[Reprinted from Malaysiakini.com, SEEING IT MY WAY, November 8, 2005]
M. Bakri Musa
Legacy of Lost Opportunity
With Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi entering his third year in office, many are disappointed that his previous bold commitments for reform were nothing more than a politician’s promise. Still, there are those who claim that the man is capable of greatness; just give him time, or a chance.
Unlike many, I am not disappointed with Abdullah’s performance. I did not expect much, and he did not deliver much. His wife’s illness was certainly a major factor lately, but my low assessment of his capability is based on his performance long before that.
Abdullah served in many senior cabinet positions before becoming Prime Minister. He has a long track record; all we have to do is scrutinize it.
There is nothing substantive to his legacy as Education Minister. Today, he expounds on the importance of English, but he did nothing to stem the decline of English in our schools and universities when he was in charge of that ministry. Of significance, the number of religious teachers exploded during his tenure.
Today, he decries the corruption and inefficiency of the police force, and the pubic applauds him for appointing the Police Commission. What is conveniently forgotten is that as Home Affairs Minister, he was in charge of the force. As for the Commission’s Report, it is stuck in some cabinet committee somewhere.
Abdullah Badawi’s ability to execute is severely wanting. In our system of governance, a minister is the chief executive of his or her ministry, not a ceremonial head or chairman of the board. Abdullah is more comfortable playing the role of the detached, imperial sultan who issues endless edicts, or titahs. Malaysians, in particular Malays, are more than willing to indulge him. Witness the increasingly common sight of citizens and subordinates kissing his hand. Nor does he discourage such displays of fealty.
Like Carter, Not Reagan
In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I likened Abdullah Badawi to America’s President Jimmy Carter, a decent and honorable enough man, but a completely ineffective leader.
Abdullah’s number one fan, later to be his son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, vehemently protested and intimated that Abdullah would be more like Ronald Reagan. Such flights of fancy ignore certain realities.
Reagan was a man of firm convictions, and he was not shy in expressing them even if that meant embarrassing his guests or hosts. His famous “evil empire” characterization of the Soviet system may have discomfited many diplomats and heads of states, but it expressed Reagan’s firm belief.
In contrast, Abdullah’s convictions and beliefs, if he has any, are mushy. That is why he has not clearly articulated them. When he did express them, as his resolve to get rid of corruption and for Malays to dispense with special privileges, he crumbled at the first obstacle.
He should have seized the opportunity provided by Isa Samad and Kasitah Gaddam to sack them immediately. Instead, he let the matter drag. In the end, they were not fired but simply resigned. They were not even forced to do so; they quit more to spare poor Pak Lah unnecessary embarrassment.
When UMNO Youth’s leaders called for expanding the New Economic Policy with its rigid quota system, there was not a whimper of admonishment from Abdullah. He tacitly went along with the rhetoric, forgetting his earlier “Towering Malay” aspirations.
Reagan never hesitated in firing his key personnel. Donald Regan, who served as both Treasury Secretary as well as Chief of Staff, felt the sting of Reagan’s ruthlessness. Donald Regan complained in his memoir how he was made to feel like an office boy when Reagan fired him. The former chairman of Merrill Lynch did not take his dismissal easily.
Reagan’s widely acknowledged lack of intellectual depth did not prevent him from hiring and engaging the best American minds. Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate in Economics, was a frequent White House visitor. Reagan’s cabinet included many luminaries.
Excuses After Excuses
Abdullah’s many admirers are perpetual optimists. When Abdullah succeeded Mahathir, they assured us that once Mahathir’s long shadow had receded, Abdullah would then really shine. Later, the excuse was, “Wait till after the election!” Having won an overwhelming mandate from an electorate longing for change, Abdullah still hesitated. His supporters then used the excuse that he had to secure his position in UMNO. Wait till the UMNO General Assembly! Now it is his wife’s death. “Wait ‘till the mourning is over!” I can already hear the next excuse, “Wait till the second term!”
These are expressions less of conviction, more of hope.
Surprisingly, Abdullah is getting favorable reviews from one unlikely source, south of the causeway. Knowing the state of press freedom there, one can reasonably conclude that the establishment too shares the same view of the man.
Today’s Singapore leaders, unlike their elders, have become more sophisticated. They have finally learned the finer ways of the Malays. Flatter a Malay, and he willingly parts with his heirloom. The British learned that very quickly, which was how they managed to get the Sultan of Johore to part with Singapore. The British managed to “advise” the Malay sultans by giving them the pretension that their thrones were on par with the British crown, and their rickety wooden istanas comparable to Buckingham palace.
Singapore’s younger Lee has learned that the way for Temasek to invest in Khazanah, or the island to have its cheap water rights to Johore secure, is to stroke Abdullah’s ego. Unlike Mahathir, whose massive ego would be difficult for anyone to massage, Abdullah’s is more manageable.
I have no problem with Singapore investing in Malaysia. Greater integration between the two makes great sense, not just from the business or economic perspective. I would encourage that. Singapore however should not get any preferential advantage; it must pay the market, and Malaysia must get the best price. Meaning, Malaysia should welcome any entity to invest in its GLCs.
Fortunately, Malaysia has come a long way in the last fifty years. We have had many relatively honest and fair elections. The private sector is vibrant, and Malaysians are very much in tune with the world. The Internet has effectively broken the government’s monopoly and control on information. The nation has thrived despite not because of its government.
Viewed thus, Abdullah’s lack of execution is a blessing; he could not muck up the system even if he tried. Were Abdullah to have the ruthlessness and efficiency of Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein, then Malaysia would be in great trouble. He is not, and Malaysians ought to be grateful. Nonetheless, I never underestimate the ability of an individual to create havoc. An idiot with a match could burn down a city, but only if the place is full of garbage and does not have an effective fire department.
Abdullah is a man of modest ambition, and he has far exceeded that by becoming Prime Minister. He now awaits his retirement and the expected Tunship.
While we could be smugly satisfied were Abdullah to finish his term without creating a mess, in today’s world however, if you are not progressing, you are by default regressing, as the world around you forges ahead.
Viewed from this perspective, the first two years of Abdullah’s tenure as Prime Minister was simply a lost opportunity. He secured a massive mandate in the 2004 elections, but squandered it. I see nothing in his record or personality to suggest that the rest of his term will be any different. Abdullah’s legacy then will be one of lost opportunity.