Malaysia: Can Abdullah Manage UMNO?


Dr John Funston

Recently retired Tun Dr Mahathir has left a difficult legacy for his successor, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi. Under Mahathir, the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) lost majority Malay support. In the 1999 election its seats fell from 94 to 72, and by some senior party estimates it received less than 40 per cent of the Malay vote. Recent by-elections show no evidence that UMNO has regained support, though non-Malays have rallied behind the government since September 11 (2001).

Abdullah also faces problems within the party. Under Mahathir UMNO became deeply factionalised, particularly over the sacking of then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. Power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the executive, notwithstanding rank and file desire for more democracy. Party leaders relied on the state rather than on the party – politicising and bringing into disrepute a range of institutions including the judiciary, police, the Anti-Corruption Agency and the government-controlled media. Party leadership ossified, with competition taking place among the same pool of leaders since the 1980s. Finally, UMNO’s massive involvement in business, and the spread of money politics within the party, became an increasing source of public criticism.

Abdullah’s position within UMNO is not strong. He was the first deputy party head to gain this post without some form of contest, and is now only acting head until party elections around June 2004. He is also widely considered too old for the job (at 64) and too ‘weak’. And he faces an immediate dilemma in selecting a deputy. There are two logical candidates, Defence Minister Dato’ Najib Tun Razak and Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. But selecting either could divide UMNO in ways that might endanger Abdullah’s own position, unless he can act from a position of strength.

Abdullah’s strategy has been to focus on winning the next general election, due no later than February 2005 but likely early in 2004. He has sought to maintain UMNO unity by deferring the selection of a deputy (ignoring Mahathir’s urgings) and leaving most Divisional leaders in place after a spill of all positions – though changes to four Divisions in Kelantan seen as allied to former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh, and one in Penang linked to Anwar, indicated nervousness over the potential spoiling role of these two individuals.

To strengthen his hand for the general election, and help consolidate his position more generally, Abdullah will need to simultaneously address three further issues. He must respond to continuing unrest over the treatment of Anwar Ibrahim, still widely viewed as a victim of injustice and cruelty. This will be difficult as Abdullah and Anwar are long term rivals, but he may make a gesture just before elections, such as allowing Anwar to travel overseas for needed spinal surgery. He must ameliorate Malay unease, particularly in the heartland areas of the North and Northeast of the peninsula, over Mahathir’s confrontational approach towards the opposition – he has already moved to do this, moderating anti-PAS rhetoric and enjoining Muslims to have ‘care-free’ celebrations at the end of the fasting month. He must also heed popular calls for reformasi, addressing particularly demands for a reduction in corruption, more democracy, and greater transparency and accountability. Here Abdullah has been saying the right things; and he has gained much credit for suspending a controversial RM14.5 billion rail construction project, taken away from overseas Chinese and Indian firms and given to a close local associate of Mahathir’s in the closing days of his administration.

Overall Abdullah’s policies have found favour and he is currently enjoying a honeymoon period. This, along with a new electoral distribution that favours UMNO and its coalition partners, and disunity and low morale among the opposition, should ensure ruling coalition (Barisan Nasional) success in the coming general election – and strengthen Abdullah’s hand for a difficult contest within UMNO.

WATCHPOINT: Abdullah has taken the easy steps so far, making a rhetorical commitment to good governance and opposing corruption, as Mahathir did at the beginning of his rule. Can he end rather than suspend mega projects, and give the Anti-Corruption Agency a free hand to go after significant offenders?


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