Malaysia Uncut

A Repository of Malaysian Stuff and More

Malaysia: The “Missing” Prime Minister?

Malaysia: The “Missing” Prime Minister?

Former Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in July 2006 claimed that he did not know ‘who is in charge of the Malaysian government anymore’, and much current popular sentiment in the country seems to concur with him.

Other than give clarification regarding fuel hikes, the need for Malaysia to scrap the ‘Crooked Bridge’ project to replace the current causeway between Malaysia and Singapore, and concerning the strategic importance of the Ninth Malaysian Plan, current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi has not had a high profile of late.

Granted that the print and electronic media in Malaysia both serve as the mouth piece of the government, the lack of articulation is all the more obvious.

Some have speculated that three years into the Prime Minister’s term in office Abdullah Badawi remains clueless as to how Malaysia should be governed; other than relying on platitudes and platforms developed in the past, most notably by the bureaucracy – an institution hitherto largely ignored by his predecessor Dr Mahathir.

As such, speculation has circulated that the key reins of responsibility had been passed to his Oxford-educated son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin, who ironically resigned as his deputy chief of staff in 2003 to avoid any controversy or charge of nepotism.

The circumstances that are reinforcing this impression have been the extent to which Abdullah Badawi is still surrounded by young political advisors and assistants known to be buxom buddies of Khairy.

Ahmad Zaki Zahid, Dr Vincent Lim and Mustapha Kamal, who handle the Prime Minister’s local and foreign communication, are considered friends of Khairy.

Omar Mustapha, who at one stage was the political secretary of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, before returning to head the Ethos Consultancy, is also deemed to be close to Khairy.

However, the case of the ‘missing’ Prime Minister could well be explained as due to Abdullah Badawi’s low-key style, one honed from his previous background.

As a key civil servant of the Biro Tatanegara, an organization invented after the 1969 riot to restore stability to the country, Abdullah Badawi has often projected this deliberate and seemingly more detached approach to his job.

While Malaysia has not since had any major outbreaks of racial violence, Abdullah Badawi has time and again reminded everyone of the importance of harmony and tolerance as evident in his New Year and Independence Day messages.

To be sure, the almost unobtrusive manner of Abdullah Badawi began as a strength, as it was deemed a return to the courtly and traditional Malay way. In fact, it served him well in the March 2004 election. In that election Barisan Nasional (i.e. National Front) led by Abdullah Badawi garnered more than 63 per cent of the popular vote.

Moreover, the strong electoral showing convinced Abdullah Badawi and his cabinet that Malaysia was ready for a calmer and more thoughtful form of government; rather than the cantankerous and confrontational style practiced by Dr Mahathir.

However, what was hitherto a strength has seemingly now become a strategic liability. The lack of executive presence, both in parliament and without, has come under challenge by Lim Kit Siang, the current opposition leader. More than anything else, Lim has been frustrated by the different responses coming from the individual members of the Malaysian cabinet.

Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz, who is the Minister for Trade and Industry, for instance, has affirmed that there is no need for any further clarification of the approved permit (AP) issue. So, none would be made to either Dr Mahathir or the parliament.

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar has in turn claimed that his Secretary General has made all the necessary replies as to why the causeway joining Malaysia and Singapore cannot be unilaterally dismantled.

Works Minister Datuk Seri Samy Vellu has told the press that if and when he has to respond to Dr Mahathir’s questions related to his ministry, he would do so privately.

This had led Lim to lament that Malaysia is not only suffering from the absence of an effective prime minister, a charge thrown at Abdullah Badawi, but also from the existence of more than one leader.

To be sure, the docile and genteel manners of Abdullah Badawi seem to not be politically sustainable. This is in spite of the fact that Malaysia still has a kind of ‘consociational democracy’ that allows party elites to trade various concessions quietly.

With Dr Mahathir calling for more transparency, which was a plank of the Abdullah Badawi administration when he came into office, it is almost inevitable that other leaders are obliged to respond.

Thus, while a senior statesman such as Tun Musa Hitam has given his support to Abdullah Badawi, even to the extent of praising his ‘elegant silence’ (‘eloquent silence’) as admirable, hatchet men like Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz, who is the de-facto law minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, has vehemently lashed out at Dr Mahathir.

Should allies close to Abdullah Badawi continue to hit back – if anything else to entrench and secure their cabinet positions – UMNO would be divided more clearly than ever before, effectively separating the members into different camps. Such a scenario would mirror the Battle Royale between Dr Mahathir and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in 1987.

On surface, while this divisiveness may seem to work against the interests of Abdullah Badawi, especially given his interest in remaining the president of UMNO beyond September 2007, in truth such a split may well be to his advantage.

To be sure, his young team of advisors is not as yet familiar with the intense backroom struggle of UMNO politics. With around 190 divisions and thousands of branches throughout Malaysia, except Sarawak, it is a tall order for them to understand the divisional and individual slates at play.

Now that a conflict over Dr Mahathir is looming, the splits both within the party and without could come to be seen more clearly. It gives them time to organize a coalition, which ironically could include bringing Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim back into the fold.

The latter would be an option to pre-empt those still allied to Dr Mahathir. It would also prevent Najib Tun Razak from taking advantage of the situation.

Thus, while Malaysians may wonder who is in charge of the Malaysian government, the current, albeit silent, posture taken by Abdullah Badawi is not necessarily a bad one.

It creates opportunities for members who want to throw their lot with the Prime Minister to identify the fault-lines and allegiances more clearly. When these allegiances, or lack thereof, are mapped, one can expect various strategies of co-option and counter attacks to be launched, all in the name of supporting the Prime Minister.

Come what may, special interests would again come to the fore. It is from the sum aggregate of these battles, however, that the concept of the national interest would be advanced, even if imperfectly.

WATCHPOINT: What fault-lines and allegiances will emerge in UMNO politics and what will be the implications for PM Abdullah Badawi?

Phar Kim Beng
Kim is a regional coordinator in Southeast Asian studies for Waseda University in Japan



Thursday, August 24, 2006 - Posted by | Commentary

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