IT’S been exactly five years since Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over as prime minister. Admittedly, he had some big shoes to fill — his predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad reshaped the country’s physical and psychological landscape in his quest to fulfil a particular vision of development by 2020.
(© Wan Leonard)
But aside from the gleaming towers and the Malaysia Boleh! sloganeering, there was also growing disenchantment with Mahathir’s iron rule. His 22 years saw, among others, the suppression of dissent, the rise in cronyism, the growing prevalence of money politics within Umno and corruption within government.
He brooked no opposition, whether within his own party or among critics of his policies, be they the media, opposition politicians or the judiciary.
So, when he decided to step down, handing over to his chosen successor Abdullah — his fourth deputy after Tun Musa Hitam, Tun Ghaffar Baba and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim — his decision was greeted at first with shock, followed by much relief.
Kinder, gentler politician
Abdullah, who was known throughout his long political career as a clean politician, took office on 31 Oct 2003 in an atmosphere of good will and much anticipation. He promised a kinder, gentler form of governance. He vowed to do away with corruption and cronyism, and to put the people’s interests first. To counter the threat posed by PAS, he put forth a progressive face for the religion by espousing Islam Hadhari.
In his first address in Parliament on 3 Nov 2003, Abdullah outlined his vision for the country, pledging to continue with his predecessors’ policies. More importantly, he called on legislators, administrators, the private sector, political parties, the media and Malaysian citizens from all walks of life to “work with” him.
For a while at least, his message, delivered in his soft-spoken, almost cajoling manner, seemed to work. There was a renewed sense of hope for a better Malaysia for all Malaysians, with a prime minister who promised to be PM for all.
It was this pledge of reform to reduce corruption and improve racial unity that helped sweep the Barisan Nasional (BN) to its best ever showing at the 11th general election in 2004. The BN won 198 out of 220 seats, wiping out the opposition parties and leaving PAS holding on to Kelantan with only the slimmest of margins.
Buoyed by the huge mandate, Abdullah could easily have leveraged this to sweep out the vestiges of the Mahathir era from his cabinet. Yet, despite expectations that he would drop several unpopular ministers who were closely aligned with Mahathir, Abdullah kept them.
Despite the BN manifesto promises of security, peace and
prosperity in the 2008 general election, the coalition lost its
two-thirds majority in Parliament (Source: bn2008.org.my)
On the corruption front, he did make some headway, at least in the beginning. There were a few notable arrests such as those of former head of Perwaja Steel Tan Sri Eric Cheah and former Land and Cooperative Development Minister Tan Sri Kasitah Gaddam. Even Umno seemed determined to clean up, with party vice-president Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad charged with money politics.
(Cheah was acquitted in 2007 while the trial of Kasitah, who resigned from his post after being charged with criminal breach of trust, is ongoing. Isa resigned from his party post on 17 Oct 2004 after being found guilty by the Umno disciplinary board.)
But after the initial flurry of arrests, Abdullah, reacting to pressure from within his party, seemed to lose his nerve and called back the hounds.
It didn’t help matters that Abdullah was also prone to flip-flopping on major issues, such as the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission, the memo by non-Muslim cabinet ministers on religious conversions and the interfaith commission.
The recent changes in the date for the transition of power to his deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak, is another example, though this may have more to do with the infighting within Umno than anything else.
Controlling the media
Abdullah’s administration also saw the media, cowed from years of Mahathirism, attempting to reassert themselves in the role of keeping the government honest. Newspapers such as theSun began to highlight cases of abuse of power, while on the internet, news portals and blogs began taking a critical look at the government’s failings.
But press freedom under Abdullah was only skin deep — the administration began to clamp down on the media, sending out show cause letters to the press and in some instances threatening the use of the Printing Presses and Publications Act. In the latest incident, three newspapers — theSun, Sin Chew Daily and Suara Keadilan — received show cause letters on 12 Sept 2008.
Raja Petra Kamarudin’s wife, Marina Lee Abdullah, speaking to the media
at an anti-ISA candlelight vigil in Bukit Aman on 13 Sept 2008
Additionally, the Abdullah administration detained Malaysia Today blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin and Sin Chew Daily reporter Tan Hoon Cheng on the same day under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Tan was later released. Another blogger, Shieh “Kickdefella” Syed Azidi Syed was arrested for sedition later that month.
During Abdullah’s premiership, Malaysia’s ranking in the Reporters Without Borders Worldwide Press Freedom Index dropped from 92 in 2006 to 132 in 2008.
One of Abdullah’s major changes was the discontinuation of grandiose projects, namely the so-called crooked bridge to Singapore which had been championed by Mahathir. But the former prime minister would not take this lying down and soon began an increasingly acrimonious war of words with the Abdullah government.
In the beginning at least, Abdullah chose to keep an “elegant silence” but the venomous attacks from Mahathir did not cease. A reconciliation meeting on 22 Oct 2006 failed to achieve anything, and Mahathir continued to be Abdullah’s worst critic. It culminated with Mahathir’s call for a stronger opposition in the run-up to the 8 March 2008 elections.
But even before then, the tide had turned against Abdullah because his administration was seen to have failed to fulfil the promises he had made. People started to take to the streets. There was the Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) rally on 10 Nov 2007, followed by another rally organised by the Hindu Action Rights Force (Hindraf) on 25 Nov. Both rallies were dispersed with force, and in the case of Hindraf, five leaders were detained under the ISA.
The backlash, especially from the non-Malay Malaysian community who had lost faith in the prime minister, was dramatic. When the results were tallied for the March general election, Abdullah and the BN had lost their two-thirds majority, besides losing Selangor, Penang, Perak, Kedah, Kelantan and the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur to the opposition.
He faced immediate calls to resign, but managed to fend off the wolves within his party by agreeing in June 2008 to a succession plan with Najib, to take effect in mid-2010.
But after the 26 Aug 2008 Permatang Pauh by-election, which marked Anwar’s return to Parliament, Abdullah faced calls for an even earlier exit, culminating with his decision on 8 Oct to not contest the Umno presidency.
Transition of power
Abdullah said he would stay on until the Umno elections in March 2009, and then hand over the reins to the incoming party president and BN chair, who traditionally becomes the prime minister.
Until then, Abdullah is intent on carving out a legacy for himself as a reformist. He has several major reforms he hopes to see through before leaving office — to reform the judiciary and enhance the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA)’s effectiveness, as well as to widen the social safety net for Malaysians.
These initiatives involve tabling two bills in Parliament — one on the setting up of a Judicial Appointments Commission, and the other on the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. He also hopes to push through a bill to establish a Special Complaints Commission to Enhance the Effectiveness and Integrity of Law Enforcement Agencies.
Whether he can push through the reforms, some of which are opposed by Umno members themselves, in the remaining months is left to be seen. But in the final analysis, Abdullah’s administration will be remembered for its failure to deliver on his promises.
Abdullah is what you call a soft politician. People like him are normally kind, with no great sense of mission, even amoral, love to be loved, and have no stomach for a fight. Abdullah seems to think that if he makes positive statements, positive action will flow without resolute action. He has made statements about fighting corruption, making Malaysia an arbitration centre(!), improving the standard of the universities, tolerance among faiths, etc., without taking concrete steps to see any of these through. Where he has initiated some action, these give way when he is under pressure as witnessed in the lack of follow through in police reform, interfaith dialogue, and corruption in Umno.
I will remember him chiefly for his habit of answering a question by repeating the question. Responding to accusations that Umno is a bully, his response was: “Why do you say Umno is a bully?” On bringing forward the date of his resignation, his response? “Why must I bring the date forward?”…and so on.
This manner of answering hides a deeper psychological aversion to problems. Just wish them away instead of confronting them: a true characteristic of a soft person.