Malaysia wracked by slow, uncertain leadership change

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Vancouver Sun (19/10/08): Malaysia, once one of the most politically stable and financially sound countries of Southeast Asia, is being wracked by the uncertainty of a seemingly interminable transfer of power.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, a courteous but ineffectual leader, has been on the skids since the ruling coalition led by the United Malays National Organization (Umno), narrowly retained power in March elections.

Significant factions within Umno want Abdullah to resign soon and hand over the party leadership and government to his deputy, Najib Razak.

These calls for Abdullah's head are driven by the apparent resurgence of Anwar Ibrahim, the previously disgraced Umno deputy leader and now head of the opposition People's Alliance coalition.

Anwar claims there have been so many defections from the ruling alliance since March that he now controls a majority of seats in parliament and should be prime minister.

But despite the economic decline that sees inflation at 27 per cent and capital flight accompanying this political uncertainty, no one will wield the knife on Abdullah. It's a measure of the supreme importance of good manners and respect for power in Malaysian society.

"We want to ensure that the power transition process does not affect Abdullah's honour. It must be done in a dignified manner," said Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Friday.

Muhyiddin was speaking after Umno's executive committee decided to postpone until March party leadership elections which had been scheduled for December.

After the meeting Abdullah said he will decide by October 9 whether he will be a candidate for the leadership.

Abdullah has already offered some compromises to his critics. Recently he offered to hand over the Umno leadership to Najib in 2010 rather than 2013 when Abdullah's term runs out.

But party dissidents and especially Najib's supporters wanted Abdullah gone before 2010. In advance of Friday's executive meeting it was widely rumoured Abdullah would be tendering his resignation to the committee.

That didn't happen. Courtesy and good manners won out and extending the deadline for a leadership review until March offers Abdullah an honourable exit. He is expected to take it.

But this does nothing to secure the future of Umno, which has been the ruling party for all 51 years since independence from Britain and which, under the firm hand of former prime minister Mahathir Mohammed, became a model of developing country success.

While Najib is clear favourite at the moment to take over Umno and the prime minister's post, there are grave doubts about his suitability for the jobs.

Najib has an impeccable political heritage, in some ways too impeccable and too elitist at a time when very many Malaysians are looking for reforms that will remove the deadening rule of patronage and the bonds of racially structured politics between the majority ethnic Malays and the minority ethnic Chinese and South Asians.

There is also the major problem of the murdered Mongolian model, Altantuya Shaariibuu.

Altantuya was the mistress of Abdul Razak Baginda, an analyst and policy adviser to Najib as defence minister. There are also reports that she played a role when Baginda was negotiating Malaysia's purchase of submarines from France.

But Baginda apparently tired of Altantuya's charms and returned to the bosom of his family.

Altantuya, however, proved to be a fatal attraction and in October 2006 started loudly demonstrating outside Baginda's house. She promptly disappeared and police later found fragments of her body in the jungle.

Investigations led to the arrest and trial of Baginda and two police officers assigned as bodyguards to the office of deputy prime minister Razak.

The trial continues.

This ought to be the perfect set-up for opposition leader Anwar to complete his political restoration and engineer the first change of government in Malaysia's history.

But Anwar seems to be running out of steam. A couple of months ago he announced he would have the support of a majority of members of parliament by September 16. Then he wanted an emergency sitting of parliament and a confidence vote on September 23.

Now Anwar is talking about a confidence vote when parliament resumes on October 13 after Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.

The smell test says Anwar doesn't yet have the numbers and Malaysia is still some way from restored political and economic stability.


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