Thursday, October 9, 2008

A leader who started out boldly


Oct 9, 2008
NEWS ANALYSIS
By Leslie Lopez, South-east Asia Correspondent

JUST before Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi assumed the premiership, a senior Western diplomat remarked to a group of foreign reporters that he was having problems telling his government what to expect from Malaysia's new leader.

'He has never articulated any vision, and you can't put a finger on what he stands for,' the diplomat told his guests at a lunch in October 2003. 'At this point, the cable I want to send back to HQ is blank.'

After Mr Abdullah (seen here - left) succeeded Dr Mahathir, he tried to shore up his appeal with the catchy campaign theme of 'Don't work for me, but with me'. He charmed voters in the March 2004 elections and scored an impressive electoral victory for the ruling coalition. -- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

When Mr Abdullah hands over power to his deputy Najib Razak in March next year, he will leave a report card that unfortunately remains pretty much blank. Much was promised but little was achieved during his tenure.

If there's one thing Mr Abdullah will be remembered for, it will be the release from jail of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy premier who was sacked by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad after the two politicians fell out in 1998.

Unlike his predecessor, Mr Abdullah did not interfere with the courts. That, many analysts believe, led to Mr Anwar's release from prison in September 2004. But it would be a gesture that would eventually eject Mr Abdullah from the premiership.

Mr Anwar cobbled together an alliance of opposition parties that scored major gains in the March general election, emerging as a threat to Umno's grip on power. Mr Abdullah was blamed for the electoral setbacks, triggering a rebellion within his party and culminating in his decision yesterday to step down.

Many Malaysians view Mr Abdullah as a well-intentioned but weak leader. He seemed helpless as an increasingly sophisticated electorate grew tired of Umno's style of governance.

Close aides of Mr Abdullah insist that the criticisms are unfair, and that their boss desperately wanted to carry out reforms. 'He tried to reform, but he was not given enough time and he faced too much opposition from Umno,' said one long-time aide.

Many analysts believe he was picked as Dr Mahathir's deputy after Mr Anwar's sacking because the former premier wanted a No.2 who wouldn't pose a threat to him. Mr Abdullah's animosity towards Mr Anwar also made him an ideal candidate.

After Mr Abdullah succeeded Dr Mahathir, he tried to shore up his appeal with the catchy campaign theme of 'Don't work for me, but with me'. He charmed voters in the March 2004 elections and scored an impressive electoral victory for the ruling coalition.

A carefully choreographed campaign presented him to the electorate and investors as the antithesis of the combative and often autocratic Dr Mahathir. The image worked in part because it did reflect reality: Mr Abdullah was indeed the opposite of his predecessor.

And he did start out boldly: He overturned costly infrastructure projects promoted by his ex-boss; initiated a crackdown on corruption, including charging a minister and a close business associate of Dr Mahathir; and promised more transparency in government, including using open tenders for contracts.

But his reform agenda ran counter to the culture in Umno, a patronage-driven party where warlords have long relied on easy access to government contracts to secure political support. Before long, support among Malaysians also started to slip. His reluctance to upset vested political and business interests disillusioned voters.

Mr Abdullah became a premier under siege from within his own party and an emboldened opposition. His inability to deal with these forces led to his party's poor showing in the March elections and the rebellion within Umno that has now forced him into early retirement.

Ultimately, he failed to break with the past and reform key institutions such as the judiciary and security agencies. That a decent and well-intentioned man like him failed indicates the extent to which the ruling elite may well be beyond reform.

ljlopez@sph.com.sg

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