December 30, 2009
On Malaysia’s Mr. Clean
by Justin Ong
“Don’t work for me, work with me.”
That one sentence heralded what was supposed to have been a New Age for Malaysians. After over two decades of iron-fisted rule by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a prime minister who cared about what the country thinks was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Most Malaysians thought as much. Together with the promise of a softer approach towards running the country was Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s image as “Mr Clean”. An image that he played up further by vowing to come down hard on a culture of corruption so entrenched that, far from being a crime, it was treated as an entitlement.
More than just giving Pak Lah — as he is popularly known — the benefit of the doubt, Malaysians handed him the keys to the country. In Election 2004, Barisan Nasional was given its most convincing mandate yet, winning 198 out of the 220 parliamentary seats. Whatever gains the opposition made during the 1998 Anwar Ibrahim debacle was all but wiped out.
But despite the overwhelming support of the electorate, it did not take long for it to be obvious that instead of using this mandate to implement policies that might have taken the country somewhere, anywhere, Pak Lah seemed content to rest on his laurels.
An administration paralysed by indecision, it was painful to watch what was essentially the most powerful man in the country being unable — or unwilling — to decide which direction the country should be heading. Instead, Malaysians were treated to mere rhetoric.
If ever there was an example of how indecision can be as harmful — and perhaps even more so — than bad decisions, this was it. National policy — when they made any — seemed to change on a whim, before being reversed soon after if objections were raised.
Dr Mahathir, “recalcitrant” as he was, was at least decisive. And once he made up his mind, for better or worse, he stuck by it. Pak Lah, in contrast, ruled with all the consistency of a limp noodle. And before long, some quarters even began pining for the return of his predecessor.
Anecdotal accounts now seem to suggest Pak Lah was more than happy to let the country run itself, rather than be bothered with the minutiae of administrating the day-to-day affairs of the nation. It also did not bode well that the man who was in charge of the country brought more than a metaphorical meaning to the phrase “sleeping on the job”. In any case, rather than running itself, the country was quickly running aground.
Besides residing over periods of harsh “unofficial” inflation, when the rakyat was increasingly feeling the pinch yet kept being told that everything was, is, and ever will be all right, it was also obvious that Pak Lah was failing miserably at his earlier promise of combating national graft.
Not only was he not doing much to cut down on corruption, merciless insinuations and accusations of cronyism by Dr Mahathir also ripped Abdullah’s “Mr Clean” reputation to shreds. Allegations of corruption in the UN Oil for Food programme certainly didn’t help matters. Nor the unfortunate discovery of a nuclear smuggling network involving Scomi Group owned by his son, Kamaluddin Abdullah.
Given carte blanche to run the country, Pak Lah chose to play the bureaucrat at a time when the country needed a strong steward to guide it into uncharted waters. Promises of fighting corruption, Islam Hadhari that no one understands till today, and stillborn economic progress all lie in the wake of possibly the country’s most ineffectual prime minister to date.
What had started with so much potential ended as a major letdown. Hounded out of office by the man who put him there and the man who would be there, Pak Lah cut a lonely and forlorn figure in his final days.
In the end, Pak Lah’s years will be remembered as a lost opportunity to reform Malaysia by a man who was paralysed by indecision and manacled to the status quo demands of his own political party.