Saturday, November 1, 2003

"Our policy is to be friendly with any country . . . if they're good to us, we'll be good to them."

A diplomat takes centre stage

November 1, 2003

Malaysia's new PM will be a stark contrast to the abrasive Dr Mahathir. Mark Baker reports from Kuala Lumpur.

They call him Pak Lah - a familiar form of "father" in Malay. He's the son and grandson of religious scholars and a graduate in Islamic studies.

In a system notorious for the abuses of "money politics", he's universally regarded as Mr Clean, a modest man who has grown neither conspicuously rich nor arrogant in power.

Other than that, even close associates concede they know surprisingly little about the man who yesterday stepped into perhaps the biggest pair of shoes in South-East Asian politics.

Abdullah Badawi, Malaysia's fifth Prime Minister since independence, has been a senior Government minister for almost two decades. But the 63-year-old has lived so long in the towering shadow of his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, that many Malaysians are still unsure whether he will bloom or wilt now that he has emerged blinking into the full glare of the leadership spotlight.

"Abdullah Badawi has always been a diplomat and a gentleman - non-confrontational, non-abrasive, terribly diplomatic. But I believe he can also be very firm," says leading banker Azim Zabidi, a former member of the supreme council of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

"A lot of people underestimate him and think he's soft and indecisive. Now that he has taken the top job I think you will see a change and a lot of people will be surprised at how forceful he can be."

Mr Abdullah has arrived at the prime ministership through shrewd manoeuvring, patience and luck.

A skilled and respected foreign minister for more than seven years, he fell out with Dr Mahathir during the leadership ructions that split UMNO in the late 1980s. He soon returned to the fold, but his career was eclipsed by a fellow native of Penang, Anwar Ibrahim.

When Mr Anwar was sacked during a power struggle with Dr Mahathir in 1998 - and later jailed on trumped up sex and corruption charges - Mr Abdullah, to his own surprise and that of many colleagues, was catapulted into the deputy prime minister's post and the leadership succession.

Despite his reputation as a gentler and more liberal politician than Dr Mahathir, Mr Abdullah has been very much a part of a system that has corrupted Malaysia's judiciary, tamed its media and enriched the elite.

As home affairs minister, he ran the notorious Internal Security Act under which scores of dissidents have been jailed indefinitely without trial.

"He's no shining liberal. He's out of the Malay political tradition. He's a creature of the system," says a senior European diplomat. "He's shown no discomfort about the ISA and there has been no sign that he wants to give back some of the dignity that has been taken from the Parliament, the media or the judiciary in recent years."

But there are widespread expectations that Mr Abdullah will be less confrontational and more consensual than Dr Mahathir. And many observers believe his leadership style will allow more diversity and dissent at home and see an end to the rhetorical pyrotechnics that have fractured Malaysia's international relationships throughout the Mahathir era.

Notably, Mr Abdullah has kept well clear of the storm of controversy ignited by Dr Mahathir's inflammatory remarks about Jews over recent weeks. And while Dr Mahathir continued to berate the West in general, and the United States and Australia in particular, during his final days at the helm, Mr Abdullah has made it clear that he wants cordial diplomatic relations with all nations.

Australian officials are optimistic that the change of leadership will help to bring an end to the conflict that has soured relations between the two countries throughout Dr Mahathir's 22 years in power.

Regional analysts have been impressed by the apparently conciliatory tone of Mr Abdullah's response to Prime Minister John Howard who, bridling at Dr Mahathir's latest abuse, declared last week that he would be in no hurry to mend fences with Malaysia.

In contrast to the knee-jerk responses of Dr Mahathir, Mr Abdullah said: "Our policy is to be friendly with any country . . . if they're good to us, we'll be good to them."

While Dr Mahathir earned a reputation as a Malay chauvinist and a take-no-prisoners fighter who turned religion into a political battleground to counter a surge in support for the opposition Islamist Party at the last elections, Mr Abdullah is seen as a more multicultural leader whose religious credentials will help in the struggle to win back the Malay heartland for UMNO.

Prominent writer and lawyer Karim Raslan says Mr Abdullah, who played a significant role as a conciliator during the bloody race riots of 1969, is likely to be a far more inclusive leader.

"He has a very multiracial approach. He has a lot of strong friendships among Malaysian Indians and Chinese and the communities like him," he says.

Respected, too, among conservative Malay Muslims for his religious credentials, Mr Abdullah has also defended the country's religious diversity. He recently intervened to overturn a decision to ban a Malay-language edition of the Bible.

While Mr Abdullah comes to the prime ministership with considerable goodwill, he also inherits a restive party whose internal divisions were mostly quarantined by the force of Dr Mahathir's personality.

He also inherits a party which, for the first time since independence, lost the majority support of Malays at the last elections in 1999, largely due to the Anwar scandal and corruption concerns.

Crucial for Mr Abdullah's survival and the continued dominance of UMNO will be the outcome of elections that are expected to be called early next year but could come as soon as next month.

"It's imperative that Abdullah Badawi gets a thumping mandate from the people for him to implement the changes he has in mind," says Azim Zabidi. "People will want to see what he stands for and what he will bring to the table."