BANGKOK - With pragmatism and his own style of leadership, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has succeeded in laying the groundwork to overshadow his contemporaries as the most significant political figure in South-east Asia, under current circumstances.
Abdullah's visit this week to the United States, his first since becoming premier, was the latest indicator pointing to his emerging stature after he took over eight months ago from his outspoken predecessor Mahathir Mohamed, who ruled Malaysia for 22 years.
For one, Washington appeared keen to listen to him. A meeting between Abdullah and U.S. President George Bush, for instance that was scheduled to last 25 minutes went on for an hour.
And by the time he left the United States, the soft-spoken Malaysian premier had made an offer that had earned him new respect within the U.S. political establishment. Malaysia was willing to send a ''sizeable medical team to Iraq,'' Abdullah said.
It comes in the wake of an equally significant offer that Abdullah made just before heading to the United States, the first of his three-nation visit that included stops in France and Britain.
He told the media in Kuala Lumpur that Muslim countries were in a better position to send their troops to help war-torn Iraq, a view that Washington has been desperate to hear as the coalition it leads in occupied Iraq continues to take a beating.
Abdullah's words were not lost on the U.S. government due to two reasons that give them substantial weight. Malaysia is the current chairman of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Movement, both groups that together reflect the views of developing countries.
In addition, the Malaysian premier represents an important minority within the Islamic world -- a democratically elected leader.
On Mar. 21, Abdullah led his party to a landslide victory by campaigning for a moderate form of Islam for Malaysia as against the cry for a more conservative form of the religion advocated by the opposition party.
The U.S. State Department gushed with praise after the Malaysian premier had delivered his twin offers. ''This is important as we had long hoped that Malaysia as a moderate Muslim majority country would help out,'' a senior State Department official was quoted as having told Malaysia's 'New Straits Times' newspaper.
Additional praise from Bush further cemented what is amounting to a turning point in Malaysia's relationship with the United States, following frosty ties during the last six years of Mahathir's rule.
But as Abdullah revealed on another front, Kuala Lumpur will not be a pushover for Washington. For the Malaysian government strongly objected recently to U.S. efforts to send its Marines to protect ships plying through the Malacca Straits from possible terrorist strikes.
On Tuesday, Malaysia's vision to protect this busy international sea route got underway, when naval ships from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore - the three countries that share this body of water - launched their first joint patrols.
A day later, the Philippines government was thanking Kuala Lumpur for using its influence within the Islamic world to release Angelo de la Cruz, the Filipino truck driver who was abducted in Iraq by a group of militants that wanted to behead him.
And in another corner of Asia, the Australian government is enjoying the whiff of a new relationship emerging between Canberra and the 10-member regional group Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Once again, the Malaysian government under Badawi has been pivotal to let Australia participate in the ASEAN leaders' forum to be held in Laos in November.
This stance, which would pave the way for closer economic ties between ASEAN and Australia, was a shift away from persistent objections Mahathir made against Canberra's involvement at the regional grouping's gatherings -- after former Australian prime minister Paul Keating referred to the Malaysian leader as a ''recalcitrant.''
The countries in ASEAN are Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
''Abdullah is being listened to and treated with significance because he has substantial things to offer the world and the region,'' Kavi Chongkittavorn, a Thai columnist on South-east Asian affairs and an editor at 'The Nation' daily, tells IPS.
Abdullah's ascendancy in the region is being aided by the prevailing realities his contemporaries are up against. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, for one, is facing a re-election bid in September, while Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong will be finishing his term of office in August.
Filipino President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, on the other hand, is receiving flak from the pro-war governments in Washington and Australia for deciding to pull out her country's 51-member peacekeeping force in Iraq ahead of schedule to save the life of truck driver de la Cruz.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is the only contender to match Abdullah, but he has offered contradictory messages on issues such as regional security.
While being equivocal on Iraq, Thaksin, however, has failed to influence change in an area relevant to Thailand and ASEAN as a whole - namely political reform in Burma.
''Thaksin has regional ambitions, he wants to be known as an Asian statesman, but he has nothing substantial to offer,'' says Kavi. ''He cannot match Abdullah.''
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"