Malaysia: PM Moves Cautiously


John Funston

Prime Minister Abdullah came to office last October promising reforms on multiple fronts - more democracy and transparency, zero tolerance against corruption, and a new moderate approach to Islam (Islam hadhari). In practice, he has moved cautiously.

Democracy was not greatly in evidence during the recent general election. The campaign was the shortest on record (8 days). The administration aligned itself with the government more openly than ever; the top bureaucrat in the powerful Ministry of Home Affairs even joined the Prime Minister at post-election ruling party celebrations. And the role of the Election Commission (EC) attracted a record number of complaints, with the opposition keADILan estimating at least 500,000 voters were disenfranchised. While the opposition probably suffered most, even the mainstream press criticised the EC. In response the EC head suggested an independent enquiry, but Abdullah quickly said this was not necessary.

Expectations of a tough stand against corruption were raised before the elections when prosecution commenced against a former head of Perwaja, the national steel company; and against an UMNO cabinet member. This led to media speculation that only candidates with an unblemished record would be selected as ruling party candidates, and that at least four to five state heads would be removed. In the event, nearly all the controversial parliamentarians were retained, and only one state head moved.

Attention then turned to the new cabinet, and again expectations of radical change were not realised. New portfolios were created, and responsibilities of existing offices amended slightly, allowing a few more Abdullah supporters into cabinet. Some 93 members (nearly half the ruling party's parliamentarians) are now on the front bench as ministers, deputy ministers, or parliamentary secretaries. Abdullah himself retained the portfolios of internal security and finance. And Rais Yatim, who as de facto minister of law had been associated with anti-corruption moves, was transferred to Arts, Culture and Heritage.

Since the election only two further anti-corruption arrests have been made, both for petty offences. And former prime minister Dr Mahathir has been appointed Special Adviser to the state-linked Proton car company (adding to his Adviser role with the national oil company, Petronas).

On the Islamic front, Abdullah has yet to quash the controversial hudud laws enacted by the previous PAS administration in Terengganu. Islamic officials have also acknowledged that the meaning of Islam hadhari has not yet been clearly spelt out, but promised it would be soon.

Such caution may mean that Abdullah is simply biding his time until confirmed as UMNO president at the next party assembly (now pushed back to September rather than June). That might be tactically astute as large election victories do not guarantee supremacy over UMNO.

But there may be other influences on Abdullah. Having a large backbench does not make it easier to act on issues such as corruption; also the urgency for tough action has declined. His Malay base is not as secure as many believe. Though PAS suffered a decline in seats from 27 to 7, even on contested EC figures it maintained its share of the popular Malay vote (15% in 1999; 15.3% 2004). KeADILan declined (11.5% to 8.5%), but overall UMNO had only limited success in overcoming the Malay divide revealed so dramatically in 1999.

WATCHPOINT: Anti-corruption action against 'big fish' before the UMNO assembly would be a powerful endorsement of Abdullah's reform agenda.


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