08 February 2004

Malaysia's new PM stages 'quiet' revolution

KUALA LUMPUR,: One hundred days after taking power, Malaysia's new prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has staged a quiet revolution in foreign policy which has won high marks from foreign diplomats.
Gone are the sometimes savage rhetorical attacks his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, regularly launched against countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia during his 22 years in power.
"The diplomatic style is constructive and seems to be shifting more to an interest-based foreign policy rather than one with a heavy emphasis on rhetoric and ideological alignments," a Western diplomat told AFP.
"It's good for Malaysia and good for Malaysia's partners. The whole tone of government has shifted in the last 100 days and it has got a very businesslike feel to it.
"A lot of countries have felt that in the past they were subject to rather caustic criticism from the Malaysian government and I think they are feeling the relief of that no longer happening," he said.
Another Western diplomat agreed that "we have seen a drop off in the anti-Western rhetoric" since Abdullah took over on October 31, but said it was too early to tell whether the substance of foreign policy would change significantly.
He cited as an example Malaysia's stand on Iraq. Mahathir, 77, was a fierce critic of the US-led invasion, and while Abdullah, 64, does not use his predecessor's fiery language, "Malaysia has maintained a very strict line that this is an unacceptable occupation".
The diplomat said he hoped that given time and United Nations involvement, Malaysia would emulate other Muslim countries which had put their opposition to the war behind them and were prepared to consider working to rebuild Iraq.
Apart from Western countries, Malaysia under Mahathir also had testy relations with Singapore, and signs have already emerged of a thaw between the two neighbours.
Abdullah visited the island state twice in January, the first time for talks which were described as "friendly", and the second time for a round of golf with his counterpart, Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
In an interview with local media ahead of the 100-days landmark, which falls on Sunday, Abdullah said it was time for Malaysia and Singapore to return to the negotiating table to resolve a number of long-running disputes.
"The mood is good. They are ready to talk and we are ready to talk," he said.
On the domestic front, diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity as their remarks could not be taken as official statements of their countries' positions, also gave Abdullah a good 100-day report card.
"In general I think that we've been very encouraged by a lot of the priorites he has set and initiatives he has kicked off, particularly on corruption and transparency on the economic front.
We're very impressed by the start he has made," said one.
"Across the board it's looking really good," said another, also referring to Abdullah's pledge to crack down on corruption as well as his naming this week of a special commission to overhaul a police force tainted by graft and alleged use of excessive force.
The Western diplomats, however, said there was no real change evident in Malaysia's approach to human rights since Abdullah took over, citing limited political freedoms and the continued imprisonment of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar, jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy after being sacked by Mahathir in 1998, is considered a political prisoner by the United States and his supporters say the charges were trumped up to prevent him making a challenge for the premiership.
A diplomat from one of the European Union countries said the EU "watches the Anwar case with concern, but there is a reasonable hope that the situation could change after the elections, depending on how Abdullah fares."
Elections are due by the end of the year, but are expected to be held much earlier, perhaps within the next couple of months.
The vote will be the first real test for Abdullah, who faces a threat from the hardline Islamic Party (PAS) which wrested control of a second state and tripled its parliamentary seats to 27 in 1999 polls.
Analysts have warned that any significant loss of support to PAS could lead to a challenge to Abdullah for the leadership of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which heads the ruling National Front coalition.
Abdullah has strong religious credentials, having majored in Islamic studies at University Malaya, but this is unlikely to make much impression on the country's more militant Muslims as long as he upholds the secular nature of the constitution.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"