WHEN THE PRIME MINISTER, DATO' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, met the editors of the mainstream media to discuss his first 100 days in office, the unmistakable sycophancy in the reporting of it make the reports they wrote moot. When it should have been a serious look of what he had achieved, the problems he had to tackle, the difficulties he has overcome in his three months in office - the meeting was on the day he completed his first three months in office - the political, fiscal, financial, policy problems were all pushed under the carpet. All that mattered from that meeting was to catalogue the paeans of praise of this greatest prime minister this blessed land ever had, how he copes under the tremendous stress that comes with the job. Job? The Prime Minister is a job? Of course, not! It is a calling! Did you ignoramuses not know that? His hopes and fears are all that matters, not the momentous problems he inherited and must resolve in months if his sojourn is to be more than a brief way stop at the start of a long journey. He did not mention how, only that he could, and would, "with the people's continued support". We do not expect much from this mutual admiration between mainstream editors and the prime ministers, but if he does not wake up and address what ails the country he is in for a rude shock within months.
Because mainstream coverage insists the prime minister is that rare bird that emerges the moment he is annointed: the philospher king who is greater than those in the past, and the determination of a Muslim King George slaying the PAS dragon with not Malay, but Chinese, help. It is more than coincidence that in his recent public orations, including the meeting with editors, he did not mention the support of the Malay community at all, except to scold them for their 'subsidy mentality'. He bends backwards to insist on the great role of the Chinese in nation building, but scarce little on the divided Malay community which brought UMNO, and by extension, the National Front (BN) it leads, into a dizzying tailspin, as a rudderless helicopter which has lost its propeller. The initial UMNO calculation was that the best time to go to the polls was in this euphoric state of mind over the new leader. But that turned out to be horribly wrong. He must hold General Election as soon as possible, dissolving Parliament before the Yang Dipertuan Agung opens the new Parliament on 08 March. There is of course no reason why he could not do so soon into the new Parliament. But that is a dangerous risk: he is not yet annointed in office, and this presumption he is could cost him dear on the especially Malay ground. In short, Pak Lah finds his options narrowing with each passing day. For all the UMNO-led BN's call to the faithful to be ready for general elections, it is undeniable it is not ready or prepared for the polls. But Pak Lah has to hold one whether he likes it or not, if the BN is ready or not.
There is nothing in these newspaper reports that he is, after all, Pak Lah, the ordinary UMNO politician, an ulama's grandson, risen to greatness by a deliberate manipulation of his predecessor, the master 'dalang' himself, Tun Mahathir Mohamed, who we are not told should be called plain Mahathir, not as Tun "for there are many Tuns but only one Mahathir". It is more than interesting that not once did he mention the deputy prime minister forced upon him, Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak. There is a reason for this, which of course you would not see in any mainstream news paper: the two men can barely stand the sight of each other, their wives even more so. It is not the best way to run a government. This poisonous undercurrents remain a heavy cloud in the runup to the general elections. When they are not aired, not necessarily by the UMNO leaders, and publicly discussed, the shock of this when it does come about, especially amidst the hustle and bustle of the campaigning, can be catastrophic.
For Tun Mahathir left Pak Lah with a political poison pill when he relinquished office. He has, for his own self-interest, made Pak Lah accept a deputy prime minister he did not want, for the creative tension between the pair that could allow him to be a large influence behind the scenes. General Election must come this year, no later than the end of the year. But for practical reasons, it must be held before UMNO holds its postponed party elections in June or thereabouts. Pak Lah must appear at the UMNO general assembly as prime minister in his own right. And show he has shaken off the Mahathir embrace if he expects to continue to lead UMNO. Tun Mahathir, when he should have faded away, continues to hog the headlines. He now strays into unaccustomed territory by going to the ground in his home state of Kedah, where the Opposition PAS is overactive, and which could, if bad luck strikes the National Front (BN), form the next state government. The government intelligence agencies have found, in a secret survey late last year, found the BN's electoral chances would not be any better or any less if either or both Pak Lah and Tun Mahathir is in charge.
So, what has he achieved in his first hundred days in office, two days before this edition of Seruan Keadilan hits the streets on 10 February. He has made a series of orders and statements railing against corruption, praised the Chinese but scolds the Malay for his subsidy mentality, without adding that it is the UMNO-led BN government that nurtured it as official policy in the past three decades. Like the MIC's hold on its vote bank, the downtrodden and rural Indians, by cyncially raising the continuance of Tamil schools which only keep them tied perpetually to the poverty that is now their lot, the UMNO-led BN held on to the Malay community with its widespread policy of providing them with political subsidies that now backfires on it. What made it worse is, of course, UMNO's favourite punching bag, the jailed former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who turned that into an issue to all but destroy UMNO's hold on to the Malay cultural ground. So it reacts in panic. Pak Lah has made a few headline winning comments on corruption, but as usual he does not look at why, a few are charged, but with no attempt to address the root causes. He accepted the Mahathir cabinet, long past it sell-by date, as his own, the only two main changes - that of the new deputy prime minister and the second minister of finance - forced upon him.
At first glance, Pak Lah's first 100 days is no different from his predecessors'. But the similarities stop there. The past four prime ministers were their own men. They made the same kind of statements Pak Lah now makes, with this difference. Even if they attained office before elections, there is no doubt of their legitimacy in office. Pak Lah, on the other hand and lest we forget, is an accidental Prime Minister. He is where he is because the man who should have been there was too eager to take the mantles of office that he lost his political cool, and is now in Sungei Buloh prison for his pains. It would not have mattered if Pak Lah had succeeded him, if he he had been suspended or expelled. But Tun Mahathir wanted to make an example of him to warn UMNO leaders he would not tolerate mutinies like Dato' Seri Anwar planned. So he had UMNO concoct corruption and sodomy charges - it does not matter if he is guilty as charged, but how the judiciary, the police, the Attorney-General's Chambers cast caution to the winds and allowed the injustice to stick so he would be humiliated in the process backfired - and in his eagerness to destroy him fell foul of two important traits in the Malay: his feudal cultural horror at a leader humiliating his chieftains and his inordinate sense of justice; both caused the Malay to retire to the political sidelines whilst UMNO sorted itself out. So far it has not. To do that, the man wronged must be made free. UMNO under Pak Lah is in no mood for that. There begins his first major recipe for political disaster.
[This is my column in the latest issue of Seruan Keadilan, the official organ of the National Justice Party, out today, 09 February 2004]
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