ahead of the general election," notes Tse.
Abdullah signaled his tough stance on corruption as soon as he stepped in, appointing a new the Inspector General of Police, while announcing that the police force would be awarded pay rises of up to 30-40 percent.
The government has also announced it will amend its anti-corruption laws to speed up investigations and allocate $4.5 million to the establishment of an academy to train anticorruption officers. The academy will be turned into a regional center for the development of anti-graft measures and will come under the jurisdiction of Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA).
Abdullah has also said that the government will introduce a National Integrity Plan, which should institutionalize good governance practices in the public sector.
However, one of his main challenges will be to crack down on the tight links between politicians and businessmen, partly resulting from the Bumiputra policies pursued by Mahathir. Under the policy, ethnic-Malaysian businessmen have often been awarded lucrative government contracts.
There are indications that the Prime Minister has given instructions that most of the future government contracts should be bid through open tenders.
"The prime minister has announced several new projects and policy reviews. But it's too early to tell whether this will lead to actual changes," notes Sanjeev Sanyal, economist at Deutsche Bank.



Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Malaysia: A month later, the new Prime
Minister is shaping a populist image

By Baradan Kuppusamy

One month after taking over from Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is coming across as a caring populist promising to eradicate corruption, improve public service and narrow the gap between the people and their leaders.
Essentially, Abdullah is promising the same deal Mahathir had always offered this country of 21 million people—development, racial peace, special status for Malays and Islam and a fair share of wealth for all—except that he would do all these and more but at the same time combat corruption, promote transparency and make leaders accountable.
The day after he assumed office on October 31, Abdullah visited his hometown in Penang where over 10,000 people lined up to greet him. He told the cheering crowd: “I have inherited a successful and highly developed country made possible by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s policies. I pledge to continue these policies.”
“Work with me, not for me,” Abdullah told the people.
Since taking over, Abdullah has hit the road, visiting farmers, factory workers and fishermen in remote corners of the country, thumping shoulders, eating with them, praying at village mosques and promising a more caring and more accountable government.
In the capital, he takes off on surprise visits to notoriously corrupt and inefficient departments, talks to people lining up for service and demands that civil servants account for delays and grouses on the spot.
Abdullah is a picture of soft-spoken and smiling humility, choosing his words with great care to avoid offending listeners. At one government department, for instance, members of the public gave him a standing ovation.
But critics like Lim Kit Siang, chair of the opposition Democratic Action Party, told IPS that Abdullah can persuade Malaysians only by taking action and not just making promises.
“Despite numerous promises he has not taken action to eradicate corruption and promote transparency,” Lim said. “He might end up holding the record for highest number of undelivered promises.”
Skeptics also argue that despite Abdullah’s humility in public, cold calculation shapes everything he does because his promises have been made under the full glare of television cameras are given prime time airing to shore up his image.
A day after taking office, Abdullah installed a new police chief—a man widely known to fight corruption and abuse of power in the police force—taking into consideration rising concern about a sharp rise in rape, violent crime and death under police custody.
Later Abdullah did not hesitate to send to prison, and without trial, 13 students who were deported from Pakistan on November 15 for suspected Islamic militancy. Muslim groups and human rights activists protested this, but Abdullah said police needed to detain the students to probe their alleged links to the Jemaah Islamiah militant group.
A week later, Abdullah freed 15 people held without trial under the Internal Security Act for alleged Islamic extremism, saying the men have been rehabilitated. He won kudos from the Islamic party PAS and rights activists.
Another action that was greeted with mixed reaction was the sacking of Abdullah Ahmad, editor of the government-controlled New Straits Times newspaper on November 25.
Abdullah had been put there by Mahathir and was given to using the premier daily to lecture Prime Minister Abdullah and the ruling party, the United Malays Nationalist Organization, on who to promote in government and how to manage the economy.
“Abdullah has shown that he speaks softly but also carry a big stick he is not averse to using,” University of Malaya Professor Khoo Kay Kim told IPS. “Abdullah is very experienced. He is used to exercising power.”
But the caring side of Abdullah is the face that the official media have been told to sell.
Abdullah is also looking to get a convincing victory in upcoming general election expected before next June.
A top priority is to persuade Malays, who had rejected Mahathir’s “un-Islamic ways” and had supported the opposition PAS in the 1999 general election, to return to the government fold.
“The election result would be a crucial test of his leadership and the legitimacy of his government,” Khoo said.
Senior aides say Abdullah’s strategy is to consolidate and expand on the economic measures of his predecessor, but mitigate the negative impacts of rapid modernization like the open collusion between big business and politicians and corruption.
Abdullah’s officials say he gives priority to the ordinary person whose needs and voice went unheard during Mahathir’s leap forward.
But in his message to the majority Malay Muslims, whose support is crucial for his political survival, he promises to protect Malay political and economic interests and give Islam a premier and respected place in government and society.
Unlike Mahathir, Abdullah is careful not to thrash PAS whose aim is to turn the country into an Islamic state.
To win Muslim support, PAS released a 53-page Islamic State Document on October 27 that lists its vision of an Islamic society. PAS is promising real justice, total respect of human rights and true democracy in accordance with Islam, which it says is superior to guarantees under liberal democracy.
Abdullah says most of what PAS has listed is already incorporated in government policies.
Convincing Malay Muslims is a task that comes easily to Abdullah, some say. “Malays see Abdullah as a upright and pious Muslim and coming from his added advantage is that he is from a family of highly respected family of Muslim scholars,” said Khoo. “Abdullah understands well the power of Islam over rural Malays.”
When visiting villages, Abdullah often leads prayers in local mosques—a privilege given only to respected scholars. The government-controlled media are also bursting with images of Abdullah pounding hands, chatting with villagers.
It is a sharp contrast with Mahathir, often pictured with foreign dignitaries or world business leaders.
PAS secretary-general Nasharuddin Mat Isa said the party was willing to wait and see Abdullah carry out his promise to eradicate corruption. “Dr. Mahathir did not fulfill his pledges . . .we have to wait to see if Abdullah lives up to his [pledges],” he said.
Writing in Malaysiakini, an independent news website, political analyst James Wong said Abdullah has to fill a large intellectual vacuum left behind by Mahathir.
“An Abdullah pulled into opposite directions by supporters and opponents of Mahathirism would most likely not be a dynamic and active innovator but a static and passive balancer,” Wong wrote last week.



November 2003

A time for transition

By Assif Shameen

Towards the end of an interview I did some months ago at his expansive official residence in Putrajaya, the man who is now Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, stood up, walked around the house and brought a bunch of walking sticks for me to look at. I had asked him about his interests, his hobbies and his passion in life. There he was, holding a bunch of unusual walking sticks he’d collected over two decades from more than 40 countries. He has lost count of exactly how many walking sticks he has collected. “Over 100, less than 200,” is all he’ll say. Neatly stacked up in all nooks and corners of the house — from the library and the study to the guest rooms and the hallways — walking sticks of all shapes and sizes add a dash of colour. As he twirls one in his hands admiringly, he smiles and says: “Nice, ah?”
One walking stick he likes for sentimental reasons is made of ground betel nut and comes from Kepala Batas, his parliamentary constituency in Penang state. “I must admit I didn’t know we had such good craftsmen in my own area,” he says. His favourite stick, though, comes from the Lake District in England. It has a handle in the shape of a mountain ram’s horn. When Abdullah (affectionately, “Pak Lah” to friends, associates and, increasingly, most Malaysians) first saw the stick nearly two decades ago, he says he could not afford the price of £28. Over the years, he has recounted tales of his walking sticks and the one he admired once but couldn’t afford. Some months ago, a friend travelling through northern England stumbled on the mountain ram stick and bought it for him as a gift. “Eventually, I got what I wanted,” he says with a grin. “Just like in politics.”
Spend 10 minutes with the man and you’ll find that Pak Lah has a common touch few Asian politicians can match. Indeed, he can be humble to a fault. As he showed us around the house, he would let my colleague and me enter his library or the guest room first. Moreover, I noticed he wouldn’t sit until we were seated. It’s the sort of thing a guest would notice when meeting a VIP. Not for nothing is Abdullah Ahmad Badawi known as Malaysia’s Mr Nice Guy. Indeed, his civility is legendary — not just in Malaysia but also around the region — from the years he spent on the diplomatic circuit as Malaysia’s foreign minister. Pakistan’s Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz, who has known Abdullah since the early 1980s when the former was Citibank’s top honcho in Malaysia, recently told me that the new Malaysian prime minister was probably among the most courteous people he had ever met. “Such a nice guy.”
Affable and soft-spoken, Abdullah has often been dubbed “a diplomat’s diplomat” during his eight-year stint as Foreign Minister in the 1990s. Over a decade ago, I asked former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim what he thought of Pak Lah, who had then just returned to the Cabinet after a three-year hiatus as a backbencher. Anwar grinned but said something that struck me. Pak Lah, he said, was “too polite” for a politician. Indeed, he is often nicer than he should be to people he doesn’t really need to be nice to. Pak Lah’s long-time friend Mohamed Abid, a director of brokerage TA Enterprise Bhd, recalls telling him soon after he became deputy prime minister that he should be a little different now that he was a heartbeat away from being prime minister. He says: “It was in early 1999. People would hang around outside his old house early in the morning and he would just tell the guards to let them in.” Mohamed says Abdullah actually scolded him. Some of them were from his constituency, he said. “I can’t turn them away just because I have been promoted to deputy prime minister.”
In some respects, Pak Lah has spent his entire life prepping for his latest role. Born into a prominent Penang political family, he says he had a comfortable childhood. His father, Ahmad Badawi, was former head of dominant ruling group Umno in Penang, deputy leader of the party’s youth wing and speaker of the Penang state legislature. After completing his honours degree in Islamic Studies at Universiti Malaya, he entered the civil service in 1964 and rose to become deputy secretary-general at the Ministry of Youth and Sports.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam remembers when Pak Lah was on the verge of quitting the civil service to run in his father’s old parliamentary constituency. “I might have actually nudged him to join politics when he was just thinking about it,” Musa told me earlier this year.
But can a Nice Guy be tough enough to run a country like Malaysia with all its challenges — race, religion and growing competition from within the region? His outspoken predecessor, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 78, in power for over 22 years, turned a sleepy exporter of commodities like rubber and palm oil into an industrial powerhouse of sorts, with gleaming state-of-the-art semiconductor wafer fabs, car plants and first-world infrastructure like efficient ports, airports and highways. As a small country of 25 million people nestled away in Southeast Asia and sandwiched between emerging giant China to its north and potential giant India to its west, Malaysia finds itself at the crossroads. Can a Nice Guy build on Mahathir’s legacy, soften the hard edges and even catapult the nation to the next level of development as giant economies like China and India suck in much of the global capital and expertise flowing into Asia? Can he create a strong enough niche for Malaysia with enough drivers of growth while maintaining stability?
Ask some of the bigger foreign investors in Malaysia and they will tell you that he can. Peter Tan, Asia chief of Flextronics, the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronic goods with annual sales of US$14 billion and which has several plants in Malaysia, says Malaysia will remain a key plank in Flextronics’ manufacturing strategy even as it expands its already huge footprint in China and builds new capacity in India. Tan says: “China will remain the most important centre for us in the world and in Asia. India is the next manufacturing hub we would like to develop but we will continue to maintain and even grow our presence in Malaysia.” He likes Malaysia’s infrastructure, its huge array of component suppliers and its trained workforce.
Joyce Chang, JP Morgan’s managing director and global head of emerging markets, economics and market strategy in New York, describes Abdullah as a “fairly impressive” technocrat. Chang has met him twice with a delegation of foreign investors. “My impression of him was that he is a very confident person,” someone, she says, who will be a competent leader. “We are very comfortable with the continuity of policy and someone like him taking over the reins of Malaysia. We believe it is not out of the question that at some point early next year, there will be a rating upgrade of Malaysia especially as economic recovery stays on track and investors feel more comfortable with the continuity of policies,” she adds.
It isn’t just investors who are drooling over the prospects that Mr Nice Guy will be at the helm of a country that is revving up to move to the next level of development. Academic Dr Chandra Muzaffar, who did a brief stint as deputy leader of the opposition group Keadilan and now runs International Movement for a Just World, an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, says whatever else Pak Lah does, he will bring a softer approach to the corridors of power. “While I don’t see a major break with the past, there will be a difference in style and approach,” says Chandra. “On a number of issues, including Islamic extremism and PAS [opposition party Parti Islam SeMalaysia], Abdullah Badawi will have a less confrontational approach because, unlike Mahathir, he isn’t a confrontational kind of guy. By being less confrontational, he might just be more effective in dealing with Islamic radicalism. On issues pertaining to religion, sometimes a subtle approach works better than a direct confrontational approach. I guess his goal would be to bring about changes in the popular attitudes towards Islam or to try to curb the rise of a certain type of thinking.”
Dealing with radical Islam and wooing foreign investors aside, Pak Lah’s other major challenge would be to continue tackling what were once politically-sensitive or taboo issues that he and Mahathir got their teeth into in the last two years, like the affirmative action policy, meritocracy and even English as a medium of instruction. When I spoke to him about the affirmative action policy, he was adamant that it was about time bumiputeras [literally “sons of the soil”, referring to the Malays] gave up most of their crutches because, he said, if they don’t, their “knees will become so weak that [they] won’t be able to get up”. During that interview, he said the government recognised that affirmative action is a policy that is “like the golf handicap, to ensure all players are on [a level playing field]”. But, he said, “as the person plays more and improves his golf, surely he can’t have the same handicap as before. I believe there are bumiputeras who can carry on on their own, who don’t need crutches or special assistance. But there are still some people who might need a little more help but, slowly, all special assistance should be taken away because we can’t go on like this forever”.
For Abdullah, the key would be how strong his mandate is after the next general election. With a strong enough mandate, even a cautious and nice politician like him might just feel he needs to make bolder moves on everything from domestic policies like education and the environment to economic initiatives that strengthen Malaysia’s competitiveness.
Much of Malaysia will be watching how Pak Lah maintains his image over the next two or three years. “The ability to maintain his Mr Nice Guy and Mr Clean image after 25 years in politics in itself says a lot about the man,” concedes Chandra. “While I don’t want to pre-judge anyone, I’d say: It is not easy to maintain an image like that unless it corresponds to a certain extent, at least, to reality.” True, but that was far easier when he was climbing the ladder. What now, when the buck stops right at his door and he needs to take tough decisions in the larger national interest? Clearly, it will be a tough act.
But, for Pak Lah, so far the perception of being Mr Nice and Mr Clean has withstood the test of time and scrutiny. As I ended the interview, I told him even some of his supporters wondered if he had the inner strength to lead a nation in a real crisis. “I can be tough when I want to,“ he grinned. Knowing the Nice Guy that he is, he is likely to use lots of carrots to get his way in a crisis. But he certainly has enough sticks — and the will to use them.


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