Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi faces a tough week ahead as growing unhappiness over his cutbacks on mega construction projects and tensions over religious conversions put his political prowess to the test.
Several concerns will be key on the agenda of his most important constituency – Umno -as it holds its week-long annual general meeting which opened yesterday (13 November). Abdullah’s chief problem is that his Umno constituents are far from happy with his performance since he took over the party presidency and premiership from his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad.
Patronage-driven Umno’s largely business elite have long relied on the government for business. But with Abdullah’s sweeping suspensions of the mega-construction projects of the Mahathir era – traditionally a major source of political patronage for businessmen and politicians, it will be a challenge for Abdullah to quell members’ grumbling that Abdullah's management of the country has hurt key sectors of the economy, particularly the construction industry. After putting up with modest government contracts for the past three years, Umno delegates are expected to demand that Abdullah abandon his cost-cutting ways and revive the party's patronage machine.
Another major and highly sensitive issue expected is the perceived ‘threats’ against Islam. The high-profile court cases involving the conversion of Muslims to other faiths in recent months have led Malaysia's sizeable non-Muslim communities to call for the creation of an inter-faith commission to help resolve sensitive inter-religious disputes, including conversions out of Islam (SEAPSNet News, 24 July). As apostasy is unacceptable to many Malay Muslims, many have come out strongly against these moves. But with non-Malays insisting that freedom of religion is guaranteed by Malaysia's Constitution, the country's Malays are starting to feel that Islam is under siege in Malaysia. Similarly, the Malay agenda is expected to feature strongly this year because of a growing Malay perception that their special position is being challenged.
Given the current mood in Umno, the critical tasks ahead for Abdullah is to check the rising racial and religious tensions, stamp his brand of moderate Islam on Umno and press ahead with his vision of greater racial and religious tolerance. On the other hand, if he chooses to pander to the narrow short-term interests of Umno – a move that will no doubt help boost Abdullah's badly battered political prestige – there will likely be serious consequences for the economy in the long run.
The recent continued dismissals of calls for liberalisation of the economy in favour of the pro-Malay economic policies enshrined in the country's affirmative action policy is likely to make the country a less attractive destination for foreign capital. Abdullah needs to shift Umno thinking away from the preoccupation of wealth distribution amongst themselves, and convince his party that without wealth creation, his government won't be able to carry out its social agenda, including affirmative action goals.
While Abdullah on Sunday (12 November) said he intends to continue in office past a single term, what must add to his challenges are that well into his third year in office, progress on his election pledge are still nowhere in sight. Critics of Abdullah have long maintained that he has lost focus and the reformist tunes he trumpeted in his initial months in office were merely slogans to win votes. The issues he had pledged to tackle, such as cleaning up graft and corruption within the police force, seem to have all but worsened over his term in office. Mahathir’s relentless stream of accusations of corruption, mismanaging the economy and compromising the country's sovereignty no doubt exacerbate the situation greatly. What must prove somewhat reassuring at least is that Abdullah went into Umno's general assembly beginning yesterday (13 November) without having to face Mahathir, who, after suffering a mild heart attack on Thursday, has skipped this year's meeting, effectively diluting the debate over the feud that many Umno officials had feared would dominate this year's assembly. It will remain a tough time ahead however, and Abdullah’s primary challenge will be to convince Umno to stay on track with him so he can produce results on his election pledges.
And while Malaysia’s drop in Transparency International’s recently released Corruption Perception Index (SEAPSNet News, 10 November) reflects badly on Abdullah and his reformist pledges, for now, there is some hope yet, as Malaysia's recent redesignation as a high human development country by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provides a positive boost to the country’s image and development during these early Abdullah years.
UMNO on his mind (The Straits Times, 12 November 2006)
Malaysian PM says he plans to stay in office past single term (The Straits Times/AP, 12 November 2006)
Malay leaders urge restraint in debates (The Straits Times, 13 November 2006)
Malaysia reaches another milestone (The Star, 10 November 2006)