Tuesday July 8, 2008
THE latest issue of respectable The Economist compared Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi as possibly the Mikhail Gorbachev of South-East Asia, referring to the Russian statesman who oversaw risky reforms that gently killed the old Soviet regime and saw the birth of a new Russia.
The weekly posed the question, without answering it, whether Abdullah had the gumption to take a similar risk like Gorbachev to reform an increasingly dysfunctional system dominated by a single party and a single theme since independence.
Abdullah promised major reforms soon after talking power in November 2003 and the people welcomed the promise, giving him the biggest political mandate in our history but the promises were not translated into concrete action.
As a result, voters punished Abdullah on March 8.
The Opposition with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim at its head exploited the frustration of voters who were unhappy with Abdullah’s failure to rapidly curb corruption and build an open society based on equality and meritocracy.
Although weakened nationally and facing challenges in Umno, Abdullah put reforms back on track back within the first 100 days since he was sworn in as Prime Minister for a second term in March.
Significantly, he also appointed critics and reform-minded individuals like lawyer Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad into the Cabinet as initiators of reforms.
He also announced a new broad-based anti-corruption commission to oversee the ACA and a Judicial Appointment Commissions to return credibility to the battered judiciary.
However, both these and other reforms measures are plodding along so slowly that people are worried.
It is common knowledge the reform measures face serious opposition from the remnants of the old regime that still populate Abdullah’s Cabinet, the large political establishment and the bureaucracy.
Unlike glasnost in the Soviet Union that led to regime change, Malaysia only needs fundamental changes to the system not a change of systems, says Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, president of Transparency International, Malaysia.
He says reforms are badly needed and that Abdullah is acutely aware of it and is giving added priority for reforms but the pace is “agonisingly slow.”
“Abdullah must speed up the pace, set deadlines to achieve reforms and put credible individuals in charge of the reformed institutions like the police, ACA and judiciary,” Navaratnam said in an interview.
“He has to beat down resistance and show strong leadership and initiate reforms,” Navaratnam said. “The time to do it is now.’
Abdullah faces a serious challenge from Anwar who is working hard to get backbenchers to defect and topple Abdullah’s Government but Anwar’s attention is now shifted to surviving the new sodomy allegations against him from a former aide.
With more pressing issues to occupy Anwar’s awesome energy, defection as a source of danger for the Government appears to be eclipsing giving Abdullah considerable breathing space.
If Abdullah is returned unopposed as Umno president in the party elections in December, as it seems likely because of the nomination system that favours incumbents, he would have bought himself enough political capital to convince the party warlords that reforms, even mild ones, are urgently necessary.
It was his Reform Agenda that gave Anwar’s election campaign a populist flavour and propelled him to within reach of the seat of power. Abdullah can take a chapter from Anwar’s book to speed up the glasnost the country needs.
A key element of Anwar’s plank is affirmative action for all Malaysians who need it as compared to the bumiputra policy now that gives scholarships to the children of Malay millionaires while the talented but poor of all races have to fight over the leftovers.
Anwar also articulated the hopes of that section of Malaysia that was left out of the huge national wealth that was acquired in the last three decades.
According to a 2006 UNDP report Malaysia’s distribution of wealth gap i.e. between the haves and the have-nots is the widest in South-East Asia.
The challenge now is not just reforms but also to preserve national peace against new and conflicting demands on the national polity. And that’s a job where everybody, Anwar included, has to share responsibilities.
The good thing about reforms is that once set-off, they have a way of snowballing on their own and sweeping aside, even the initiator, as happened to Gorbachev.
But that’s the least of Abdullah’s worries now. The star online.