Search Monday January 12, 2004

Philip Bowring: Not a bad start for Malaysia's new prime minister
After Mahathir
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Monday, January 12, 2004

HONG KONG: He does not make the international headlines. His current visits to his immediate neighbors - his first as prime minister - are low-key affairs. Even at home, his picture is noticeable by its infrequent appearance on front pages once accustomed to almost daily photos of his predecessor, Mahathir bin Mohamad. But Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is so far making the most of his reputation as a modest man, surprising those who believed that to be inoffensive was to be ineffective.

Pak Lah, as he is colloquially known, has made breaks with the past that suggest he wants a Malaysia where quality counts more than quantity, where integrity matters. Yet he is still a prisoner of the past and many still doubt his ability to fulfill the hopes of those who want a more liberal, less crony-ridden Malaysia. Abdullah may want a kinder, gentler Malaysia but can he, a consensus-builder, deliver it? Thus far the signals have been mostly positive.

His biggest political tests lie ahead: a general election likely to be held in March or April and elections for the governing party, UMNO, in June. The general election result will be crucial to the party elections and his ability to dominate a notoriously faction-ridden organization. How many Malays can he win back to UMNO from the main opposition party, Parti Islam, and Keadilan, the multiracial but mostly Malay party formed after the arrest of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim? A big improvement on UMNO's 1999 performance would give him a free hand to promote higher standards in a party that has become synonymous with access to business deals. Anything less could leave him needing to compromise.

The election outlook is quite promising. Abdullah's religious credentials - which he does not wear on his sleeve - and his courteous manner probably appeal to Malays. Parti Islam has moved to a more extreme Islamist position after the sudden death last year of its astute leader, Fadzil Nor. Better still, the rural economy is reviving thanks to a boom in palm oil and rubber prices. But it will still be a tough fight with a well organized Parti Islam.

Some reformists have been disappointed by his choice of Najib Tun Razak as his deputy. Defense Minister Najib, 50, was strongly favored by Mahathir and has ambitions to succeed Abdullah, 62, and many wanted a cleaner break. But Najib was the best choice of the three most senior UMNO office-holders. To have named someone from outside this group would have created serious tensions within the party.

There has been disappointment, too, that he has not so far released more political detainees or moved toward reconciliation with Anwar. The judiciary is still seen by many as an extension of executive power. However, there have been some very positive signs, too.

Major deals given to cronies in the latter days of the Mahathir administration have been canceled and several grandiose public projects placed under review. Appointments ranging from police chief to an apolitical deputy finance minister have emphasized professionalism expected by a prime minister who was once a civil servant himself. Corruption is now acknowledged to be a major problem and the anticorruption agency has sprung back to life. A public ethics institute is being established and a commission will examine the competence and credibility of the police.

UMNO itself is so deeply embedded in money politics that it may successfully resist efforts by a consensual leader to change its ways. Anwar's release may be long delayed by fears that he poses a potential threat, not so much to Abdullah but to those who hope to succeed him.

But Abdullah does have a reputation for personal honesty, a belief in the importance of public institutions and a pluralistic approach to social and religious issues. He is also not in thrall of big business. There is a reasonable chance that the independence of the bureaucracy and judiciary, so undermined by Mahathir, will revive. At the same time he is likely in practice to follow Mahathir's goals of gradually reducing Malay racial advantages, de-emphasizing the outward forms of religion and promoting ethnic integration in schools.

Internationally, he has ended Mahathir's abrasive posture to the United States and Singapore and reduced the protection of Malaysia's car industry which was undermining the Asean free trade agreement.

His combination of competence and modest demeanor may even give him superior credentials in a Southeast Asia where leadership is either lacking or lacks appropriate modesty. So far so good for Pak Lah.