Wed, November 12, 2003

Will new M'sian PM tackle the sacred cows?


NEW Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has started to take a different tack, but will he really change his predecessor's long-standing policies? True to form, Mr Abdullah has been less controversial and confrontational in his public remarks on a wide range of issues during his first week in office, after taking over the hot seat from Mahathir Mohamad.
He was careful to say Muslims must not be confrontational on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but he denied this was inconsistent with the position of Dr Mahathir, who caused an international uproar recently when he said that 'the Jews rule this world by proxy' and that 'they get others to fight and die for them'.
Mr Abdullah has also pledged to build on the foundation laid by Dr Mahathir. The most important policy is the Vision 2020 blueprint to build Malaysia into a developed nation in the next 17 years. Apart from ensuring political stability, the policy has called for a holistic approach to strengthen national unity and promote economic development.
To help achieve the vision, Mr Abdullah has stepped on the accelerator to wipe out endemic corruption in the system. He also said he will defend the Federal Constitution and the national unity pledge, Rukunegara.
The statement could be interpreted as a pledge to maintain Malaysia's affirmative action programme, known as the bumiputra policy, as the special rights of the predominant Malay community are enshrined in the Federal Constitution.
So far, Mr Abdullah has appeared as a technocrat who will work within the system and improve it. But don't rule out the possibility of him tinkering with Malaysia's sacred cows. Although it's still early days to make a judgment, Mr Abdullah has shown he is willing to take tough decisions.
One sign is his decision last week to postpone the listing of the plantation cooperative, the Federal Land Development Authority - the world's single largest owner of plantation land - earlier expected by this year-end. The listing plan was first announced by Dr Mahathir in September.
Mr Abdullah is concerned about the likely impact of the listing exercise on the 100,000 Felda settlers, mainly Malay farmers who were given state land for the cultivation of rubber and oil palm in the 1960s as part of the government's plan to wipe out poverty. An analyst said the listing plan could have an effect on the government, should it turn awry as the 275 Felda settlements cover 56 Parliament seats and 92 state assembly seats.
To be sure, the new premier has not scrapped the idea of floating Felda. He has merely said that more time is needed to study the matter. Nevertheless, the outcome of Felda's IPO could provide a hint of how Mr Abdullah will tinker with the major economic pillar - the privatisation drive - inherited from Dr Mahathir.
Many of Dr Mahathir's economic ideas under the privatisation policy have flourished, and should be retained. The success stories include the privatisation of Telekom Malaysia, North-South Expressway and Port of Tanjung Pelepas in Johor.
But there are also a handful of projects and businesses that might need a re-look. They include the viability of the national car, Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional (Proton), in the wake of the opening of the regional car sector under the Asean Free Trade Area. Should the government craft new ways to shield the national carmaker when import barriers that have protected Proton for the past two decades come down in 2005?
And there is probably no need to resume work on the stalled RM3 billion (S$1.4 billion) Entertainment Village as Malaysia does not have the competitive edge in producing Hollywood-type movies at this juncture.
Mr Abdullah must be bold in carrying out his duties, without fear or favour. He must make key decisions based on a rigorous cost and benefit analysis for the country when circumstances change, regardless of whether the move will be seen as unravelling Dr Mahathir's legacy.
Ultimately, the new premier must act in the interest of the country. Surely, the visionary and pragmatic Dr Mahathir would not mind that.