Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Surprise Visit to Immigration Dept.

Abdullah Badawi: Malaysia's tinker man</span>
By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - Like a home handyman tinkering around the house making adjustments and minor repairs, Malaysia's new premier has been busy fine-tuning what he believes is a successful system.

In power now for nearly a month, Abdullah Badawi has had plenty of time to shake up the system and rid it of some of the excesses of the previous administration of Mahathir Mohamad, who retired as prime minister at the end of October.

And indeed, Abdullah has already made a few newsworthy moves. But rather than grabbing the administration by the scruff of the neck and shaking it up, he has been tinkering with it on the surface, including providing some material goodies to civil servants, perhaps with one eye on the coming general election.

Barely a day passes without some new policy or approach being announced. Some of these moves have been perceived in various quarters as vote-catching ploys ahead of a general election, widely expected to be held early next year, and party elections of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Since taking office, Abdullah has swooped down against civil-service inefficiency, corruption and bottlenecks. He also made a surprise check on the Immigration Department in its frontline office where the public has to queue starting at dawn.

One day he announced an effective hike in the golden handshakes for civil servants upon retirement and a pay raise for the police; another day, he launched a major road-safety campaign ahead of the end-of-Ramadan rush to return home.

The new premier, obviously trying to distance himself from the excesses of the previous administration, wants moderation in all future government functions, pointing out that many of these events were "way too elaborate".

He has also directed the Treasury to take immediate measures to settle all outstanding payments to government suppliers and ensure that payment is made within 30 days of delivery. Identifying corruption and education as key areas to focus on, Abdullah has urged his ruling-coalition leaders to tell him the truth about the problems being faced by the people.

But many Malaysians remain deeply cynical over whether the untested new premier can undo overnight years of tolerance for a culture that often closes an eye to various abuses and inefficiency. Moreover, Abdullah has yet to even be confirmed as leader of the UMNO by the party rank-and-file.

Although the crackdown on corruption and inefficiency in the civil service is widely welcome, it does not tackle one of the major problems in Malaysia: money politics. Far too many politicians in business have close links with the dominant parties in the ruling coalition like the UMNO. Critics point out that the prime minister, cabinet ministers and other elected representatives should all be required to declare their assets to the public and that the Anti-Corruption Agency, which falls under the Prime Minister's Department, should be made genuinely independent.

As his first month draws to a close, Abdullah has not reshuffled the cabinet or brought in new blood. Power continues to be centralized in the hands of the prime minister. In addition to the powerful home affairs portfolio that he held even before taking over the helm, Abdullah also assumed the Finance Ministry's portfolio that Mahathir controlled. And he cannot argue that he needs more time to select the right candidate, as Mahathir announced his resignation in June last year. Critics say he is insecure - the deputy premier's post is still vacant - and he needs more time to build his support base before he can relinquish these key portfolios.

Not long ago there was some bright news for Abdullah: third-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) growth reached 5.1 percent after the economy expanded by 4.5 percent in the first half of the year. But recently a hot potato has landed on Abdullah's lap: the hiring of a local consortium - Gamuda Bhd-Malaysian Mining Corp Bhd (MMC) - to build and electrify a 636-kilometer double-track railway line despite a letter of intent having been given to the Indian Railway Construction Co (Ircon) and China Railway Engineering Corp (CREC) in mid-2002.

The railway line is part of the US$30 billion 5,500km trans-Asia railway track linking Singapore with Kunming in China. Gamuda-MMC reportedly won the bid after quoting a lower price - RM14.5 billion ($3.8 million) - under controversial circumstances.

Holding the finance minister's portfolio is especially convenient for Abdullah at this point with a snap general election looming. The ruling coalition's election campaign has traditionally banked on the "politics of development" - a euphemism for promising development projects and aid and dishing out on-the-spot grants to win votes.

Also, the finance minister's post means that Abdullah controls the purse strings in the run-up to the elections of the UMNO, of which he is now acting head.

Politics in the UMNO is dominated by the politics of patronage: contracts, licenses, shares and other favors are awarded to build support within the party. Abdullah, who was only appointed - rather than elected - as UMNO deputy president after the ouster in 1998 of the then incumbent, Anwar Ibrahim, has not been tested in party polls for the UMNO leadership. Holding on to the finance portfolio, therefore, would give Abdullah an obvious edge over any potential rival that may emerge from within the party ranks to mount a leadership challenge.

Widespread speculation over who will be Abdullah Badawi's deputy is also revealing. If anything, it shows the extent to which Mahathir's tenure had assumed feudal overtones after 22 years of autocratic rule. Now that Mahathir's successor is at the helm, Malaysians are obsessed about who will be next in line to succeed the new premier. This fixation on who will be the new premier's deputy is a phenomenon that is rarely seen in democratic nations that have installed a new leader and shows how the feudal mentality has seeped into the political arena here.

Meanwhile, news broke on Friday that the editor-in-chief of the establishment English-language broadsheet New Straits Times, Abdullah Ahmad, had been removed. The NST boss has been seen as a Mahathir loyalist who appears to have been backing Mahathir's choice, Defense Minister Najib Razak, for the vacant post of deputy premier.

If tradition is the guide, the deputy president of UMNO will become the new deputy premier. But party elections for top posts are not due until mid-2004 and, with other potential candidates lurking in the wings, it is by no means certain that Najib will be a shoo-in for the UMNO deputy presidency.

Away on a vacation in Europe, Mahathir himself was largely out of the media glare during the early part of the month.

Abdullah, still unsure of his support base, shows no sign of easing up on autocratic rule. The number of those in detention without trial under the feared Internal Security Act swelled to more than 100 after 13 Malaysian students were held on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activity. Some of these students are teenagers who were picked up by Pakistani authorities and sent back to Malaysia.

Human-rights campaigner Irene Fernandez meanwhile faces the possibility of going to jail after she was convicted of maliciously publishing false news despite overwhelming evidence in her favor during the course of her trial. And ex-deputy premier Ibrahim is still in jail, trying to get medical treatment for a spinal injury while appealing against his conviction. There also appears to be little sign of any major reforms in the judiciary. And although a new police chief has been appointed, it is doubtful whether this alone can improve the image of the force among the public after all the bad news during the Mahathir years.

As the weeks roll by, Abdullah can be expected to apply more fine-tuning rather than the adventurous radical reforms in almost all areas that Malaysia needs. It is unlikely that such tinkering will capture the public imagination or enable UMNO to win back lost ground.

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