JULY 5 — Defenders of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, liken him to Mikhail Gorbachev: a statesman who emerged from deep inside a declining, dysfunctional system and yet had the courage to carry out risky but badly needed political reforms.
With Malaysians squabbling viciously over improbable new allegations against the opposition leader, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and Abdullah’s own heir-apparent, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the system has never looked in more need of a reforming hero. But is Abdullah, who succeeded Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 2003, really up to it?
His premiership has already had several twists and turns. At first, Abdullah’s laconic, laidback style came as something of a relief after 22 long years of the combative Dr Mahathir. Soon, however, drift and decadence took over. That in turn helped bring a stunning electoral setback in March: the ruling coalition saw its majority slashed.
This was exciting in itself, because Malaysia has been, in effect, under one-party rule since independence from Britain in 1957. Abdullah’s Umno, which dominates the ruling coalition, is probably, proportional to the population, the world’s biggest mass party, with more than 3 million members, mostly Malays (just over half the country’s 25 million people).
More encouraging still, Anwar’s supporters campaigned against the institutionalised racism of Umno’s pro-Malay affirmative action policies and many voters agreed these policies had become a vehicle for corrupt patronage. It was not just ethnic-Chinese and Indian voters who deserted the government. So did many Malays.
But the election was also thrilling because the result (and Anwar’s attempts to lure away Abdullah’s supporters since) have prodded the prime minister into new political boldness. Abdullah has started to clean up the legal system and repair some of the damage done to the independence of the country’s judiciary. Abdullah has also taken the risky decision to cut fuel subsidies, sending petrol prices soaring. The Gorbachev comparisons spring from these past few months.
Yet there are two problems with Malaysian glasnost. The immediate one is the scandals, which are depressingly like Malaysian politics as usual — only more so. Just as in 1998, Anwar faces a charge of sodomy, a criminal offence in Malaysia. Now as then, he denies the charge (which on the previous occasion was eventually thrown out) and accuses the government of organising a smear campaign. Indeed he has said his accuser is closely linked to Najib. The latter faces even more damaging questions about the murder of a female Mongolian translator: his political adviser is one of those charged.
The second, deeper problem is that the Gorbachev comparison is, on closer inspection, hardly comforting for Abdullah. The former Soviet leader thought he was reviving a system that still had some life in it. In fact it had to be destroyed so something new could be erected in its place (so Gorbachev gets credit for managing the inexorable decline of a political system in a relatively peaceful way).
Malaysia is not in such a terminal mess. Compared with the old Soviet Union’s, its economy is a picture of vitality. Nor is it a totalitarian state; by Soviet standards it is an amicable federation. Its problem is that like other places where one party is so dominant, politics has become ossified and corrupt. It could still be reformed without having to start from scratch; but a lot depends on what Abdullah does now.
For Abdullah does indeed face a Gorbachev-style choice. He could try to shore up the old system. By discrediting the opposition and using the usual perks, threats and blandishments of incumbency, Umno and its partners could yet cling to office, at least for a while. Or Abdullah could embrace reform, clean the system up and compete for power without the dirty tactics. If he does, he will indeed deserve an honourable mention in the history books.
In March Malaysian politics entered a new era. A transfer of political power, until then a remote possibility, has since begun to seem an inevitability — if not as soon as Anwar would like. Whatever Abdullah’s merits or faults, preserving internal peace during such an unprecedented transition will take more than one man; the whole political class, including Anwar, will have to share responsibility. Neither side is immune from a big populist temptation: to play on the fears of the Muslim Malay majority and convince them that their traditional privileges are at risk. At a time when political Islam (including some quite extreme strains of that ideology) is on the march, that could be disastrous. — The Economist