On Malaysia’s Mr. Clean (2003-2009)

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.

14 thoughts on “On Malaysia’s Mr. Clean (2003-2009)

  1. In all probability , you might have to , in foresight pen an epitaph for the Mr Bad ( 2009-2010) , where it has been said…
    actually he is a nice guy with da wrong women

  2. The “Mr. Clean” image was the creation of some PR agency and hyped by the mainstream media like the NST, the Star and Utusan Malaysia. His exhortation of “Don’t work for me, work with me” was well received by Malaysians who were sick and tired of the long Mahathir years when we were dominated by the thoughts and actions of a strong Prime Minister who did not hesitate to use all the powers at his disposal to quell dissent and push through top down his agenda for Malaysia. But Badawi never worked and so we could not work for nor with him.

    Our economy was put on auto-pilot and we were subsequently hit by a global economic slowdown which was regarded by economic pundits to be worse than that 1929 Stock Market Crash, due to the sub prime mortgage crisis in the United States which threatened the economies of Europe, Japan, China and the rest of the world.

    Badawi did open up space for democratic discourse, maybe by default, but that was not enough. What we needed was his leadership for a thorough reform of institutions of governance; we expected a bold programme against rampant corruption. He established two Royal Commissions to deal with Royal Malaysian Police and VK Lingam Video Clip under his watch, but he did not have the strength of character and charisma and guts to follow thorough on their recommendations. UMNO plutocrats were too strong for him.

    He lost his credibility at home, while his foreign policy based on Islam Hadhari (which only impressed George W. Bush) was one big joke. So in March 2008, Badawi got an electoral trashing of his political career when Malaysian voters denied UMNO-BN a 2/3rd majority in Parliament and voted Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Rakyat to form the governments of Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor and Kelantan.

    After the electoral defeat, it was a matter of time that he would be replaced and in April, 2009 he was sent into retirement with an undeserved Tun-ship; he is now devoting his time to gardening with his beloved Tun Jeanne by his side (see picture). It is now rumored that the Government under Najib is spending some rm16 million to build his residence. All that as reward for incompetence.

    Justin Ong’s article is a damning assessment of the Badawi era. It was for Malaysia a bad start to the 21st.century. We were led by a man who “was paralysed by indecision and manacled to the status quo demands of his own political party”. Do you think Vision 2020 still beckons us?–Din Merican

  3. Dolah was put in the hot seat by his master because he had no leadership qualities. The qualification to be the No. 2 was how good you’re at playing Pak Turut or at following orders. The poor guy thought he could still pass the buck but as the No. 1 the buck stops with him.

    The old man in his bid to hold on to power had obviously thought out carefully and had choreographed his own return to power. He couldn’t stand U.S. President Bush tapping him on his shoulder at conferences and asking him when he was going to step down as he said he would. Had things worked out as planned at least he could say to Bush that he was asked to return and not that he didn’t want to step aside for his successor.

  4. The only saving that comes from Pak lah’s era is the realisation that the public can actually change the government. Now, more and more, people believe that they can actually make their voice heard and action taken. Of course the current UMNO/BN government is doing its best to stop this surge but the motion is in place.

  5. Personable chap who will be remembered for his quote: “Don’t work for me – work through, around and beyond me!”, to his cronies.
    I seriously doubt though, he and his cohorts will be as efficent cleaners than our present dear leader and spouse, who are more adept at squeezing blood from stone.

  6. It’s all because of the “In Law Curse”
    Khairy being the puppeteer n the man behind the 4th floor boys is the sole reason Pak Lah went down in flames
    Guess family can be a politician’s “Achilles heel”

    I fear the same will happen 2 the beloved Tok Guru Nik Aziz if that jerk Ariffahmi remains at PKMB

  7. If you ‘rest on your laurels’ then you are having it on the wrong way. Many good people actually rust on their laurels.

    In the meantime as we debate this issue of leadership more and more hores are bolting from the government barn.

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