KUALA LUMPUR: An anti-graft campaign by Malaysia's new prime minister is worrying businessmen and fellow politicians but he is unlikely to dig too deep for fear of upsetting powerful vested interests.
But analysts say Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's moves are sending a clear message for business and politics to clean up their act, a favourite investor theme after decades of accusations of graft levelled at the previous administration.
His campaign should prove a vote winner in elections months or even weeks away. Some rural ethnic Malays, a key vote bank, have been impressed in the past by Islamic opposition taunts of government corruption.
But few think the new man will push too hard.
"I don't think there's going to be a witch hunt because God knows what the cat might bring in," Standard Chartered economist Joseph Tan said from Singapore.
"It sends a message to all those people who have considerable clout in business and politics to tighten up their acts – it's like a hanging at the gates," he said.
Opposition members, while welcoming Abdullah's efforts, question how far he can go in a country where political and business figures have mixed with ease for decades.
An official and a former top businessman appeared in court this week accused of graft, the cases coming three months since Abdullah took office.
In that time he has pledged a crackdown on red tape, launched a commission into police corruption and carried out spot checks in person at selected ministries.
His actions are a far cry from the image of the unremarkable but reliable deputy he cultivated before taking the top job from Mahathir Mohamad.
Abdullah said prosecutors acted on their own initiative in arresting the former head of Malaysia's state-controlled Perwaja Steel and charging him with criminal breach of trust.
Eric Chia Eng Hock, the firm's wheelchair-bound former chief, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday, posting bail for a trial due to start in August.
The prime minister's friends were quick to credit him for bringing to a head a complex cross-border investigation into Perwaja that dragged on for years under Mahathir.
The first arrest of a serving minister under Abdullah followed yesterday (NZT).
Minister of Land and Cooperative Development Kasitah Gaddam pleaded not guilty to two counts of corruption, securing bail for a trial to be fixed at a later date.
Opposition veteran Lim Kit Siang wondered whether others might be brought to book and challenged Abdullah's fellow ministers to endorse the prime minister's efforts.
"Will all big fishes be prosecuted without fear or favour, or is there a new selective pick and choose in the prosecution of big fishes?" he asked in a statement yesterday (NZT).
Since October, Abdullah has also targeted high-powered deals brokered during Mahathir's time.
He scrapped the award of a multi-billion-dollar rail deal and the privatisation of a hydro-power dam to Mahathir favourite Syed Mokhtar Albukhary. Abdullah cited budget concerns.
Mahathir faced accusations of cronyism during his 22-year rule when he handpicked businessmen to push through ambitious industrialisation plans, including the failed Perwaja venture.
He always robustly defended the approach, which fast-tracked Malays and ethnic Chinese to the top of business empires, saying Malaysia needed to move fast to build the infrastructure and export muscle to compete internationally.
But the rush to develop, allied with the political and business trade-offs of a multi-racial coalition in power since the 1950s, was always likely to see some ventures founder and corners cut.
A Kuala Lumpur political analyst, who declined to be identified, said Abdullah could not and would not preside over the wholesale clear-out of a system built up over decades, particularly as elections loomed.
"That would be shooting yourself in the leg," he said.
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