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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Malaysian "Mexican Stand-Off"

A Malaysian “Mexican Stand off”

The present tiff between former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir and his successor could have only three possible outcomes. One or the other could prevail, or the controversy could result in what we in California would call a “Mexican standoff.” This third ending is unlikely considering the personalities of the protagonists. Nonetheless it would be illuminating to speculate what would be the possible consequences of each ending.

Mahathir’s Victory

Consider first if Mahathir were to prevail. The direct impact would be felt not only by Abdullah but also his ministers and senior UMNO leaders, especially those like Rafidah Aziz, Najib Razak, and Nazri Aziz who owe their rise to Mahathir but who are now consumed with vilifying the man in their own uniquely vulgar style. Rafidah especially, for she was the matron, the so-called “iron lady,” who cried uncontrobaly on stage when Mahathir unexpectedly announced his resignation not too long ago.

The consequence to Abdullah would be obvious. He would be an ineffective “lame duck” leader. Many would argue that would make him no different than what he is already now. Well, even the lame could be mortally wounded, and Mahathir’s victory would do that to Abdullah. He would be out, whether voluntarily or through open challenge. Either way it would not be pretty.

UMNO is a big party with a long and distinguished tradition, its recent soiling with money politics and crony capitalism notwithstanding. The fate of any individual regardless of how important never meant much to the party. UMNO successfully withstood the abrupt resignation of its founder leader Datuk Onn and the forced withdrawal of Tunku and Hussein Onn as Prime Ministers and thus UMNO leaders. In the 1980s, it held up to the combined assault of its former leaders Hussein, Tunku, and Tengku Razaleigh. Hussein and Tunku died without ever returning to the fold; Razaleigh saw the wisdom of repenting.

If UMNO could withstand the downfall of those giants, it could easily brush off the stumbling of a dwarf.

Under normal circumstances, if Abdullah were to lose, those ministers who currently are his fervent supporters through their vociferous vilifying of Mahathir would also have to leave. This however, is Malaysia, and those ministers have not exactly demonstrated any class act; hence their chances of doing so would be nil. Watch instead for them to grovel themselves anew to his successor in order to retain their positions. They would, without skipping a beat, be demonizing Abdullah, just as they did to Mahathir. Such are their true being.

If Abdullah’s successor were to retain these characters, it would be a clear indication that he or she lacks something between the ears, much less political sense.

Mahathir Not Prevailing

Mahathir’s not prevailing does not mean an automatic victory for Abdullah. A strong leader becomes stronger upon surviving a challenge; a weak leader continues to be so, and become even more vulnerable. Abdullah would be battered, and a battered lame leader is an easy prey for other would-be leaders, ambitious or otherwise. The world of politics is no different from the world of animals.

Even if Abdullah were to perceive his bout with Mahathir as a momentous victory, that would not necessarily invigorate Abdullah. He would continue to be asleep at meetings, defer tough decisions, and continually plead, “I do not know!”

That sucking hissing sound emanating from Abdullah is not an expression of victory or satisfaction, but a giant sigh of relief at having survived a close call.

As for Mahathir, nothing would have changed for him. Contrary to the “touching” concerns about his dignity by the likes of Rafidah, the Tun would continue conducting himself as he always has, by being direct and frontal. He would become an even more trenchant critic of the Abdullah Admnistration. He would stay put as advisor to Proton and Petronas, daring Abdullah to remove him.

The media, local and foreign, would continue to attend his press conferences not because he is controversial but because he has something sensible to say and able to articulate it well. Not being elected a delegate would not faze him; UMNO had treated him worse before.

Yes, Mahathir is now much older, but the God Lord has been kind to him; he looks fit. Put Mahathir and Abdullah side by side, and a foreigner would have a hard time telling who succeeded whom!

It is not for the likes of Nazri, Rafidah and other water boys and girls to ascertain Mahathir’s legacy; that is for historians. There will be plenty of time for that.
Abdullah is not without his stubborn streak. If he persists, he risks distracting the nation, and at a time when it could least afford it, what with the Ninth Malaysia Plan barely rolling off.

If Abdullah were to expose his vindictive side and do an “Anwar” on Mahathir on a scale much uglier than the earlier pepper spray episode in Kota Baru, as for example by using the Internal Security Act, that could easily backfire. Besides how would that square with the “Mr. Nice Guy” image he is carefully cultivating, not to mention the Islam Hadhari spirit.

No Joy for Non-Malays (and Malays)

Contrary to the chauvinistic chanting of opportunistic leaders in UMNO ready to exploit any crisis to their own political advantage, there is no particular joy for non-Malays (or even Malays for that matter) to this internal leadership imbroglio. Far from giving non-Malays and the opposition an opportunity to manipulate, as proclaimed by the still green Deputy UMNO Youth leader, they have much to lose with this destructive distraction. Investors local and foreign would not take kindly to any perceived leadership uncertainty. A “Mexican standoff” would do that.

Such insulting assumptions younger UMNO leaders have of their non-Malay fellow citizens reflect the shallowness of their thinking, which in turn is indicative of their thin intellect, despite their having attended august learning institutions.
Resolving this crisis between Mahathir and Abdullah does not mean a simplistic “kiss and make up” meeting between the two, as many UMNO simpletons are urging them to do. It would require addressing the fundamental question of leadership, or lack of one, on the part of Abdullah.

For Abdullah, the central question is (to rephrase Reagan’s famous campaign spiel): Are Malaysians better off under his administration then they were under Mahathir’s. Abdullah has yet to address, let alone answer that plaintive query.


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