The outlook for Malaysian politics in 2004 will pretty much be conditioned by three basic developments. Expanding on this at a recent forum organised by the Singapore based Institute of South East Asian Studies was Associate Professor Khoo Boo Teik, from Universiti Sains Malaysia.
KBT: "The course of the transition from Dr Mahahtir Mohamad's 22 year premiership, the outcome of the 11th general election and the results of the election of the ruling party UMNO, both of which sets of elections are scheduled to be held this year. Clearly these three developments are related. The transition in my opinion entails as it were, two shifts in one. First a transfer of leadership from Mahathir to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. And second, a shift from 'Mahathirism' if you will, in emphasis, if not in basic policies. Now how well Abdullah manages this two-prong transition, will critically influence the outcome of the general election and of course the UMNO election.
The United Malays National Organisation or UMNO is the dominant party in the ruling national front coalition, and the UMNO party election in particular will itself hold important implications for power transitions beyond Abdullah's own tenure as Prime Minister and President of UMNO.
KBT: "By now it would be apparent to those who've been following Malaysian politics, that the manner of Abdullah's assumption of the premiership, has been very different from Mahathir's 22 years ago. When Mahathir became Prime Minister, he was commonly and correctly seen as a strong and colourful character who was inheriting the center stage from a self effacing predecessor. Abdullah stands in almost exactly the reverse position vis-a-vis Mahathir today. He was reputed to be a diplomatic and gentle politician who was coming to power in an undramatic fashion after the long years of Mahathir's personal domination and flamboyance. And in addition, whereas Mahathir virtually entered the Prime Minister's office with a slamming of doors, Abdullah seemed to have quietly slid into power. He is not offering the political equivalent of an adrenalin rush, but instead, an infusion of sobriety and gradualism. It is almost as if ......thinks that Malaysian society today requires a pause, after the breathlessness of the Mahathir era. I believe that this contrast is useful as a way for us to think about how Abdullah's assumption of leadership means for the kinds of politics and policies that might emerge this year".
Professor Khoo added that with Prime Minister Abdullah, the style is the substance.
KBT: "And it is an obtrusive style, suggesting perhaps that the very fact of the Mahathir to Abdullah transition of power, first announced in June 2002 was already his drama. Now if this basic observation is correct, one fundamental question may be simply and safely answered. One should not expect the immediate post-Mahathir course of politics to be steered according to any grand substitution of new visions, policies and directions for old. Or if you will, be characterized by a massive move of deMahathirization. Nonetheless, what would be really novel about Abdullah's assumption of power is that he will almost interject apologetically as it were, a series of ameliorative moves, confidence building moves to amend the rants in the political fabric that Mahathir had so often overstretched".
Professor Khoo added that in order for Abdullah to establish his own credentials as the leader of a new regime and to be his own man, Abdullah would have to deMahathirise the political system, the administrative framework and the policy regime to some extent.
And as Prime Minister Abdullah works towards securing his own position in UMNO, he is likely to do so by bringing about a discreet re-assurance of more continuity than change, and of subtle change rather than an overhaul.
Ever since Abdullah Badawi, appointed Malaysia's Defence Minister Najib Razak as his deputy, talk of a snap election in the first quarter of this year has hit fever pitch. Reflecting on the likely outcome of Malaysia's next polls is Dr Tim Huxley (TH), Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the London based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
TH: "The Malaysian general election is likely to be held within the next few months. The overall result is as usual a foregone conclusion. The ruling coalition will be returned to power. That's not to say that there are not some worrying factors in electoral equation for the coalition. The recent top leadership transition may exacerbate conflict within UMNO as attempts are made to oust old guard divisional chiefs within the party who've been tainted with cronyism and political complacency. At the same time the Islamic party or PAS is likely to present the electorate with many new candidates both at national and state levels".
However Dr Huxley feels the opposition is likely to perform less impressively than in 1999, contributing to an increased majority for the coalition nationally. Citing the reasons that might contribute to this, Dr Huxley again:
TH: "Most importantly of course is the feel good factor associated with the new leadership of Abdullah Badawi widely seen as an incorruptible straight forward leader who manages to combine piety with being a tolerant and unifying figure. He is all things to all people. At least in the short term this can only help the coalition. The resumption of fairly fast economic growth will also benefit the incumbent parties. At the same time, Malaysia's war against terrorism and by extension Islamism and the fading of indignation over the Anwar affair which so divided the Malay electorate in the last general election are both likely to impact negatively on support for PAS".
Turning to developments with the ruling party UMNO, given the former prime minister's lengthy tenure, Dr Huxley said it's not surprising that the top ranks of UMNO are well stocked with potential contestants for the top job.
TH: "The legitimacy of Malaysia's new Prime Minister within his party as well as the country as a whole, will depend crucially on how well the coalition performs in the imminent elections. A surprise setback could almost certainly cost Abdullah Badawi dear by strengthening the credibility of UMNO rivals. But assuming the much more likely event of the coalition clawing back some of the losses incurred in 1999, the Prime Minister will be in a stronger position to face off potential UMNO challenges".
The coalition government's main challenge in this year's election will still come from the hardline Islamic party PAS, which controls two of the 13 states in Malaysia. In addition to retaining their hold on Kelantan and Trengganu, PAS has made the capturing of seats in the central eastern state of Pahang, Selangor and the northern region its primary goal. So just how is UMNO likely to perform against that backdrop? That's the question I put to Dato' Shahrir Abdul Samad, a member of the UMNO Supreme Council, on the sidelines of the recent ISEAS forum.
SAS: "I think probably, we have a good chance to win back Trengganu because PAS has only been there for one term. It is a tough fight in Kelantan but I believe its going to be better than in 1999. Kedah will also see a tough fight for UMNO and it requires UMNO to be able to match up to what PAS is offering them in terms of quality over candidates, I think more in terms of quality of candidates as far as Kedah is concerned".
But why is it tough for UMNO now under this new administration. We could understand some of the reasons earlier during Dr Mahathir's administration but why do you still say its going to be tough?
SAS: "Well it is perhaps more to prepare ourselves for the battle rather than...we cannot be too complacent. We have to accept the fact that we have to see it as a tough battle. Otherwise we become complacent and we may not perform well. I think the danger for UMNO has always been its complacency, its focus on internal issues, the focus on party positions, focus on benefits to the leaders and members, rather than UMNO playing its role as a political party, as a true political party serving the constituency. So all that has to be changed. All that has to be modified to make sure that by the time we get to the elections, the electorate will be with us, the voters will be with us. And see us as genuinely wanting to deliver and perform as a political party".
Malaysia is due to hold its 11th general election by the end of this year, but polls are widely tipped to be called by April. This is expected to take place before another important event - the ruling party's annual general assembly. The United Malays National Organisation or UMNO is the dominant party in the ruling national front coalition, and the UMNO party election in particular will itself hold important implications for power transitions beyond Abdullah's own tenure as Prime Minister and President of UMNO.
Which is why a lot will depend on the initiatives and strategies that Abdullah Badawi puts into place leading up to Malaysia's general election.
At a recent forum organised by the Singapore-based Institute of South East Asian Studies, Associate Professor Khoo Boo Teik, from Universiti Sains Malaysia offered this perspective.
KBT: "To establish his own credentials as the leader of a new regime and to be his own man, Abdullah would have to deMahathirise the political system, the administrative framework and the policy regime to some extent. But until his own position in UMNO is truly secure, he will do so by bringing a discreet re-assurance of more continuity than change, and of subtle change rather than an overhaul. In basic policy terms, this means that he will retain Vision 2020, the second outlined perspective plan and the New Economic Policy that was officially ended in 1990 but continues to underline so much of state-led development that is directed towards preserving the status of the so-called Bumiputra commercial and industrial community".
Professor Khoo went to cite the backtracking of some major projects in Malaysia as evidence of Abdullah Badawi's approach to governance.
KBT: "To date the most important examples of the changes that Abdullah has brought to his administration are his decisions to postpone indefinitely the implementation of the multi-billion ringgit double tracking railway project; and to delay the listing of the Federal Land Development Authority or FELDA on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange. These two being really decisions that he had inherited from the last days of the Mahathir administration. Of course this is not the first time that reforms are introduced during the so called honeymoon of a new administration. One can go back to the kinds of initiatives that were put forward by the 2M administration 22-23 years ago. What is important today I think is that Abdullah has compelling economic and political reasons to persist with governance type issues during the first year of his administration. His recent moves suggest themselves in a global political economy, in which foreign capital increasingly demands good governance and best practices. And these demands can hardly be ignored by an economy that has been chronically dependent on foreign capital or by a state that is increasingly disadvantaged in more ways than one when it tries to tap already limited investment flows. And for that matter, the budget deficits which financed most of the post-1997 growth were widely associated with mega projects, bail-outs, rescues and pump priming so called and Abdullah has indicated that it may be time to balance the budget and use the show of fiscal prudence on the part of the state, to enforce adherence to other kinds of prudential standards".
He added that at a popular level, a good governance drive will also indirectly respond to the opposition's attacks on corruption, cronyism and nepotism. However while all this may lend a sense of freshness to a leader who must soon call for a general election, the reality is, he has to work with a regime that is otherwise inherited and quite old.
KBT: "Thus I think some anti-corruption moves, already carried out at low to medium political levels, have proven to be popular and will continue to be carried out even if they are as yet inconclusive. Now at the level of the political and corporate elites however, things may be slightly different. It is unclear whether Abdullah is really bent on weaning Malay capital from his habitual dependence on the state. Or whether he can really diminish the ............... and money politics that have lain at the heart of many political corporate networks. This would especialy be true if he intends to establish his own alliances with the corporate world, and to be more than a caretaker Prime Minister who serves only one term in office. I think there would be many at the level of the political and corporate elites, who will regard any far reaching governance reform as threats of many different kinds. Hence if it becomes an uncompromising good governance campaign, an anti-corruption drive that can actually threaten high level political and corporate interests, will not count in 2004".
Barring shocking events, the general election will probably be held in March or April of this year and in the prevailing circumstances which include reasonably good economic conditions, an absence of critical issues that would undermine the regime's legitimacy, and also the departure of the controversial figure of Mahathir - the Barisan Nasional or National Front will win the election and retain its two thirds majority in parliament. However there is still the presence of Parti Islam Malaysia or PAS which has grown to become the leading Opposition party controlling two states in Peninsular Malaysia.
So will UMNO be able to withstand the challenge from PAS? Will Abdullah Badawi's leadership be enough to even win back the young muslim professionals who've since been disillusioned with UMNO? That's the question I put to Dato' Shahrir Abdul Samad, a member of the UMNO Supreme Council, on the sidelines of the recent ISEAS forum.
SAS: I think that UMNO does not have someone better than Abdulah Badawi to lead it now. And with his temperament and his personality, and his background, I think he's the best leader that UMNO could have".
Enough to win over some of the people who went over to PAS?
SAS: "Yes I think so because I think if they were to reflect on what is being offered by Abdullah Badawi, in terms of his character, in terms of his personality, in terms of his own personal beliefs, I think they would not be in total opposition to what they believe themselves. Alright. It will be quite close to what they believe. I don't think that the young Muslim professionals or the educated Muslims really want to go the total conservative way that is being espoused by PAS, or is the more Mullah type of leadership that is in PAS. There is only in PAS that feeling of the young leaders as just being UMNO leaders wearing the Islamic head gear".
You have linked me to the next point and that is the whole issue of religion. Malaysia wants to be a model Islamic country to the rest of the world. And looking at what's happening in other parts of the world, still this problem with the Madrasahs and what's happening in the schools. So how does Abdullah Badawi plan to manage this, address this concern?
SAS: "The first suggestion that came from him was to reorganize the curriculum even at the primary level for the young Malays to be taught Arabic and even to be able to read the Koran completely by the time they finish primary school. So then it will take out the dichotomy between religious knowledge and worldly knowledge or secular knowledge. There is no such thing to us as secular knowledge but then PAS it's just that because there is that group of young Malays who go for religious education and they find that they don't have any other opportunity of employment outside of perhaps religious institutions or going back into the Madrasah system teaching again at the same Madrasahs where they learn, where they had their education, that it becomes self perpetuating. So we try to, what's being proposed is to sort of blur the lines or to prevent this dichotomy from existing. As though there is a clear division between religious knowledge and secular knowledge. But to have knowledge and education as seen as being total and complete, rather than be divided into worldly and religious. So that's being attempted and being considered even to begin at the primary school level".
Religious education and madrasahs - issues that are close to the hearts of the people especially in the Malay heartlands. And on the national level - corruption and good governance - these are just some of the issues that are likely to dominate the political landscape leading up to the next general elections. We'll bring you more updates on Malaysian politics in later editions of Perspective.
The above was broadcast over Radio Singapore International (in two parts) on January 10 and 17, 2004.
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"