Malaysia makes all the wrong movesKUALA LUMPUR - Over the last few months Malaysian Premier Abdullah Badawi's administration has become more assertive in how it handles everything, from religious affairs to migrant workers to press freedom. To the reform-minded that shift from inaction to its converse may come as welcome news. Unfortunately, the administration's tone and tactics of late have in some significant ways eerily echoed those laid down by Abdullah's predecessor, strongman Mahathir Mohamad.
Talk about Abdullah in the year and a half since he became prime minister has generally been about what he hasn't done. As promises from wiping out corruption to professionalizing the police force to making the government more efficient and democratic have gone unfulfilled, Abdullah has become linked with words like inaction and indecision. Now, however, it's no longer so much inaction that is hampering the administration, but the course of the action itself.
Mahathir was often criticized for neglecting corruption, provoking other nations, and squelching personal freedoms. When Abdullah took over it was widely assumed Malaysia's standing in these areas would improve. Arguably, to some degree they have. Domestically and abroad, for instance, those who have worked with Abdullah describe him as more accessible and team-oriented than Mahathir. He has okayed dialogues on everything from religious rights to the dreaded Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, and has radically shaped the willingness of most Malaysians to express themselves (see At last, the 'Great Malaysian Debate' , July 30, 2004).
But as political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda noted, "We're seeing a lot of two steps forward and one backward." And the steps backward are increasingly being characterized by the terse officiousness that was a hallmark of the Mahathir era. On April 20, for instance, the Malaysian government banned 11 books, mainly dealing with religion. Abdullah said the books - including Karen Armstrong's acclaimed A History of God - "could be detrimental to public order". He didn't elaborate.
In response to an April Fool's joke by a web portal here that cleverly chastised the government for not living up to its pledge to curb corruption, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Mohamed Nazri Aziz said the government would take legal action against the web portal for "telling lies". A few days later Abdullah's deputy, Najib Razak, announced that the government would sue one of neighboring Indonesia's most respected dailies, Kompas, for the same offense. A member of Malaysia's ruling coalition then said the "Indonesian media is jealous of Malaysia's wealth and prosperity". Obviously such gestures haven't helped patch relations between the two neighbors - relations that began to sour in February over a maritime border dispute.
Tense dealings were par for the course under Mahathir but unexpected under mild-mannered Abdullah. Yet under the current administration, Indonesia is not the only neighbor with which Malaysia finds itself spatting.
In January Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra accused Malaysia of harboring Islamic terrorists responsible for killing hundreds of innocent civilians in Thailand's restive south. Abdullah and his cohorts were outraged by the charge and beat back at Thaksin with some off-the-cuff remarks of their own. A few weeks later the alleged mastermind behind the violence in southern Thailand, Abdul Rahman Ahmad, was arrested by Malaysian authorities. Thaksin wanted him extradited, but Abdullah said the two countries did not have an extradition treaty and that because Ahmad was a Malaysian, he would remain in Malaysia (see Malaysia, Thailand spar over 'mastermind', January 29).
Then last month the Malaysian government's decision to send packing one million-plus undocumented workers, mostly Filipinos and Indonesians, sparked off strings of anti-Malaysia protests in Jakarta and caused tension with the Philippines.
It is yet unclear how Malaysia's relations with its neighbors are affecting its standing internationally. During Mahathir's reign, however, Malaysia had a hard time developing credibility outside the Muslim world. Former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim rallied a wide range of voices, including internationally respected non-governmental organizations, US vice president Al Gore and former Indonesian President B J Habibie to challenge Malaysia on its political and human-rights record and Mahathir's penchant for making anti-Semitic remarks. Meanwhile, Malaysia incessantly peddled itself as a "model Islamic democracy", which finally caught on with Washington in the months following September 11, 2001. But a report last week by the Washington Post calls into question the authenticity of Washington's praises. The article alleges that Mahathir spent millions of dollars through US lobbying groups to secure a White House visit and improve relations the US, which hit the skids after Mahathir orchestrated the jailing of Anwar on what many believe were trumped up charges of sodomy and corruption.
In a bitter twist for Abdullah, Anwar is now serving as a visiting fellow at prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he has been using speaking engagements to set the record straight as he sees it on Malaysia. "If you want to be a moderate Muslim country, you cannot condone corruption," he was quoted as saying. He also said Malaysia should not be endorsed as either moderate or democratic. "How do you have free and fair elections when the views of the opposition are not heard? The entire media is controlled by the ruling party and you have free and fair elections?"
Some observers have been quick to blame such churlishness on those who surround Abdullah; the old guard that he putatively opposes. But to some extent Abdullah must be held accountable for their lack of decorum. After all, these officials work under him, and as leader it is Abdullah's responsibility to establish a collective demeanor conducive to achieving his objectives, whether they are to reform the system or improve relations with Malaysia's neighbors. Certainly those who worked closely with Mahathir rarely strayed. Mahathir made sure of this. And in his two-plus decades at the helm he accomplished many of his goals, the result of which caused Malaysia to evolve into the prosperous nation it is today.
To be fair, Abdullah finds himself in a much-overlooked Catch-22. He is rightfully credited for being more tolerant of those around him than Mahathir was, for encouraging them to take initiative and work with, as opposed to for, him. But assuming it's the system Abdullah wants to fix, then giving greater freedom to essentially the same cast of characters who gained their political mileage bootlicking to Mahathir will not help the cause.
That Abdullah is committed to changing the system is at best an assumption, as the last few months have made clear, judging not only by the administration's actions and rhetoric but its outlook as well.
As Abdullah said in an Asia-Pacific radio broadcast earlier this month: "I think if we are talking about reform in Malaysia it is very, very dramatic in the most successful way. What were we before? I believe people should know what were we before when we were under the British ... We were all agriculture ... So everything now has been transformed."
This seems to contrast with the ambitious talk of reform Abdullah adopted before last year's parliamentary elections. More frighteningly perhaps, it represents a complacency typical of Malaysia's ruling elite, in which Malaysia's past achievements are talked up to divert attention from the nation's myriad problem areas.
Despite the red flags, Abdullah has advanced Malaysia in some key respects, said Chandra Muzaffar, president of the International Movement for a Just World. Last year, for instance, the corruption board arrested 497 people in connection with corruption, the highest number in a given year since the agency's inception in 1967. This hasn't broken the culture of corruption, but it is a start.
Muzaffar also said, "The judiciary is much freer, and in parliament you have much livelier debate. The backbenchers are taking front benchers to task on certain things."
And, as has been noted, in any course Abdullah decides on there will be various factions to contend with - from the business sector weaned on cronyism promoted by Mahathir to the government's myopic old guard to a creeping tide of Islamic fundamentalism. This of course doesn't exempt Abdullah from pursuing institutional change, which according to Muzaffar is "the only real way to change the system".
Malaysians are still waiting for a host of laws to be written up (laws that protect whistle-blowers for instance), and for others, such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), to be abolished. That act requires publications to renew their licenses annually and has ensured that Malaysia's press remains among the most obsequious in Asia.
Some observers say the mere existence of the PPPA does not reflect Abdullah's views on press freedom; reporters are said to have greater access to ministers than they did under Mahathir. But what, if anything, can be inferred from Abdullah's comments during the Asia-Pacific interview? "The practice of democracy here ... has been most effective, in the sense that there is freedom of expression, and at the same time they [the citizens] have a right to vote and we have never failed to hold an election. Every time within five years there must be one election; we have never failed to do that."
Abdullah has of late, and at times unwittingly, exposed two sides of himself - one set on serving the status quo, the other on helping Malaysia flourish. Time will likely reveal a greater inclination for one or the other. For now they have emerged as the strongest opposing forces within the ruling elite. The irony is, they rest largely within one man.
Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, has worked as a freelance foreign correspondent and previously co-hosted a weekly political/cultural radio call-in show in the US. He has been living in Malaysia since late 2002.