When Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s long-ruling former leader, handed the reins of this multi-ethnic nation to his deputy Abdullah Badawi in 2003, planned political and economic reforms promised to take the country into a new age of prosperity.
While Mahathir had overseen the country’s transformation from an agrarian backwater into a manufacturing exporter, it was Abdullah who declared war on the country’s endemic graft and scrapped mega projects that were leaving the nation sorely in debt.
He began easing restrictions to attract outside investors and promoted Islam Hadhari (Civilisational Islam) to curb creeping fundamentalism.
But a recent war of words between Mahathir and Abdullah that has intensified in recent weeks may impede Malaysia’s goal of realising Vision 2020, an ambitious national strategy to transform the country into a fully developed Asian giant by 2020.
War of words
In June, Mahathir began excoriating his handpicked successor for recent policy decisions, notably to scrap a new bridge connecting Malaysia with neighbouring Singapore.
He also criticised Abdullah’s move to lower vehicle tariffs which were put in place to protect the struggling national car maker Proton.
Mahathir has questioned some of
By doing so Mahathir is hardly championing reform.
His stinging criticism is a not so subtle call to restore his vision of the country and is raising doubts about Abdullah’s effectiveness and sincerity as a reformist.
Ramon Navaratnam, president of the Malaysian chapter of Transparency International, a non-profit organisation working to counter corruption, says: “Suddenly people are asking, what’s gone wrong in the current leadership that we don’t know about?”
Navaratnam says what appears as a political struggle between the two men from the same ruling party, “has turned into an issue of transparency and integrity”.
Mahathir wants a thorough probe, for instance, into why the bridge project was cancelled.
One theory suggests that it was because Malaysians could not sell a billion cubic feet of sand to Singapore as part of the deal.
Mahathir has called Abdullah’s talk of greater transparency “a big bluff”.
In the initial stages of the rift, the prime minister mostly ignored his predecessor’s allegations, opting to allow allies in his party the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) to rally to his defence.
Top Umno figures have declared their firm support for Abdullah in recent weeks, with some calling for Mahathir’s removal from the party.
Meanwhile, the state-controlled press has mostly turned a deaf ear to Mahathir’s allegations.
Last week, however, Abdullah made his first remarks on the row.
“Well, certainly you do feel [hurt] but you overcome it very quickly. Why should I have any ill feelings towards anybody? I don’t have any problems with [Mahathir],” he said at a press conference.
Malaysians are worried about the
In a move to get his former boss off his back, Abdullah recently declassified some documents pertaining to the bridge project that included letters between Malaysian and Singaporean officials.
But Mahathir charged that only part of the correspondence was revealed and that full disclosure would reveal that Malaysia offered to sell sand to Singapore in return for access to Malaysian airspace.
Malaysian economic analysts believe the publicised disputes are leading to a loss of faith in the direction the government is taking the country.
On websites, blogs and call-in radio shows, a growing number of Malaysians are expressing exasperation with the situation.
Steven Gan, editor of news website Malaysiakini, told Aljazeera.net: “In the last year we’ve seen a lot more complaints about Abdullah not meeting his promises.”
Disappointment, Gan said, is attributed to the lack of corruption charges levelled against senior officials and what is perceived as Abdullah’s feet-dragging on the establishment of an independent police commission.
It’s the economy, stupid
But most of all, Malaysians are worried about the state of their economy.
The nation is in debt and growth has been sluggish despite the state-run oil giant Petronas posting record profits of $12 billion and seeing revenues jump 22.6% for the year ending March 2005.
The government has invested heavily to create a knowledge-based, innovation-driven economy only to find many companies are setting up shop in neighbouring countries with fewer entry barriers, cheaper labour costs or a larger talent pool to draw from.
A race-based affirmative action programme propping up the Malay majority is also resented and is increasingly thought to be hindering progress.
Charles Santiago, an economist, says the country is slowly losing in competition with others in the region.
“With Abdullah it’s not clear where exactly the country is going,” he said, adding that investors may be less inclined to pour billions into the country if their interests are not secured.
“By not disclosing to people the details of what transpired [to cause the bridge deal to collapse], he doesn’t build investor confidence,” Santiago told Aljazeera.net.
Social reforms impeded
Meanwhile, Badawi’s promotion of Islam Hadhari has failed to beat back the tide of fundamentalist Islam.
“We can’t let the debate remain on the surface but have to steer it toward substantial change in the system, to create a mechanism of transparency, to prevent non-disclosure and abuse of power”
Yap Swee Seng,
A recent amendment to a family law has further diminished the rights of Muslim women in a nation where women’s rights already lagged behind many Muslim nations.
In May, hundreds of Muslims broke up a conference on freedom of religion in the northern state of Penang.
A memorandum calling for the protection of rights of religious minorities was withdrawn under heavy criticism by Muslim cabinet members.
And Hindu temples are being destroyed at a rate of one per week to make room for development.
But some social reformers believe the Mahathir-Abdullah spat could offer a “small window of opportunity”.
Yap Swee Seng, executive director of local rights group Suaram, says civil society and opposition parties committed to human rights, such as the People’s Justice Party and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), must not allow Mahathir to run the debate.
“Rather, we need to take on board the issues caused by the rift and link those issues with the agenda of reform we are pushing for now,” he told Aljazeera.net.
“We can’t let the debate remain on the surface but have to steer it toward substantial change in the system, to create a mechanism of transparency, to prevent non-disclosure and abuse of power.”
Such mechanisms will generate greater public awareness and spirited participation in the political process and only then could Malaysia fulfil its economic and strategic goals, he says.