Friday, April 3, 2009

Outgoing Malaysian PM a disappointment: analysts

Outgoing Malaysian PM a disappointment: analysts

KUALA LUMPUR, April 3, 2009 (AFP) - Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is bowing out as Malaysia's prime minister this week after a disappointing term in power during which he was unable to deliver on his promises, experts say.

His mistakes provide a salutary lesson to incoming premier Najib Razak, according to political analysts, who said he must avoid repeating the errors that forced Abdullah into retirement just a year into his second term.

"He came in with so much hope of reforming the government and institutions, eliminating corruption and wanting to unite the various races, but ended up being unable to deliver on any of these areas," analyst Khoo Kay Peng told AFP.

Abdullah, 69, took charge in 2003 with big promises to battle corruption and improve race relations in Malaysia, where ties between majority Muslim Malays and minority ethnic Chinese and Indians had become frayed.

Hand-picked by his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad, who had exerted iron rule during his two decades in power, voters were excited over Abdullah's pledges and handed him a landslide win in March 2004 elections.

Once in power, he introduced his own brand of Islamic governance known as "Islam Hadhari" as a counter to the conservative Islamic party PAS, and hauled a cabinet minister and a tycoon before the courts for corruption.

"But this stern action was short-lived and it was back to business as usual with all kinds of cronyism permeating Abdullah's government," said Shahruddin Badaruddin, a poitical scientist from Malaysia's technology university.

Soon, Abdullah had a very public falling-out with Mahathir who was enraged over the cancellation of several of his mega-projects, including plans for a new bridge linking Malaysia to neighbouring Singapore.

The new leader was undermined by Mahathir's constant sniping, and the initial optimism that he had inspired among voters also began to wear off - particularly among minorities.

"Although Abdullah promised that he would have a multi-racial approach, non-Muslims were upset when the government became high-handed in actions against them," Khoo said.

A series of "body-snatching" cases by Islamic authorities, who seized the remains of deceased individuals against the objections of non-Muslim family members, fanned tensions and a sense of growing "Islamisation."

The ethnic Indian population became increasingly vocal, triggering an unprecedented anti-discrimination street protest in 2007 which was quelled with tear gas and water cannons.

The disenchantment bubbled over in March 2008 general elections, which saw the resurgent opposition claim one third of seats in parliament and control of five states in its best ever performance.

Abdullah initially refused to step down but in October last year was forced to announce he would hand over to Najib.

Many analysts say Abdullah allowed Malaysians a measure more freedom, giving the government-linked mainstream press more room to operate and tolerating a little more dissent, although Mahathir disagrees.

"What has happened is that Abdullah has got no power to administer this country," he said in a recent interview with AFP.

"His tendency is to bow to the opposition. He doesn't want to be all this 'free' and all that, but he feels he doesn't have enough support to be strong," he said.

In a final speech to the party last week, Abdullah sought to set aside the rancour of the past few months, when he was criticised as weak and ineffective and blamed for the UMNO-led coalition's worst-ever election results.

"I want to retire with an open heart and not have any hard feelings," he said.

But many say Abdullah is leaving a divided party which has struggled to respond to its electoral humiliation, and a country which is on the verge of a recession.

"I think the lesson that Najib should take away from this is that he must carry through with his promises to the non-Malays and ensure he cleans up the ruling party which Abdullah failed to do," Shahruddin said.

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