Malaysia: Fashioning Succession into Power


Professor Clive S Kessler

The king is dead; long live the king!’ This saying voices some conventional Western wisdom about institutional continuity: the incumbent has passed on, but the office endures. After bestriding his Malaysian world for more than two decades, totally transforming not just its face but also its soul, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has retired as Prime Minister in accordance with the succession scenario that he signalled in mid-2002. Politically he has passed on; and now the central question concerns the political longevity of his successor, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

The formal mechanics of prime ministerial succession in independent Malaysia are by now clear and well established. The incumbent designates (and as Dr Mahathir demonstrated he may also update his nomination of) a successor as head of the UMNO party, the core of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. What this nominee receives is not power but merely formal succession, the right to the main or first opportunity to contend for power and make it his own.

Here the challenge begins. By virtue of his predecessor’s bestowal, and his own receipt, of that first chance, the successor must show that he has the political intelligence and Machiavellian strength of character to make the most of his opportunity; he must show that he can master the UMNO - itself a tangle of unruly, contending baronies - and craftily bend it, and them, to his will. On the basis of his demonstrated ability to command his own party, the new UMNO leader must then prove that he can impose his will upon, and dictate political terms to, the governing Barisan Nasional coalition and its subsidiary, component parties. On that basis, in turn, he may then lead the ruling coalition to an election that will provide popular public ratification for his leadership. By proving himself an election winner, the new leader confirms his right to use the vast powers of the Malaysian state - material and moral, coercive and persuasive - to tighten his control over the UMNO and its many contending, ambitious power-brokers, favour-seekers and veto-groups; and thereby to strengthen and further advance his grip upon the governing coalition and the state apparatus with all its vast resources of domination. By then, the next national election will be closing in upon him, when the cycle will not simply resume but, in an ascending spiral of political consolidation, move to a higher level.

All of which is to say that Abdullah Badawi’s first task, the primary challenge of making his power real, has barely begun. Over the next several months he must exert his dominance within the UMNO, assert his ascendancy over the Barisan Nasional, its policies and strategies, and lead it, not just successfully but convincingly to a national election victory. (The bar of what is considered ‘convincing’ in Malaysia has over the years been set very high, at a two-thirds majority of lower-house parliamentary seats.)

The challenge facing Abdullah Badawi of transforming formal succession into substantive control is a daunting one, but he is not to be underestimated. He is intelligent and resourceful, possesses a quite ‘un-Mahathirian’ modesty and sense of restraint that should serve him well, and comes to political centre-stage backed by considerable goodwill. Within the core Malay component of the Malaysian electorate he is respected and liked, and the various UMNO party officeholders seem mostly well-disposed to giving him every chance to prove himself. (Certain powerful Malay interests that habitually operate through and upon the party from behind the scenes may, however, have their reservations and own preferences.)

But even though no potential intra-party rivals can be seen conspicuously sharpening their knives for him, Abdullah Badawi is possibly at risk from the internal party situation that Dr Mahathir has bequeathed to his successors. It is not just that few people of genuine distinction and independence flourished under him, when greater scope and an inside track were often provided to the politically less talented and imaginative; more, those who did survive and flourish seem, if not the wrong people, then to be pieces wrongly positioned on UMNO’s post-Mahathirian chess-board. This awkward configuration suggests potential contention that may force, fairly soon, some sort of destabilizing ‘shake-out’ and realignment of the UMNO’s third- and fourth-level leadership. Badawi’s problem is that he cannot direct or control that process but is vulnerable to its unfolding dynamics; he can only try to promote some intelligent resolution of these problems, and to claim some credit when it emerges, while seeking to avoid being damaged by, and held accountable for, less felicitous outcomes.

Beyond these unresolved (individual and factional) problems of internal party power dynamics, Dr Mahathir has left to his UMNO political legatees a more general problem of some complexity.

Dr Mahathir’s political persona and agenda were an odd mixture. A Malay nationalist, he was determined to repair all the disabling deformations of character, culture and society that resulted from the loss of Malay political power and sovereignty under colonial rule. He was also an economic modernizer and a technological hyper-modernist; and a socio-cultural traditionalist who deplored the consequences of cultural modernity, especially its thoroughgoing individualism. Yet in religious matters he was a decided anti-traditionalist, a principled critic of the old religious establishment with its clericalist aspirations to doctrinal monopolization, in short, a religious modernist or individualist.

To be an interesting mixture is no crime in a politician, and Dr Mahathir was certainly a multifaceted personality. But when public policy seeks to create a social order that is somehow an external counterpart or objectified realization of the leader’s eclectic tendencies and interests, a certain political incoherence may ensue. Arguably, this is what happened under the long domination of Malaysian political life by Dr Mahathir’s very personal outlook and agenda. Reconciling a backward-looking social deference and cultural conformism with the ‘inner-directed’ ethical individualism of the religious modernist is the new, post-Mahathirian ‘Malay dilemma’. Overcoming, not simply rhetorically but in public policy and substantive social reality, the tensions in his legacy between cultural traditionalism and economic modernization is a challenge that Dr Mahathir has left to all Malaysians. Whether or not Abdullah Badawi can transform mere succession into consolidated power may depend upon how he addresses and manages this issue.

WATCHPOINT: Everything that Abdullah Badawi does over the next six months must be seen from the viewpoint of its effects in terms of his consolidating of his power within UMNO and his positioning of himself, his party and the governing coalition in the lead-up to the general election (probably in April 2004, but just possibly earlier than that).


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