Facing up to the next test

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 08 Feb 2004

For the first time in 22 years, the Barisan Nasional election campaign will be headed by a new man. The coming general election has been regarded as the first real test for Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. WONG CHUN WAI writes why Abdullah needs a resounding endorsement in the polls to carry out his agenda. 

Photo Gallery: PM's first 100 days 

HE has pressed all the right buttons and made all the right decisions, so to speak. Since taking over as Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has built up the kind of support needed for his next test as the country’s top leader – to earn his mandate in the general election. 

That will certainly be his biggest challenge, and a real test of his acceptance by Umno and the Malaysian public. 

A strong mandate for Barisan Nasional will strengthen his hand in Umno and give him the authority to stamp his mark on the administration. 

It will also redeem Umno’s stature as the party for Malays and to debunk the claim by its nemesis, PAS, that the Islamist party has considerable power and influence in the rural heartland. 

Without doubt, Abdullah has brought hope and freshness to the country’s leadership with his pledge to tackle a range of pressing issues – from corruption, corporate governance, transparency, efficiency in the civil service to projecting himself as a servant to the people rather than their political master. 

His populist, non-combative and clean image has created a feel-good atmosphere in Malaysia. Barisan Nasional leaders hope Abdullah will tap this feel-good factor and call for elections soon. 

At the same time, Malaysia’s economy is expected to grow at 5% this year and the stock market is bullish again, with foreign buyers showing renewed interest. 

The Barisan election campaign will be directed by a new man, but Abdullah is a seasoned campaigner who understands the sentiments of the rural heartland. 

Over the past 100 days, he has criss-crossed the country to talk directly to villagers.  

His first duty on assuming office was to visit the padi and livestock farmers affected by floods in Penang and Kedah. Taking swift action to alleviate the plight of these villagers, he distributed aid worth RM32mil to them. 

Before that, he had personally travelled into the flood-hit areas, wading through the water-swollen padi fields to see for himself the actual situation on the ground. 

Last month, he proved his seriousness in wanting to improve the livelihood of the rural people by appointing a heavyweight, Umno vice-president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, to take charge of the Agriculture Ministry. 

The ministry, in the eyes of many Malaysians, would be regarded as unglamorous. It has no enforcement power nor any channels to dispense patronage, in the form of tenders and contracts, but agriculture has been given a shot in the arm by the three-month-old administration. 

More significantly, improving the quality of life of the politically important rural population has taken the wind out of the sails of PAS, especially in the east coast states. 

The party has long campaigned against the Government by attacking Umno over its alleged neglect of the rural areas because the resources were pumped into the cities and expensive projects. 

By whipping such unhappiness into feelings of resentment, PAS captured 13 parliamentary seats in Kedah in the 1999 general election. Besides retaining Kelantan, it also wrested Terengganu. 

But four years later, much water has passed under the bridge. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is no longer an issue and PAS leaders have for the first time admitted, at least privately, that Abdullah will be their biggest problem.  

In short, Abdullah is Barisan’s biggest draw card. His common touch and concern for the rural folk since taking over as Prime Minister have made the fortunes of PAS politicians much more unpredictable. 

Umno campaigners are eager and raring to go to the polls – the first in the post-Mahathir era – and to win back the votes of the Malays. Umno’s share of the popular vote declined from 36.5% in 1995 to 29.5% in 1999. 

Umno activists, fired by the surge in confidence and popularity of Abdullah, talked of regaining power in Terengganu and making a serious dent into Kelantan – even naming PAS politicians in Kedah who would lose this time. 

There are plenty of reasons why PAS is worried. Abdullah is the first Malaysian prime minister with a strong Islamic background. His father and grandfather were religious scholars and Abdullah himself has a degree in Islamic studies. 

His religious credentials have been ironically regarded by PAS leaders as potentially damaging to their party. Neither are they happy with Abdullah’s ability to quote liberally from the Quran like they do. 

Abdullah’s soaring approval ratings have come not just from the Malays but also non-Malays. His move to send greeting cards to the Chinese community and Christian leaders during the Chinese New Year and Christmas celebrations was unprecedented. 

Singling out education and the fight against corruption as the two most important issues under his leadership has endeared him to Malaysians of all races. 

He struck a chord among many of us when he said it was vital to clean up the government “for the rakyat and action has to be taken immediately and effectively”. He has ordered the Attorney General’s Chambers to speed up work on several corruption cases, including the one involving the national steel corporation, Perwaja. 

The business community is delighted to see a new Finance Minister II in Tan Sri Nor Mohamad Yackop. A highly respected professional with a clean image, many believe he will bring greater credibility and accountability to the Treasury. His appointment is seen as testimony to Abdullah’s seriousness in ensuring that government spending is kept under control and that contracts and projects are given out in a more transparent manner. 

Having made the right appointments and announcements, Malaysians now want to see how he intends to implement his decisions and policies. 

The reality is that Abdullah needs to consolidate himself politically in Umno and in the government. 

To do that, he needs a huge mandate from Malaysian voters as an endorsement of what he wants to do in matters that are close to his heart – and that of all Malaysians.

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