Tuesday November 2, 2004

Malaysia's premier emerges from shadows

By John Burton

Abdullah Badawi was often dismissed as a "yes-man" to Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's long-serving prime minister, before he succeeded him a year ago.
But as Mr Abdullah enters his second year in office today, he has put paid to any idea that he remains in the shadow of his domineering and often acerbic predecessor.
The soft-spoken prime minister secured a decisive mandate in March when he led the National Front coalition government, which has been in power since independence in 1957, to its biggest electoral victory, winning 90 per cent of parliamentary seats.
Mr Abdullah enjoys popular support after cutting bureaucratic red tape and cracking down on corruption by putting on trial several prominent figures. He promised to make more transparent the award of government contracts, a significant source of graft.
In a sign of confidence, he allowed the courts to release Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic opposition leader, from jail in a move that also helped restore faith in judicial independence.
Once considered an economic lightweight, Mr Abdullah, aided by Nor Mohamad Yakcop, his respected financial adviser, has sought to close a yawning budget deficit, the biggest risk to market stability.
Expensive infrastructure projects, used by Dr Mahathir to stimulate the economy after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, have been curtailed or eliminated.
The budget is expected to be balanced by 2007 without threatening economic growth, which is estimated to be 7 per cent this year and 6 per cent next year.
Abroad, he has improved ties with some of Malaysia's biggest trading partners - the US, Australia and Singapore - which were often the target of harsh criticism by Dr Mahathir for their alleged "neo-colonial" aspirations.
But if his first year in office can be counted as a success, the coming year could prove more daunting.
In a political setback in September, Mr Abdullah's United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the main partner in the ruling coalition, rejected several of the prime minister's allies for top party positions when internal elections were held.
The party elections were dogged by allegations of vote-buying, which reinforced perceptions that Mr Abdullah would have a hard time rooting out a system of patronage that underlies Umno's power.
Some Umno leaders appeared upset at the prime minister's anti-corruption measures and critics suggested Mr Abdullah's own record was not spotless after his son became embroiled in an international nuclear arms smuggling scandal and his son-in-law seemed to enjoy a rapid rise in politics.
The dissension within Umno comes when Mr Abdullah's political standing is otherwise strong. The ruling National Front coalition is more united than it has been in years, the opposition Islamist party was routed in the general elections and the reformist appeal of Mr Anwar has been partly co-opted by Mr Abdullah.
"The biggest challenge for Abdullah will be to gain control over Umno, which has great influence over the bureaucracy and local governments. If he fails to do so, he could see some of his reforms being opposed by vested interests," said K.S. Nathan at Singapore's Institute of South-East Asian Studies.
Efforts to close the disparity between the urban rich and rural poor, and promote a modern education system based on science and technology are key elements of Mr Abdullah's policy of Islam Hadhari, or civil Islam, which is meant to bridge a perceived gap between Islam and modernity and counter the appeal of fundamentalist thought.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"