Four years after becoming the Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi is still struggling to reform Malaysia.
In the span of a week, the Malaysian media is filled with reports of corruption allegations, resistance against the move towards a more moderate Islamic understanding, divisions within UMNO and the return of a former contender.
One of the most important reasons for the landslide electoral victory of Badawi in 2004 was his promise to tackle corruption. However, there are signs that Badawi has not been successful. The independent news site, Asia Sentinel has highlighted how Malaysia is losing the battle against corruption. In recent weeks, there have been a series of allegations of corruption against senior government officials. The most serious of which is that of against the Deputy Minister of Internal Security, Mohd Johari.
Johari has been accused of receiving more than RM5 million to release three criminals who were held under the Emergency Ordinance. These three criminals are believed to be involved in money laundering, running prostitution rackets, illegal gaming and gangsterism. To complicate matters, Johari is seen to be a strong Abdullah’s supporter who opposed the former Prime Minister Mahathir’s bid to join the UMNO party general assembly. The Asia Sentinel suggested that Johari’s case illustrated Badawi’s dilemma: “the need to remain in power trumps cleaning out the stables.”
In the corruption perception index administered by the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), Malaysia was ranked 7th among 13 Asian countries surveyed. The first Malaysian Transparency Perception Survey commissioned by Transparency Index found that the incidence of bribery in Malaysiaincreases proportionately to income level with 52% of those earning RM5,000 and above monthly acknowledging having paid a bribe or having a family member who had done so.
Even the former Prime Minister Mahathir has been stained by another recent allegation of corruption against the anti-corruption chief Zulkipli Mat Noor. Zulkipli had been appointed by Mahathir to be the head of the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) in 2001 and his contract was further extended by a year in 2004. Zulkipli was recently accused by a former high ranking ACA official, Mr Mohamad Ramli Manam, to have amassed substantial property and assets through corrupt practices. Ramli was a former Sabah ACA chief. Ramli claimed that he himself had been sidelined by Mahathir and placed in ‘cold storage’ at the agency after he probed another corruption case.
Not only is Badawi’s fight against corruption faltering, his efforts to push for a moderate understanding of Islam have also met with resistance. Badawi told Reuters, “If we continue with the old mindset, we will be left behind.” Badawi has introduced the concept of Islam Hadhari, which emphasizes development, progress, inclusion and tolerance. This is in contrast to the more conservative idea of Islam- one that has led a Terengganu state official to propose setting up a snoop squad to spy on unmarried Muslim couples.
Badawi explained that Muslims who practised Islam Hadhari principles would not face problems because, “Islam Hadhari carries universal values like honesty and justice, and places importance on the pursuit of knowledge, economic progress and environmental preservation, and covers all spheres of life… Before this, Islam had often been associated with violence, which gave a negative picture of the religion among non-Muslims.” He warned critics of his concept of Islam Hadhari, that they were ridiculing something “which I think is really good and which is already being accepted by a majority of the people.”
The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition itself is also facing some internal divisions. There is some tension between two of the constituent parties in the coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) over which party should be allowed to field candidate for the Machap by-election. The Machap seat fell vacant following the death of Datuk Wira Poh Ah Tiam last Thursday (15 March 2007). Poh was a MCA member.
The PPP is also involved in a dispute with another of BN’s component- Gerakan over another parliamentary seat. Gerakan is keen to take back the Taiping seat from the PPP after the latter was allowed to contest for the seat by Gerakan in the 2004 elections. The PPP insisted that the deal (that PPP be allowed to have Taiping in exchange for Gerakan having Sungei Renggam seat) was permanent rather than just for one electoral term. Both the PPP and Gerakan have called for their members to boycott each other’s events.
But much more serious is the reported rift between Badawi and his deputy, Najib Tun Razak. The latter has come out to deny the rumours circulating in internet news portal and proclaimed that he “shared the same vision” with Prime Minister Badawi and “strive to assist the Prime Minister in the country’s administration and so on for the good of the country”.
To add to the growing list of challenges faced by Badawi, the former deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim has announced that he hoped to stand for the next elections. Anwar told the Financial Times that he would stand for the presidency of the Keadilan party in May. Anwar is banned from holding political power until April 2008 after a corruption conviction.
While these challenges might not pose as a serious challenge to Badawi’s waning popularity, collectively they present a picture of Badawi’s failure to reform Malaysia in the past four years. To be sure, these are deep-rooted problems in Malaysian politics and society. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen if the Malaysian electorate will be contended to give Badawi another chance at reforms at the coming elections. (19 March 2007)
BN to Name Machap Candidate On Friday (New Straits Times, 19 March 2007)
Two UMNO Leaders Call For End To Gerakan-PPP Dispute (Malaysia General News, 18 March 2007)
Johari Is Ready to Be Investigated (New Straits Times, 18 March 2007)
PPP Wings to Boycott Gerakan Events (New Straits Times, 18 March 2007)
“I Speak The Truth”, Says Mohd Johari (Malaysia General News, 17 March 2007)
Abdullah in Fresh Push for Moderate Islam (The Straits Times, 17 March 2007)
PM: Mocking Islam Hadhari A Big Mistake (New Straits Times, 17 March 2007)
Abdullah in Fresh Push For Moderate Islam (The Straits Times, 17 March 2007)
They Didn’t Tell Me He Was Dirty: Mahathir (Today, 16 March 2007)
Malaysia’s Losing Battle Against Corruption (Asia Sentinel, 16 March 2007)
Malaysia’s Anwar Seeks Return to Power (FT.com, 15 March 2007)
PM: Good Times Now Will Be Better When Polls Come (New Straits Times, 13 March 2007)
Najib denies reports of rift with Abdullah (Straits Times, 19 March 2007)