Malaysia: Abdullah Badawi – Transitional or Transformational Leadership Material?


Liew Chin Tong

When Dr Mahathir Mohamad stands down in late October this year, after leading the country for twenty-two years, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is to take the helm as Malaysia's fifth Prime Minister. Abdullah will have to choose between becoming a transitional figure or a transformational leader. He has indicated his wish to be the latter. In a policy speech in March entitled 'We know where we want to go' on the first day of his two-month stint as acting Prime Minister, he vowed to transform Malaysia from the 'malaise' of its 'First World Infrastructure, Third World Mentality' - arguably the hallmark of the Mahathir era.

That was the first and clearest indication that Abdullah wants to be his own man. He has thus far cautiously kept a low profile since becoming Deputy PM in January 1999. Two of his predecessors, Musa Hitam and Anwar Ibrahim, left office after falling out with Mahathir. Abdullah himself was sidelined in 1986 due to his alignment with Musa Hitam and subsequently spent four years in the political wilderness as the price for supporting Mahathir’s challenger in the 1987 UMNO party election.

Tough political challenges are awaiting Abdullah. At 64 years old, he will be the oldest person to assume premiership in Malaysian history, making the issue of succession to his own leadership a legitimate question even before he has taken over. Abdullah is unlikely to be able to exert the same level of control that Mahathir did over UMNO. Coupled with the age factor, this would mean that undermining Abdullah's leadership would be a tempting choice for contenders to power. In short, the honeymoon period a new Prime Minister and UMNO President usually enjoys would be shorter in the case of Abdullah.

This is confirmed by the disquiet within UMNO, over who will be appointed as Abdullah’s deputy. Mahathir has made public his preference for Defence Minister and UMNO’s most senior Vice President, Najib Tun Razak, to assume the post. Though he had initially promised to do so after a by-election in July 2002, Abdullah has since resisted the pressure to name his deputy. If Abdullah were to name Najib as his deputy even before he himself assumes the premiership, it would place him in a difficult position. Abdullah would be seen as a seat-warmer for Najib, who is younger and presumably has a stronger base within UMNO than Abdullah.

It is possible that Abdullah has not yet made up his mind on the issue. Najib may not eventually be appointed as Deputy Prime Minister. The relationship between a Prime Minister and his deputy is an extremely delicate one. They are supposed to work as closest of allies in the day-to-day running of the government. Yet, the latter is constantly within a striking distance of being able to stage a coup against his boss. Thus, quite naturally, having an ambitious Prime Ministerial aspirant like Najib as deputy is something Abdullah would try his best to avoid. In addition, Najib has recently poisoned the relationship in a veiled attack on Abdullah via his strong condemnation of the London-based Economist (5-11 April) for its special survey of Malaysia, which was alleged to have 'belittled' Mahathir. Abdullah’s Home Ministry portfolio regulates print publication and two of his closest assistants (including his son-in-law) were among those the Economist specifically acknowledged. Nevertheless, Abdullah’s dilemma is that the risk of not appointing Najib to the second top job could be as high as the alternative: Najib would be more likely to challenge Abdullah in the 2005 party election if he is not appointed deputy.

At the most recent UMNO general assembly in June, all three UMNO vice-presidents promised not to challenge Abdullah’s ‘prerogative’ to choose his deputy, as well as to not challenge his chosen deputy. However, there is no need to take these promises too seriously.

Abdullah’s greatest test is the coming general election, due in December 2004 but now widely believed to be held sometime between March and June next year. The legitimacy of his leadership depends on how the National Front (BN) coalition fares in the election, in particular whether UMNO can regain the support of the Malays, its principal constituents.

Three major inter-dependent factors - the cruel treatment of Anwar Ibrahim, Islam, and reformasi/anti-KKN (corruption, cronyism and nepotism) critique - prompted many Malays in the 1999 elections to vote for the Pan Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) and other opposition parties. Despite suffering its greatest blow in history, UMNO under Mahathir has decided not to acknowledge the Anwar factor and the call for reforms; and it is only prepared to address the Islamic factor by attempting to 'outIslamise' PAS through token Islamisation programmes. One example of the latter is the move to announce Malaysia as an Islamic State, which not only failed to generate support from among Muslims but also alienated non-Muslims. Other policies, such as the ending of government funding for Islamic schools, using English to teach mathematics and science, and the approval of a license for a second casino in Malaysia have further driven (Muslim) Malays into the embrace of PAS. Abdullah would have to reverse all these policies and address the 'Anwar issue' in the few months before he calls an election. Failure to win back Malay support for UMNO would give ammunition to his detractors in the party elections to follow.

WATCHPOINT: Will Abdullah Badawi release Anwar Ibrahim from prison during Ramadan month (November) this year after he takes over as PM? Indeed, how will he deal with the 'Anwar issue'?


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