Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has established the direction for his administration and pledges to deliver what he has promised, writes JOCELINE TAN.
DATUK Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was his usual genial self as he stepped out of his gleaming jet-black Proton Perdana, beaming broad smiles to those waiting to welcome him.
The event was a meeting with senior civil servants at the National Institute of Public Administration in Bukit Kiara and the Prime Minister was to deliver a key speech.
He had been looking forward to it for some time and during the Cabinet meeting earlier in the morning, he had asked his ministers to be present. As such there was almost a full turnout by the Cabinet, plus a few mentris besar.
Minutes into Abdullah's speech, those seated in the spacious hall quickly realised why Abdullah had placed such emphasis on the event.
The speech was a powerful yet eloquent elaboration of his hopes, direction, ideas and expectations for a world-class civil service which he said the Malaysian civil sector had the potential for.
Abdullah has, from day one of his administration, placed great emphasis on the institution of government.
A strong and capable political leadership is central to a nation's well-being but the mainstay of government is still the civil service and his intention is to have civil servants perform to the fullest of their abilities.
He knows this is crucial because the policy initiatives he has laid out in his first few months in office can only see fruition with the full commitment of the one million-strong civil service.
Several days later, a number of those present that evening were still talking about the way he concluded his speech, which was telecast live over RTM.
He had said: “There is no point talking about good leadership to senior civil servants if the political leaders themselves do not have good work ethics. If political leaders are corrupt or negligent in their work, how can they expect those under them to serve well?”
His next statement drew a burst of applause from the floor: “Political leaders in my administration will show good example in carrying out their duties. There is no place in my administration for political leaders who do not do what they say.”
The message sank in.
Said one senior minister days later: “There we were sitting alongside the civil servants who have to answer to us and the PM tells us how to behave; you need a lot of guts to say something like that.”
Abdullah was sworn in as the fifth Prime Minister on Oct 31 and his people-oriented style, respect for the institutions of government and determination to give attention to what he calls the software part of development have by now become familiar hallmarks of his administrative priorities.
He intends to complement his predecessor's success in developing first-class infrastructure with a first-class mentality among the people.
Comparisons with his predecessor have been inevitable but it is clear by now that Abdullah, while full of admiration and respect for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, is very much his own man, with his own ideas on constructing the national agenda.
He is a consensus-builder, he believes in consultation and engagement and can be tactful yet firm and tough. His religious credentials are enviable and his reputation as a clean politician is quite unrivalled.
These traits have come through in many of his initiatives and decisions.
For instance, the appointment of a new Inspector-General of Police just days after he came into power showed he was unafraid of tough decisions.
His lightning visits to civil service “hot spots,” namely the police and immigration departments, were part of his determination to see an improvement in the delivery system of the government.
His recent announcement on the setting up of the Special Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police is an important acknowledgement of the immense public concern for safety and security issues and of the need for greater professionalism among the law enforcers.
Abdullah's recent move at golf diplomacy with Singapore has brought about a new and quiet confidence in how Malaysia will interact with its southern neighbour.
As he put it during a special session with top media bosses: “I have no problems working with Singapore. It's not a question of being tough or soft. It is one of creating an atmosphere where we can sit down and talk.”
Abdullah has almost completed what has been termed his familiarisation tour of the Asean states.
But he is such a familiar face in Asean, having been Foreign Minister, that everywhere he went he was greeted like an old friend.
In Cambodia, for instance, he was received by some 3,500 people at the airport, and when he left late in the evening, there were still some 1,000 people lining the streets to see him off.
“There have been a lot of good and positive things coming from the PM. It's up to us to help him see it through,” said Umno politician and Bank Simpanan Nasional chairman Datuk Azim Zabidi.
Datuk Annuar Zaini, who has known Abdullah since the 1970s, was present at several Chinese New Year gatherings that the Prime Minister attended.
“I was listening carefully to the speeches made at these functions and I realised that the speakers would, without fail, describe Pak Lah as bersih (clean) as well as mesra (friendly).
“I think this is how a large seg ment of the rakyat perceive him,” said Annuar.
But, he added, beneath the amiable exterior lay a firm and disciplined character. “Believe me, he has his tough side when it comes to matters of principle.”
Among many Malays, it is Abdullah's ability to articulate the religion in a way they can relate to which has most impressed them.
Many of them were fascinated at the sight of him leading the prayers although, as Wangsa Maju MP Datuk Zulhasnan Rafique pointed out, it is something he has done for a large part of his life.
“He is a decent, God-fearing man who sees his position as a responsibility to Allah,” said Annuar.
The issues that Abdullah has taken on — corruption, public accountability and cutting red tape to name a few — have found resonance among a wide spectrum of society.
The minor Cabinet reshuffle last month reinforced a number of Abdullah's priorities.
His appointment of Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop as Finance Minister II won the approval of the financial and business community whereas Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin's move to the Agriculture Ministry signalled the government's renewed intentions for the sector.
Abdullah took his time to name his deputy and his choice of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has gone down well with the people.
Many had thought he would try to balance Najib's perceived political strength with that of the other contender for the post, Umno vice-president Muhyiddin.
But it is apparent that Abdullah has no intention of playing one man off the other as otherwise he would have given Muhyiddin a blue-chip portfolio like International Trade and Industry, Finance or Home Affairs.
He rewarded Muhyiddin but not to the extent of giving his supporters unrealistic expectations about the top post.
Abdullah does not wish to see a repeat of the destructive party rivalry that led to the Umno debacle of 1986.
He does not want to be distracted by party infighting but intends to use his time at the top to focus on the national agenda and for the good of the country.
The first hundred days of a political administration has often been regarded as the honeymoon phase. It is, in a sense —for the period is also a time of getting to know the political leader.
Abdullah has not wasted a single day of this period. Almost every week has seen him unveiling yet another aspect of what he plans to do, defining his ideas and prerogatives and, generally, getting on with the task of running the country.
At times, his schedule in the past three months has seemed less a honeymoon than an endless work week.
Even during a short break last month, he had rushed over to Kampung Baru when fire razed dozens of homes in the urban Malay settlement.
He cancelled a state visit to Myanmar because he was down with flu but, otherwise, he has carried on even as his wife underwent treatment for cancer.
The death of his mother, Datuk Kailan Hassan, on Monday was also a sober and poignant day for this devoted son.
Abdullah will start his state-level visits soon, a move that many see as the start of a build-up to an early general election.
He is seeking a fresh and strong mandate that will enable him to move full steam ahead on the policy initiatives that are now in place.