There will soon be a new face on this poster as Abdullah bids farewell to the prime ministership
AFTER a stormy five years at the helm, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is bidding adieu to the infighting within his own Umno party, and the Malaysian political stage. But there is no quiet exit planned for the outgoing prime minister, who has pledged to do in the next few months what he has failed to achieve in five years: push through his promises for reform.
At a press conference after chairing a special Barisan Nasional (BN) supreme council meeting on 8 Oct 2008, a smiling Abdullah announced that he would quit the Umno presidency next March, and consequently, the prime ministership. When asked by a reporter how he felt, he smiled and said: “OK, I am all right.”
Najib (left) and Abdullah, with BN secretary-general Datuk Seri
Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, before the start of the supreme
council meetingAfter barely surviving an internal party tussle over his transfer of power to Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Abdullah, 68, will now try to salvage what’s left of his premiership by attempting to push through initiatives in five areas.
First on his cards is the Judicial Appointments Commission, which has received opposition from some of his own party leaders and cabinet ministers. Abdullah said he would table a parliamentary bill to form the commission before the end of his term. “Such a commission will propose judicial appointments in a transparent and merit-based manner,” he said.
Second is the reforming of the Anti-Corruption Agency into an independent body with greater powers of investigation and enforcement. A bill will be tabled in Parliament before the end of this year, Abdullah said.
The third item on his reform platform is the setting up of a Special Complaints Commission to handle grouses about law enforcement agencies. This would take the place of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) proposed by a Royal Commission that investigated the 2005 case of a woman detainee who was videotaped doing ear-squats in the nude while in police custody. The Special Complaints Commission bill was tabled for first reading in Parliament in December 2007, but has yet to be passed.
Poster by a group of Abdullah supporters calling for the transition
plan to be respected and to avoid splits in Umno Healing hurts
Widening the social safety net for the poor and ensuring more equitable distribution of wealth is also on his agenda, as is calling for a Barisan Nasional Convention in early 2009 to heal racial differences and hurts.
“Society has seen an alarming decline in inter-racial and inter-religious relations. Various issues have cropped up which threaten to tear the very fabric of Malaysian life,” Abdullah said.
While Abdullah earned the praises of the BN component party leaders for his commitment to reform, some analysts wonder if he can fulfil his promises. There is a lot to do and very little time to do it.
Independent political analyst Josh Hong says Abdullah is unrealistic in thinking that he can effectively implement reforms when he is seen as an outgoing premier who has already given up power within his own party.
Hong reasons that Abdullah could lose control of the civil service, which would be shifting gears to take instructions from his deputy, Najib. Najib is expected to place his own advisers within the administration.
Abdullah’s initiatives might be impeded by
the fact that Najib is taking over“Whatever initiatives Abdullah comes up with, his wings will be clipped not only by the fact that Najib is taking over, but by the reluctance of the civil service to implement his policies,” Hong says.
“The only reform he may have a small measure of success in is making the Anti-Corruption Agency independent and accountable to Parliament, because work on that has already begun.
“As for judicial reform, I don’t have much confidence [it will happen, especially] with Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz as the de-facto law minister.”
Strong political will
Associate Prof Dr Mohd Agus Yusoff says Abdullah must now show strong political will, something he says was in short supply the last five years.
“If he wants to leave a big mark on society, he should do something like abolishing the Internal Security Act (ISA),” says Mohd Agus, a political analyst from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“With the little time left, he should go for populist policies so that the rakyat can live comfortably; and for things the rakyat and the opposition parties have been asking for, like really going after major corruption cases. He should be a populist, as not all populist policies are bad.”
But when asked at his press conference if he would repeal the ISA as part of his reforms, Abdullah said: “Certain things I can do right away, certain things I cannot.”
Mohd Agus says some of the earlier things Abdullah might be noted for include promoting his brand of Islam Hadhari; his emphasis on building human capital; and efforts to improve the public delivery service through the Special Taskforce to Facilitate Business (Pemudah).
“But people may not remember these because unlike Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who left his mark with mega development projects, Abdullah has not left much that is very tangible.”
Mahathir left his mark with mega development projectsOpposition to reforms
Knowing that there will be a new president after March who will then take over as prime minister, will those opposed to reforms be motivated enough to assist Abdullah?
“His problem has been his capability to command and execute. He will have to work very hard in this area, and must have extra will to fight those in Umno who oppose larger societal reform,” says Mohd Agus.
But Abdullah brushed off suggestions at the press conference that he would face opposition to his initiatives.
“There may be differences of opinion, but these are not necessarily obstacles to reform,” he said.
Hong and Mohd Agus say Malaysians must assess the depths of the reforms in the coming months to know if they are real or just plain window-dressing.
Regardless of how far Abdullah gets with his reforms, he will be remembered for at least trying. However, it will be debated whether the openness and transparency he has tried to advocate during his stewardship was by design or due to his weak leadership style.
Ironically, these were the very things that may have led to his undoing as Umno president. Party members long used to the iron-fisted rule of Dr Mahathir took advantage of Abdullah’s more open style to undermine him.
The embattled party president came under intense pressure to quit after the BN’s poor showing in the 8 March general election, forcing him to agree to a transition of power with Najib slated for June 2010. But as the months wore on, party leaders lost patience and began to agitate for a quicker transition. So on 26 Sept, Abdullah announced the Umno supreme council’s decision to postpone party elections from December 2008 to March 2009, and to bring forward the power transfer to Najib.
Abdullah has left the building
When asked if he felt that his promotion of more openness had backfired on him with his own party leaders asking him to leave, a stoic Abdullah replied: “I do not regret what I’ve done. How people react is up to them. I’ve always believed there should be more room for democratic discourse.”
In the final reckoning, that may be Abdullah’s greatest legacy.