Thursday, April 2, 2009

Abdullah leaves office with a weak legacy

April 2, 2009

By Leslie Lopez

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is scheduled to meet the King today to submit his resignation. The Straits Times takes a look at the legacy of a man who took office just over five years ago after his predecessor, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, stepped down on Oct 31, 2003.

But history may take a kinder view and look at him as Malaysia's Gorbachev

KUALA LUMPUR: The harsh conclusion on outgoing Malaysian Premier Abdullah Badawi's legacy is that he will depart the political stage with very little to show.

On the economic front, his pledge to bring greater transparency to government never materialised and his lack of success in cutting red tape and tackle graft has undermined Malaysia's competitiveness as a regional investment centre.

The Abdullah-inspired blueprint to create growth clusters called corridors in strategic zones - such as the Iskandar development region in Johor - is still in its infancy and could stumble because of the global economic crisis.

Datuk Seri Abdullah held his last Cabinet meeting yesterday, and bade farewell to his ministers after a little more than five years as the country's fifth prime minister. He will leave office with the country's political landscape in its most unsettled state in decades.

His successor Najib Razak is expected to be sworn in as the premier tomorrow.

Mr Abdullah is cursed by his own party, Umno, on two fronts. One for the poor performance of the Barisan Nasional coalition government in last year's general elections, and the other for allowing former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim to return to active politics.

But then again, Mr Abdullah's report card might be read differently in years to come, with many analysts and diplomats believing that history will take a kinder view of the bland premier.

'History will look at him as Malaysia's Gorbachev,' says a senior South-east Asian diplomat, referring to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms unleashed democratic changes that led to the break-up of the Soviet Union.

'And Najib and his team will realise that you can't put the genie back into the bottle.'

A well-intentioned politician, Mr Abdullah recognised that Malaysia's problems, such as graft in government and the penchant for mega-projects to stimulate economic activity and deliver political patronage, were chipping away at the country's competitiveness as an investment destination.

But his efforts to clean up government came under heavy opposition from the entrenched civil service. And his reform agenda ran counter to the culture in Umno, a patronage-driven party in which warlords have long relied on easy access to government contracts in return for political support.

Datuk Seri Najib will quickly realise that Mr Abdullah's failure in reforming the economy has only postponed the hard policy changes the country must implement to attract foreign capital.

He has no option but to confront the forces which opposed the changes Mr Abdullah wanted to make.

Mr Najib will also realise that Mr Abdullah's move to allow greater space in politics was simply because there was no stopping the wave of change sweeping through an increasingly sophisticated electorate tired of Umno's patronising style of governing.

'When I talk about democracy and freedom of discourse, it is not an easy job to do. But you have to allow people to enjoy it,' Mr Abdullah told local editors at a farewell lunch on Tuesday.

Despite his bland public image, he is an experienced grassroots politician.

After majoring in Islamic Studies at the University of Malaya, Mr Abdullah joined the government in the mid-1960s, and was soon recognised by Tun Razak Hussein, Mr Najib's father who would later become prime minister.

The late Tun Razak took power after bloody racial riots in May 1969. He appointed Mr Abdullah as one of his assistant secretaries to the National Security Council, which was the supreme political body during the two years when the country was under a state of emergency.

After the council was disbanded, Mr Abdullah returned to the civil service before entering politics in 1974. Four years later, he won election to Parliament in his home constituency of Kepala Batas, a seat in Penang that he had successfully defended in the past eight general elections.

Unlike his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad, Mr Abdullah is unlikely to give his successor any grief.

Close associates say that Mr Abdullah would not make any demands to be appointed as adviser to the national oil corporation Petronas, a post that has gone to the country's last two premiers and is currently held by Tun Dr Mahathir.

'He doesn't want to create any headaches for Najib,' says one close associate familiar with Mr Abdullah's retirement plans.

The outgoing premier has publicly stated that he wants to be involved in promoting Islamic causes. Mr Najib is expected to appoint his predecessor as head of the respected Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia.

Government sources say the body will be renamed the International Institute of Islamic Learning to provide a more international profile to the organisation, which researches religious issues.

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