Saturday, September 20, 2008

If the PM had only thrown away caution, not chances...

If the PM had only thrown away caution, not chances...

SEPT 20 — A couple of days after the March 8 general elections, a calm Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi sat down with some supporters and his inner circle in Sri Perdana to survey the new political landscape and weigh the prime minister’s options going forward.

Those familiar with the meeting recalled that a confetti of ideas were tossed around on how to regain the initiative from the Anwar Ibrahim-led opposition and to hold off Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and other critics within Umno baying for Abdullah’s blood.

One idea got some traction – the notion that Abdullah had to throw caution to the wind and reform the various institutions in the country.

He had to care less of what his party thought and focus solely on what Malaysians wanted. If he followed this strategy, he would be so popular with Malaysians that his party will not dare to move against him.

Even the downside was attractive – the idea that he would be remembered as a Malaysian Mikhail Gorbachev who lost his power and position doing the right thing.

That seems like sound advice which Abdullah should have followed.

Instead, after appointing Datuk Zaid Ibrahim as the de facto law minister and making some loud noises about reforms, he retreated to his usual patch, worried that he was upsetting the Umno warlords.

Every decision seemed to hang on this outcome – how would Umno react? If there was a remote chance that the party would object to a policy or decision, he postponed making it.

That is why the Judicial Appointment Commission and the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission are waiting to be rescued from limbo.

Ironically, today he is paying the price for being subservient to his party. They have their knives out for him, wanting him to step down as party president much earlier that the mid-2010 transition deadline.

And here is a double dose of irony: Their big beef with Abdullah is that he has not done much since Election 2008.

There is no cavalry of non-party members rushing to put up a human shield around him and protect him from the charge of the Umno rank-and-file.

They believe that he has been given several chances to make good his promise of changing Malaysia, and has not been able to deliver.

Worse yet, they believe that because of his unwillingness to upset Umno warlords, party officials have become more arrogant and insensitive to the feelings of non-Malays, and Malaysia has become a less inclusive country.

That is why Datuk Ahmad Ismail was recalcitrant about his description of Malaysian Chinese as immigrants and squatters.

That is why the late Datuk Zakaria Deros was willing to break every law in the book to build a huge mansion in Klang.

That is why Datuk Seri Khir Toyo was unrepentant about ordering the demolition of a Hindu temple in Selangor a week before Deepavali last year.

So today, Abdullah finds himself in an odd situation: weak inside and outside his party.

And yet it could have been so different if he had followed the strategy of throwing caution to the wind and trying to outflank his party.

In theory at least, his popularity among Malaysians would have been so strong that it would not have been easy for the likes of Dr Mahathir and Tan Sri Muhyddin Yassin to whip up hatred for him among the party rank and file.

In theory at least, he would have been remembered as a great Malaysian who put the principles of multi-racialism, justice, fairness and integrity above everything else.

But for that strategy of outflanking the party to have succeeded, the PM would have had to become a risk taker overnight, someone not afraid of going against convention and the herd.

Perhaps that was asking too much of a man who had become a prisoner to what his party thought.

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