December 20, 2003

Malaysia's new ambience and policy focus

In Comment this week, Dr Eric Teo, Council Secretary of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs discusses the new ambience and policy focus in Malaysia.
Since Abdullah Badawi took over as Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1 November, Malaysia seems to be aglow with a new ambience and policy focus. Former PM Dr Mahathir left office after 23 years at its helm, with a Malaysia clearly in a buoyant and confident mood. Abdullah, has inherited, over the past six weeks, this political mantle in a confident and assured way, and would eventually leave his own mark on Malaysian politics.
Probably key to this would be Abdullah’s subtle and progressive shift in style and emphasis from his mentor and predecessor. A new ambience is thus becoming palpable, as well as a novel policy focus.
Within the present political context, Prime Minister Abdullah needs to legitimize his power by a resounding victory at the next general elections, which should logically be slated in the first few months of 2004. After inheriting a buoyant and prosperous Malaysia from Dr Mahathir, the new Prime Minister needs to build his own image and power base within UMNO and the ruling Barisan Nasional, which already seem well won over to him today. But a good electoral score would definitely and clearly bring him out of Dr Mahathir’s shadows, as Malaysia’s fifth leader and Premier.
Abdullah is indeed emerging from the shadows of his past mentor in four other ways. There are two new facets in his “new ambience” and two novel policy shifts that are fast gaining ground in Malaysia under Abdullah.
Firstly, one of the facets of this new ambience has been his “popular” appeal. Dr Mahathir had been very popular in Malaysia, especially in the last three years, after he put to rest the Anwar Ibrahim saga. But the “Abdullah appeal” stems from his simple, clean and “nice guy” image, as well as his solid Muslim credentials, which he would hope to use effectively against the opposition Islamic PAS during the election campaign next year. The recent buka puasa (or breaking fast) events and “open house” functions gave Abdullah the occasion to prove that he is a truly the “people’s man”! His first speech to Parliament was also significantly a certain “rehabilitation” of the people’s representatives!
The other facet of this new Abdullah ambience is undoubtedly his “more discreet and less rhetoric” personality and approach to policy and implementation. PM Abdullah has probably a less colourful personality than his predecessor; his leadership of the country could thus mean a less rhetoric Malaysia, with a more pragmatic and less ideological slant to its foreign policy. However, recent events, like the sacking of the New Straits Times Editor, show that the “Mr Nice Guy”, does not necessarily mean that he would abstain from taking tough and decisive action, when warranted.
In terms of subtle shifts in policy focus, Abdullah is shifting from hardware to software, in line with his “popular” or “people’s image”. Dr Mahathir had built Malaysia impressively over the past twenty years into a modern and prosperous economy, with impressive infrastructure. However, it would appear that Abdullah may now want to put more emphasis on building the software or Malaysians’ know-how and technology, in order to match its hardware or infrastucture. Education would be given more emphasis, as well as skills training, ranging from English, Mathematics and Science to vocational skills development.
Lastly, Abdullah, right from the outset, has made it clear that the public service delivery system must function properly in order to get or win the people's support. Key to this reform of the delivery system would be his fight against corruption; at the recent 4th Anti-Corruption Conference organized by OECD and ADB in Kuala Lumpur, Abdullah himself made the point to personally open it and emphasized his determination to root out corruption at all levels. Abdullah is keen that the rakyat or people get what the administration should deliver, without intermediaries creaming off unwarranted benefits through objectionable means.
Malaysia today under Prime Minister Abdullah is definitely in the grips of a new ambience and subtle policy shifts, as the new leadership takes control in the post-Mahathir years.
And that was Dr Eric Teo, Council Secretary of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). You’ve been listening to Comment on Radio Singapore International.