Malaysia: Abdullah's long honeymoon over
By Liew Chin Tong
KUALA LUMPUR - Hopes that Abdullah Badawi's nominally reformist government would shake up Malaysia's political status quo have started to fade about two-and-a-half years after he succeeded strongman Mahathir Mohammad.
February was a rough-and-tumble month for Malaysia's leader, one in which his reformist credentials were firmly brought into question. Abdullah was notably on the defensive after his February 14 cabinet reshuffle failed to dislodge Mahathir loyalists and promote younger reformers in his government.
His government also cracked down hard on the media, shutting one Malaysian newspaper and suspending two others temporarily after the publication of controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, eerily similar to the heavy-handed tactics Mahathir used to undermine the press and quell criticism. And Abdullah appeared to expend his last store of political capital when he reduced subsidies and hiked gasoline prices by 18%.
Until recently Abdullah, widely viewed as one of the world's more moderate Muslim leaders, had enjoyed a long honeymoon period. He was officially anointed Mahathir's successor in June 2002, and was finally handed the leadership baton in October 2003. In a March 2003 speech, at a time when many political commentators had written him off as a puppet transitional leader, Abdullah firmly established his reformist credentials by publicly distancing himself from Mahathir's spendthrift, monument-building ways and vowed that his government would work to root out corruption.
In that memorable speech, the premier-in-waiting cited the unfortunate combination of "First World infrastructure and a Third World mentality" as the "malaise" undermining Malaysia's global competitiveness - lightly veiled criticism of Mahathir's supercharged, and often controversial, economic policies. While crediting Malaysia for having one of the most stringent anti-corruption laws in the region, he said that "is not sufficient if we are unable to empower legislation with enforcement".
To Abdullah's credit, he followed up those tough words with tough actions, positioning himself as a transformational rather than transitional leader. In the months leading up to the March 2004 general election, Abdullah galvanized reform hopes when his government charged with corruption then land and cooperative development minister Kasitah Gaddam and a former managing director of a state-owned steel company, Eric Chia.
The government also announced in 2004 that some 18 other cases involving prominent personalities were being investigated by the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA), and the "National Integrity Plan" aimed at reducing corruption was launched with great fanfare.
Widely portrayed as a pious Muslim from a family of prominent Islamic scholars, the soft-spoken premier captured the national imagination that sweeping change was imminent when he initiated a royal commission to make proposals on police reform, a plan to improve the transparency and performance of state-linked companies, and a commitment that future government contracts would be distributed only through open tender.
The Federal Court's release in September 2004 of imprisoned former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who made the mistake of challenging Mahathir's hold on political power in the wake of the 1997-98 regional financial crisis, indicated that Malaysia was clearly headed toward a more liberal era under Abdullah.
Indications were that the general public approved. Abdullah's ruling coalition won the 2004 elections with the second-highest popular mandate in history, which yielded a commanding 92% control of parliament. His party resoundingly trumped Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), which holds sway in the country's north, and Abdullah's landslide victory was seen as popular approval for his brand of moderate Islamic rule.
But Abdullah's reform movement arguably lost momentum in late 2004 with the defeat of his allies - including three of his reform-minded cabinet ministers - during United Malay National Organization (UMNO) internal party elections. The refrain then from Abdullah supporters to those who were not satisfied with the speed and direction of reform was that the premier needed more time to consolidate his political base.
The nearly three decades of Mahathir's rule resulted in a cohort of old-style politicians, with the premier personally defusing internal competitions within UMNO and openly rewarding loyalty over competence. Most of those politicians have a vested interest in politics as usual, and they are widely viewed as antagonistic to Abdullah's reform drive.
Many observers were taken aback by the re-emergence of so-called "neo-Mahathirists" and the dearth of new, young blood during Abdullah's latest cabinet shuffle. Indeed, expectations of a major political overhaul that would have replaced Mahathir's old cronies and appointed younger pro-reformers clearly failed to materialize.
Analysts cite the re-emergence of former agriculture minister Effendi Norwawi, who was elevated at the request of the coalition's powerful Sarawak United People's Party, as one clear example of a resurgent old guard. Similarly, Abdullah has found it difficult to remove heads of UMNO's coalition partners, which explains the continued presence of the controversial Works Minister Samy Vellu, 70, also seen as a defender of the status quo.
Moreover, known Mahathir loyalists, including former federal territories minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor and Deputy Information Minister Zainudin Maidin, made surprising comebacks. Both of those men were appointed by Mahathir in his November 2002 cabinet shuffle to avoid a lame-duck fate after he shocked the nation, and the world, during a teary-eyed national address when he unexpectedly announced his intention to retire that year.
Mahathir's actual influence on the day-to-day running of Abdullah's government is minimal, government insiders say. Yet his way of running the business of government - which Abdullah vowed to change - is still entrenched and strongly influences the policy process.
Abdullah now presides over a cabinet room packed with ministers who have accumulated plenty of baggage as a result of their long tenures without independent scrutiny. It is not surprising, then, that they are loath to open up the reform floodgate, which could lead to probes into their past records. In the course of protecting their own interests, they have also ensured that many of Mahathir's suspect policies will not be subject to backward-looking investigations.
Indeed, it appears the "neo-Mahathirists" are effectively protecting their interests against uncomfortable scrutiny. International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz, 63, is one such politician who, though she has fallen out openly with Mahathir, has made clear her aversion to Abdullah's reform program. Last year Rafidah emerged unscathed from alleged corruption involving the approvals for imported cars, a story that had surprisingly made headlines in Malaysia's media.
Until now, a freer, more scrutinizing local media was seen as one of the hallmarks of Abdullah's more liberal administration. Malaysian newspapers are still regulated by stringent laws that require annual renewal of their licenses, and the internal security minister has discretion to revoke permits for arbitrarily defined reasons. Malaysian media companies are owned mostly by individuals and corporations with strong connections to the ruling elite.
Even so, media practitioners, members of the opposition and even some dissident groups agreed that the space for political discourse had expanded considerably under Abdullah's watch. That honeymoon period, however, has come to an abrupt end. Two top editors of China Press were removed by government authorities in January for wrongly identifying as a Chinese national a Malay woman mistreated by the police.
Meanwhile, a witchhunt of newspapers that reprinted caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed has undermined Abdullah's professed commitment to media freedom and brought down international criticism on his government. Clamping down on the three newspapers was intended to shore up his popularity among Muslims and demonstrate his government's willingness to defend the Islamic faith.
This was followed by the squabbles between the seemingly more open-minded Abdullah lieutenants at the New Straits Times, the country's oldest paper, which is known to be run by UMNO, and the newly appointed Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin, whose background is more in propaganda than in straight news.
Zainuddin led the chorus calling for the New Straits Times to be punished for publishing a syndicated cartoon, notably not part of the 12 condemned Danish caricatures, a decision by the newspaper that hinted that drawing caricatures of the Prophet was a permissible act.
Mahathir weighed in that the paper should be allowed to continue to publish while its editors should be suspended for two or three months, and a cabinet meeting chaired while the premier was overseas by a known "neo-Mahathirist", Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, resulted in a threatening letter to that effect being sent to the newspaper.
But perhaps most worrying to Abdullah has been the furor surrounding his government's decision to hike fuel prices. UMNO's main constituency is the ethnic-Malay lower middle class, and while criticism of cabinet shuffles and media freedom are often dismissed as normal cut-and-thrust elite politics, fuel-price hikes have hit Abdullah's main supporters where it hurts - in the pocketbook.
The recent 30-US-cent gasoline price hike - the highest in the country's history - outraged nearly everyone. Pump prices have rocketed from RM1.35 (36 cents) to RM1.92 (52 cents) a liter, a whopping 42% rise, since Abdullah took office. Global market forces are pushing up fuel prices everywhere, but many Malaysians believe that as a net fuel exporter, the government has the room to temper price hikes and that subsidized fuel prices could give the country's exporters an important competitive edge.
But it is apparent that Abdullah doesn't see it that way, and his political popularity has taken a hit as a result. Malaysia's economy grew modestly at 5.3% in 2005, compared with 7.1% in 2004. But with the fuel-price jump, the threat of inflation and a decline in domestic consumer demand will arguably put pressure on overall employment and economic growth.
A hastily arranged television briefing by the deputy prime minister, who asked the people to "change their lifestyle", failed to assuage critics and instead backfired. As discontent mounts over the policy, Abdullah has since conceded that it was an unpopular but necessary decision.
And so the record numbers of Malaysians who voted for his promise of a more reform-minded government are increasingly being disappointed. And it is unclear how an embattled Abdullah will deal with criticism of his nominally reformist government. So far, however, the signs don't look good.
Liew Chin Tong is a research associate with Research for Social Advancement, a Kuala Lumpur-based non-governmental organization.