21 September 2008

Malaysia is at its most important turning point, says John Malott

September 21, 2008 (via e-mail)

By John Malott*

Today Malaysia is at the most important turning point in its history. Ironically, the man who has the opportunity to decide which way Malaysia will go is the man who has been considered an ineffective if not a failed leader – Abdullah Badawi.

Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam said it best in an interview with Malaysiakini ( -- If Abdullah lets the democratic process take place and does not stifle the country with arrests and emergency rule, it will be his finest hour, and he will go down in history as the man who liberalised the democratic system in Malaysia. But if he reneges on his word to not invoke the ISA, then he would only be digging his own grave”, Ramon said.

Although the attention of the world has turned to the financial crisis in the United States, interest in Malaysia has never been higher. The world is watching. Malaysia can redeem itself in the eyes of the world – or it can become an international pariah – all within the space of the next few weeks.

The Malaysian people should not underestimate the influence and impact that Anwar Ibrahim has overseas. The 18 months that he spent abroad after his release from prison allowed him not only to reestablish his old connections but also to develop new ones. He spoke widely throughout the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia and developed a new cadre of admirers. He is without question the most well-known and respected Malaysian in the world.

So when he again faces more sham charges of sodomy and is carried away by a SWAT team, or when he then pulls off one of the most stunning political comebacks ever, the world pays attention. But it is not up to the world to decide who should govern Malaysia, it is up to the Malaysian people.

What the international community does expect is that the contest should be fair. For too long the Malaysian Government and UMNO have relied not on the forces of democracy and persuasion but on the powers of intimidation — the ISA, the sedition laws, the denial of business contracts, spying by the Special Branch, financial “largesse,” and propaganda and even outright falsehoods disseminated by government and party controlled media. They too often have ruled by fear.

Ten years ago few people dared to speak up. But this time the people are not afraid. They know what is going on in their country, and now they want the right to decide their own future.

After Anwar was sacked from the Government ten years ago, the question was who would replace him. Mahathir had announced that he would be stepping down in the near future, so the new DPM was likely to become Prime Minister. I was having lunch with a newly-arrived High Commissioner from a Commonwealth country. We were speculating who might replace Anwar when I said, ”No matter who it is, he will have a hard time. It is always hard to follow a strong, tough leader. Look at Morarji Desai after Indira Gandhi in India, or John Major after Thatcher, or Goh after Lee Kuan Yew.”

Since he was newly arrived, I gave him my impressions of Badawi and Najib as potential successors, as I had dealt with both of them. I said that they were not as authoritarian as Mahathir, and they were more “hands off” in their leadership style. Neither of them were men of vision. So we were likely to see a kinder, gentler, but weaker leadership. My colleague told me that he had spent a lot of time in Africa, so don’t count on it. Weak leaders are even more likely to rely on the secret police and internal security laws to stay in power, simply because they are weak.

So here we are, 10 years later. Was I right, or was he?

When you look at Badawi’s record over the past five years, the verdict of history already seems clear. Race relations are worse than at any point since 1969. The economy is suffering. Corruption and scandals are rampant and even touch the highest offices in the land. The opposition has achieved its greatest electoral victory in history. The BN coalition is breaking apart, and UMNO’s unity is shattered. By any measure, history seems ready to record that Abdullah Badawi was a failed leader.

But the Prime Minister still has a chance to turn this around. Tan Sri Ramon has framed Badawi’s choice well. Dig your own grave, or turn this into your finest hour. The choice is Badawi’s, but the verdict will belong to the Malaysian people – and to history.

* John Malott was former Ambassador of the United States of America to Malaysia. Since returning to his country some years ago, John continued to take a deep personal interest in political and socio-economic developments of our country. He has many friends in Kuala Lumpur and around ASEAN. It is my privilege to know him, and we do engage in free and frank exchange of views on US-Malaysia relations and other matters of mutual academic interest. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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