Malaysia: Abdullah Badawi Makes His Mark


Deborah Johnson

In July 2004, Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been able to make his mark in two important ways. First, he was affirmed as the new President of the ruling party, UMNO a position which had been vacant since Tun Dr Mahathir stood down as PM and party president on 31 October 2003. Secondly, he made his first trip as Malaysia's Prime Minister to meet with US President George W Bush (18 July), French President Jacques Chirac (21 July) and British Prime Minister, Tony Blair (22 July).

Despite leading the ruling National Front coalition to win a resounding ninety per cent of the seats in the Federal Parliament in the 21 March 2004 general elections, Abdullah Badawi's own political position would not be secure until he had received a leadership mandate from his own party. A nomination process for the party leadership got under way from 8 to 22 July. Those receiving sufficient nominations will stand for election when the party convenes on 23 September for its general assembly.

Commentators often remark that the real elections in Malaysia are those that take place within the parties, and in particular UMNO, as it is these elections, which determine the future leaders of the country. In this instance, the UMNO Supreme Council 'advised' UMNO members to nominate only Abdullah Badawi as President and Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, as party Deputy President. Abdullah received nominations from all but one division (Gua Musang), which nominated its division chief Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. He decided to throw his hat into the ring simply to make the point that democracy should (and be seen to) prevail within the party. (Tengku Razaleigh is an influential UMNO figure in the opposition-controlled northern Kelantan state. He narrowly lost a leadership challenge to Dr Mahathir in 1987 the last time the position of party president was put to the party vote.) Being the only candidate to receive more than the required minimum 30 per cent of nominations from UMNO's 191 divisions, Abdullah is thus 'elected' unopposed as party president. Similarly, his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, Wanita (Women's Division) chief Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz and her deputy Datuk Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, and Youth chief Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein and his deputy Khairy Jamaluddin (Abdullah's son-in-law) won their posts uncontested. There will, however, be a contest for the Puteri (Women Youth) chief's post between Noraini Ahmad and Suraya Yaakob with four contenders and for the deputy's post.

The real interest in the September party elections will be for the three Vice-President positions. Eight candidates have so far qualified (with a minimum of 20 nominations) - the leading contenders being incumbents Agriculture Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and former Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, along with Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam. Other candidates include Minister in Prime Minister's Department Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, Federal Territories Minister Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad, Foreign Minister Datuk Syed Hamid Albar, Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob, and popular and outspoken Johor Baru MP and current supreme council member Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad. There will also be around 100 eligible candidates (with the minimum of ten nominations) for the 25 Supreme Council seats with interest in whether this time any of the four eligible women candidates will be elected. (None were elected to the UMNO Supreme Council in the 2000 elections, despite the fact that women outnumber men in UMNO.) UMNO will continue to have one only woman Division chief Datuk Halimah Mohd Sadique, Johor Local Government and Health Committee chairman, who narrowly retained the post to which she had been previously appointed.

Abdullah Badawi is no stranger to the world of international politics and diplomacy. He served as Malaysia's Foreign Minister for nine years from 1991 to 1999. Now with his leadership secured at home, he is able to step out from the shadow of Dr Mahathir to make his own mark on the international stage. Currently serving as chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), he not only had bilateral interests (trade, education, etc.) on his discussion agenda; he was representing the concerns of the developing world and, in particular, the Muslim world regarding world terrorism, Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He has emerged as an international leader of some substance. A scheduled 25 minute meeting with US President George W Bush went on for almost an hour with Abdullah promising that Malaysia will contribute a 'sizeable medical team' to the reconstruction effort in Iraq and affirming Malaysia's willingness to rally OIC support in the rebuilding of Iraq's institutions of governance and economy. 'If the reconstruction of Iraq fails', he warned at a recent US-ASEAN Business Council dinner, 'not only will militant groups cement their presence in the country, the entire Muslim world would blame the invasion for setting off a chain of events to sustain misery for ordinary Iraqis. This would harden prejudices and aggravate hatred that would only fuel an entirely avoidable clash between the West and the Muslim world.'

While Abdullah described Malaysia as a 'principled friend of the US - prepared to speak out with candour', Kuala Lumpur will not be a pushover for Washington. In June, Malaysia strongly repudiated US efforts to send its forces to protect shipping in the strategic Malacca Straits from possible terrorist strikes. (Instead, the navies of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore will be mounting year-round joint naval patrols.)

WATCHPOINT: Also signifying a change in stance, the Malaysian government under Abdullah has been pivotal to enabling Australia to participate in the ASEAN leaders' forum to be held in Laos in November 2004, paving the way for closer economic ties between Australia and ASEAN.


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