Abdullah gave us back our voice


Malaysia’s fifth prime minister will be remembered most for giving Malaysians the space to express themselves.

His cupped hand, fingers facing down, came down on the table as he said “Slam!” We can’t do that, he emphasised. We can’t clamp down on people just like that.

Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was talking to editors at a farewell briefing and lunch, responding to a question on whether he regretted opening up the space for democratic expression in the country.

The point he made on Tuesday, three days before he steps down today as prime minister, was that people must be allowed to say what they feel; but there has to be some control – respect for one another and moral limits.

Undoubtedly, the willingness to allow Malaysians to do that will be what he is most remembered for and it could be his greatest achievement.

As a person I know puts it: “After years of autocratic, even dictatorial rule, he gave Malaysians the room to open up and express themselves. He gave them hope.”

And as Abdullah himself told editors, there has to be political education for all on how to exercise freedom.

He made it clear that he felt the process can’t be rolled back now, in the process sidestepping an attempt by a relentless editor to get him to admit that the free space he gave was being abused.

He set the ball rolling and how it has gathered momentum since Oct 31, 2003, when he became prime minister, hand picked by his predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He was likeable, amiable and said all the right things.

Dr Mahathir could not have picked a successor more unlike himself; and why he picked Abdullah as his deputy in 1999 following Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s dismissal and subsequent incarceration the previous year is anyone’s guess, although theories abound.

According to another one of these theories, Dr Mahathir decided to step down in October 2003 to give Abdullah a chance to mobilise things for the next elections. It was theorised that if Dr Mahathir continued to be PM, it was going to be very difficult for Barisan Nasional to do well.

“Work with me, not for me”, “I am the number one public servant” – these were the kind of quotes that endeared him to the general public after the “I know what’s best” and “Listen to me or else” attitude of the acerbic, terse and even cold Dr Mahathir.

Abdullah came across as open, caring and pro-active. His 2004 Barisan Nasional election manifesto and personal letters he sent out to thousands of young voters were well received.

The election results were telling – 92% of Parliament seats and nearly 65% of the popular vote went to Barisan, more than any other leader had garnered in history.

But four years later, on March 8, 2008, Barisan was enveloped in the jaws of defeat in five states and could not even get a majority of the popular vote in Peninsular Malaysia, losing its two-thirds majority in Parliament. Sabah and Sarawak saved the day.

What had decidedly turned the tables on Abdullah was that the reforms he had promised in 2004 had not anywhere near materialised.

There was no independent commission to investigate police transgressions, corruption was still rife, money politics in Umno was not only alive but kicking and patronage was flourishing with a new group of people in the favoured list.

People were asking whether any major change had taken place. But there was one major change this time – they were being heard.

One wonders whether Abdullah could have stopped that even if he wanted to, but the point is that he never tried to.

So we did not have to find out.

He could have stayed on and fought the tide that was forming against him in Umno as opportunistic leaders swooped in for the kill and a quick flight up the ranks.

He could have put a muzzle on the press and dissent with all the laws still available for use, as some of his predecessors had.

After all he had won and Barisan was just eight seats short of a two-thirds majority. And with all the controls his immediate predecessor had put in favour of the incumbent president at Umno, he may even have won.

But arguably that may have split Umno wide open yet again and it could have been as bad as the one in 1987 when Dr Mahathir came within a whisker of losing the party presidency. In Abdullah’s mind, it was time to let someone else run the show.

Although he wanted two terms, he was prepared to let it go, perhaps even against the advice of some of his closest advisers whose power and influence would now wane to insignificance.

That’s the difference between Dr Mahathir and Abdullah – ego and power did not matter anywhere as much to Abdullah.

The party and the country counted for more. In the spirit of democracy and accountability, he stepped aside.

Abdullah could have done better; many of his 2004 election promises went unfulfilled, for which he was duly punished by the March 8 drubbing.

But he did probably more

than any other PM to promote political maturity and open discussion of all manner of important issues.

This is vital for the next stage of development of the country where the ghosts of the past will have to be laid to rest so that we can move forward as a single nation free of corruption and patronage.

Abdullah’s openness has helped public aspirations to be aired and brought to the fore for everyone to see and understand.

Now, any politician who ignores these aspirations knows that he will not likely get a second chance to put things right if he squanders the first opportunity.

That’s Abdullah’s legacy, and it’s still a nice one to have even if we expected a lot more.

P. Gunasegaram is managing editor at The Star. He is fascinated and disgusted in equal parts with Malaysian politics.