Self preservation first, reforms later

ANALYSIS,

KUALA LUMPUR, June 26 — Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

Either way, Prime Mnister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi bit the political bullet and cut two controversial projects in his home state of Penang in the Mid-term Review of the 9th Malaysia Plan, and that is all people will remember from his speech in Parliament today.

They might remember the fair trade laws, more schools in Sabah and Sarawak, renewable energy police, broadband expansion, roadwork’s, etc but hey, that is a given from any responsible government.

The cyberspace chatter and chorus of disapproval is reaching feverish pitch but their lack of support for Abdullah is also a given. The fact is, he is not looking at that constituency for help in his struggle to keep political office.

Abdullah’s reallocation of resources, with another RM30 billion on top of the RM200 billion budgeted for the five-year masterplan, is for those in the rural areas, in Sabah and Sarawak and, more importantly, party supporters key to his re-election as Umno president come December.

“This is for his people. He might be prime minister for all but he needs to be a leader of some to get there first,” observed a Kuala Lumpur-based foreign correspondent in Parliament today.

Reeling from the Barisan Nasional’s loss of its traditional two-thirds parliamentary majority and facing almost daily calls to quit after the electoral setback on March 8, Abdullah knows his days in Putrajaya will depend on getting the support of the party faithful in the polls.

That would account for the extra funds for rural roadworks, schools and some RM10 billion for the five growth corridors he has been promoting over the past year in the undeveloped areas in Malaysia.

Abdullah’s trenchant critic, predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, had called the money and projects promised to Sabah and Sarawak as bribes but the prime minister is realistic that he has to appease leaders of the two Borneo states where anti-federal feelings are rising due to a perceived lack of appreciation for their support.

So, on hold are some big-ticket projects like the Penang monorail and the island’s outer ring road project, both totalling RM3.5 billion and all controversially linked to either his party or family, and in a city where he has no support.

“He is already unpopular in Penang so damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t,” a Penang Umno politician told The Malaysian Insider, saying this was one of the consequences of the last election as Abdullah has to reward support, especially in the rural areas.

Also shelved are new administrative centres in Kelantan, Sarawak and Pahang, according to Economic Planning Unit chief Tan Sri Sulaiman Mahbob in his briefing to editors yesterday..

The new mantra is people-centric projects and a pledge to spend the extra RM30 billion to boost rice production and ease poverty in efforts to quell public anger against Abdullah’s brittle administration.

The Mid-term Review, usually tabled at the end of the plan’s third year, was brought forward and close after Abdullah’s first 100 days in his second term, is also his chance to battle perceptions that his administration is not doing enough to shield the people from rising inflation while profiting from high energy prices and giving lucrative state contracts to well-connected businessmen.

Malaysia is Southeast Asia’s largest net oil exporter and earns RM250 million a year for every US$1 jump in crude prices but cut subsidies and raised pump prices early June as part of a revamp of its pricing system. It promises to further cut the subsidies gradually.

Price hikes in other staples pushed the annual inflation to hit a 22-month high of 3.8 per cent in May and is estimated to rise further for an average of 3-4 per cent in 2008-2010 above the 2 per cent last year, further increasing Abdullah’s unpopularity.

Even Umno’s fellow component party, the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), has said it has lost faith in his leadership, announcing it will move or support any no-confidence vote against the embattled Prime Minister.

His Cabinet’s Malay ministers too are at odds with his reform plan for the judiciary, putting on hold a proposed judicial appointments commission they fear will erode Malay control of the judges.

Abdullah’s silent acceptance to shelve the commission and an earlier panel to police the police underscores his acceptance of the political reality in getting party support before launching his reform agenda.

“The reforms can wait until Pak Lah gets the party vote and support,” a Johor Umno leader said, reflecting the view that Abdullah is politically weak to carry out reforms and has to assuage party warlords of continued Malay dominance in government.

Conscious of the Malay ground that is Umno’s reason for existence, Abdullah is pushing to raise Bumiputera equity ownership to 20-25 per cent in 2010 from 19 per cent in 2006. The New Economic Policy (NEP) target was to reach 30 per cent equity by 1990.

All said and done, the Mid-term Review is Abdullah’s opportunity to impress the Umno crowd and get their vote to stay as party president and stay on as Prime Minister despite efforts by Dr Mahathir or opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to topple him.

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