The new Prime Minister covered impressive ground in his first week in office. He has also sent out some very powerful and significant signals, writes JOCELINE TAN.
THE buka puasa dinner of the BBC (Backbenchers Club) last Monday acquired a rather special ambience this year. The reason: the new Prime Minister was attending.
The guest list, normally confined to Muslim MPs and Parliament staff, had been extended to non-Muslim MPs as well as Barisan Nasional assemblymen. Guests began arriving a little after 6pm and many of the Muslim MPs had changed from their suits into traditional baju Melayu.
Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi arrived wearing a rose-pink baju and matching striped kain samping.
After dinner, the Muslims adjourned for maghrib prayers – led by the Prime Minister in what the Malays would describe as “mengimamkan solat maghrib,” sitting with both legs modestly folded to one side and his hands held up in adulation.
“Pak Lah does this all the time. He leads whenever we have prayers in his house. But this is the first time he has done it in Parliament as the PM,” said Datuk Zulhasnan Rafique, MP for Wangsa Maju and BBC secretary.
The Prime Minister matched his speech to the somewhat relaxed mood of the evening when he referred to the BBC as a PIBG (parent-teacher association) and its chairman Datuk Mohd Zin Mohamed, the MP for Shah Alam, as the headmaster.
But it was not all lightness, for Abdullah again stressed what he had mentioned in his inaugural address in Parliament the same morning: MPs must uphold the democratic tradition in their role as legislators.
Earlier that morning, Malaysia's fifth Prime Minister had sent out a very powerful message: he intends to lead this government with integrity, efficiency and fairness.
The first portion of the speech expressed gratitude to his predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and all he had contributed. Then he spelt out his own ideas, priorities and concerns.
By choosing Parliament for his maiden speech, he had emphasised his belief in the institution of government.
It has been a while since principles of democracy, honesty, incorruptibility, dedication and tolerance have been articulated in such an uplifting manner.
“The speech gave me a great sense of renewal. I have always been for a transparent government,” said Tambun MP Datuk Husni Hanadzlah.
“In any system, rapid development creates uneven wealth and the corruption of values seeps in. It’s something which many ordinary people are unhappy about although they don’t talk openly. Now the PM talks about it and it gives us hope.”
It was also the speech of a God-fearing man for many parts of it indicated that Abdullah held himself accountable not only to the people but also the Almighty. Many in Parliament noticed how he struggled with his emotions each time he mentioned the name of Allah.
In fact, his speech ended with: “To you, Allah, your humble servant turns for guidance and inspiration, strength and fortitude, patience and determination.”
Abdullah’s first week has been a back-to-back schedule, focused on engaging the key stakeholders. Parliament on Monday; National Operations Council on Tuesday; Cabinet on Wednesday; mentris besar, chief ministers and Umno supreme council on Thursday; and the Barisan Nasional supreme council on Friday.
By week’s end he had basically outlined what the government would be like under him and that he would proceed to build on the success of his predecessor.
All said and done, he has traversed his first week with flying colours.
But hint of the new Prime Minister’s style had been evident right from his first official duty on Sunday, the day after he returned home to visit his mother and pray at his father’s grave in Kepala Batas.
His entourage had arrived in Rantau Panjang, a padi-growing kampung on the northern edge of Seberang Prai, a little after 9am on Sunday.
Stretches of barren fields of rotting plants were a sad reminder of the devastation of last month’s floods and it was significant that Abdullah’s first official deed had been to make sure that aid reached those who had suffered losses.
He knew it was important that the farmers begin replanting as soon as possible or else they would be hard-pressed in a few months time and that is how poverty begins.
“That’s Pak Lah’s style. He has not forgotten people although he is now up there. I think he is telling us that without the people’s support, no matter how great you are, you are nothing,” said Umno Youth exco member Datuk Norza Zakaria.
His style is also reminiscent of another great Malaysian Prime Minister, Tun Razak Hussein – making sure the government reaches out to the people and of not losing touch with the grassroots.
And it did not matter to Abdullah that Rantau Panjang has a considerable PAS presence, as evident from the large number of women donning the tudung labuh, a conservatively-styled tudung that drapes the head down to the thighs.
His next stop was Kuala Ketil in Kedah, also to distribute aid, especially grain and livestock assistance, to flood-hit farmers. It was meant to be a no-frills event but the Kedah side simply could not resist giving him a grand welcome.
“We are proud this is the second state he is visiting,” said state secretary Datuk Wira Ku Nahar Ku Ibrahim.
They literally rolled out the red carpet which stretched from the main road, down a side-street and all the way to the field where he addressed the waiting crowd.
Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister Datuk Paduka Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir cancelled all his programmes in Kulim Bandar Baru to be at the receiving line and Agriculture Minister Datuk Effendi Nowawi gave the event his personal touch.
The crowd cheered and clapped in approval each time Abdullah was referred to as “Perdana Menteri kita.”
“They all want to see him. Someone as resilient as Pak Lah, making it to the top after all that he has been through – that's why they are thrilled for him,” said lawyer and Kedah Puteri chief Suraya Yaakob.
Kuala Ketil is a conservative farming community in the district of Baling. The deluge had been terrible.
Idris Bakar, 70, one of several imams sitting in a group patiently awaiting Abdullah’s arrival, related that the waters covered the roof of his village mosque.
“Everything was damaged,” he said, shaking his head.
The weather-beaten Idris is also Kedah's most successful livestock farmer. He managed to move his cattle to higher ground but other farmers were less fortunate.
Hence, Abdullah’s visit, coming so soon after his elevation to the PM’s office, touched them where it really mattered.
Another imam, Abdul Samad Mat Hassan, also 70, said the flood waters around his house had risen “this high,” placing a hand well over his turbaned head. His durian plants were inundated.
His mosque, Masjid Kuala Bakong, is located in a PAS stronghold where Taib Azamuddin, the former chief imam of Masjid Negara and now PAS MP for Baling, holds sway.
“Pak Lah is the son of a tok guru and educated as an ulama. I see many people changing their minds about PAS after this,” Samad said.
The ground reception for Abdullah everywhere he went last weekend was exhilarating. People were ecstatic not only about welcoming a new Prime Minister but also because they seemed to feel that a new and different era was dawning.
The fact that Abdullah visited Rantau Panjang and Kuala Ketil, areas where PAS has a strong footing, was very meaningful.
It suggested that he did not discriminate PAS supporters nor was he apprehensive about this party that claimed to be about Islam.
“It also shows he is very sure about his place among the Malay grassroots,” said Tariman Karsono, an elderly Umno branch head from a nearby kampung.
Most of all, Abdullah’s clarion call for Malaysians to work with him rather than for him has been well received. The smooth transition has been followed by confidence and optimism in the new Prime Minister.