by M. Bakri Musa
Prime Minister Abdullah’s decision to resign is wise. That decision is good for him, his party, and most of all, for our nation. I am certain it was not easy for him to reach that decision but in the end he did it, “guided by my conscience” and placing “the interests of the nation above all else.”
I applaud him, especially considering the intense last minute pleas by his many well-meaning supporters. It was a decision that was not expected by many, yours truly included. This is one instance where I am only too happy to acknowledge my misjudgment of the man.
Abdullah’s plaintive admission, “I know I’ve not been doing well; it’s time for someone else to take over,” must come only after the most difficult introspection. To admit to one’s limitations is never easy, especially for a leader, as there are always supplicants and subordinates who are only too willing to filter the harsh reality. Some leaders never get it at all. Saddam Hussein went to the gallows still believing that he was Allah’s gift to the Arabs.
I applaud Abdullah’s wise decision for another important reason. I never underestimate the potential multiplier effect of a single good decision. Properly seized upon, it will lead to many other positive consequences. Already judging from his resignation statement, Abdullah is now all the more committed to reforming the anti-corruption agency and the process of judicial appointments, among others.
Freed of the burden of his political future, and fully aware that these last few months could well determine his legacy, Abdullah will hopefully be more focused.
Abdullah ready set a standard of sorts in the dignified manner in which he announced his stepping down. He made sure that his cabinet colleagues and fellow leaders in the Barisan Nasional coalition hear of his decision first, in private, and directly from him.
When he made his statement, it was a formal affair, surrounded by his cabinet colleagues and fellow UMNO leaders. He also read from a prepared text; this was not the occasion to ad lib. His tone was proper; his body language and emotions displayed appropriate. He did not blame anyone, nor did he express regret. There was no hint of personal disappointment or a sense of being betrayed. Abdullah gave proper due to the serious occasion.
As well he should. The country has been good to him; he had the privilege of serving the highest office in the land, granted only to a lucky few.
The content of his announcement may have surprised many, but not its timing. There was no unexpected statement that would shock the audience and move them to public hysteria. Nor was there uncontrolled sobbing of his supporters, as the embarrassing public spectacle that accompanied Mahathir’s first announcement of his retirement.
When there are no public tears, then the question whether those displays of emotions are genuine does not arise. As we now know from subsequent events, those earlier hysterical displays of affection as shown by the likes of Rafidah Aziz during Mahathir’s announcement of his retirement were a fraud. Those histrionics were more for public consumption rather than genuine expressions from the heart.
In his resignation statement, Abdullah wisely avoided anointing his successor. He expressed only the hope that Najib would take over, and reemphasized that point in case it was missed. This was not a lukewarm endorsement for Najib or an attempt at getting even with him, rather Abdullah’s correct reading of our constitution.
The leadership of our land has to be earned. It is not your private heirloom to be passed on to a member of the next generation who strikes your fancy. Abdullah is correct in reminding everyone that Najib first has to win UMNO’s presidency.
Abdullah showed great wisdom, besides not being presumptuous, in not even hinting who Najib should pick as his deputy should he win UMNO’s presidency.
Abdullah’s Five Goals
To his credit Abdullah articulated five goals he wished to accomplish in the remaining few months of his tenure. I would be satisfied if he could accomplish two, or at most three. Apart from strengthening the Anti-Corruption Agency and setting up the Judicial Appointment Commission, Malaysians would be satisfied if he were to establish an effective social safety net.
Those three objectives are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are closely related. If we have a judicial system that has the respect and confidence of the people, that would go a long way towards reducing corruption. And by eradicating corruption, then we would have enough resources to devote to helping the needy. We have currently wonderful programs for the poor, at least they are on paper, but because of endemic corruption and abusive political patronage, those programs suffer through considerable leakages.
There is one major reform, supported by many in UMNO, that Abdullah could initiate. That is, remove the current onerous burden placed on challengers to senior party leaders. Instead, relax the rules such that anyone with the minimal number of nominations by individuals, not divisions, could compete. When no candidate could secure a majority vote, then have a run-off election between the top two vote getters.
Abdullah’s calls for a convention of his Barisan coalition parties “to improve inter-racial and inter-religious relations.” I respectfully suggest a more modest and readily achievable goal: focus on improving UMNO. Leave the coalition alone. A clean, strong and effective UMNO will mean an equally clean, strong and effective Barisan.
Such a simple and easily implemented reform initiative would effectively dent the corrosive powers of the party’s warlords that have created the cesspool of money politics. By removing this onerous nominating barrier, the divisional meetings currently underway this month would become mute, at least as far as nominating candidates are concerned. Perhaps then those meetings could become more meaningful with members using these opportunities to discuss substantive policy matters instead of trying to create camps around personalities. That would also elevate the deliberative levels of those meetings to the benefit of the members and UMNO.
Only by opening up the nominating process and encouraging as wide a field of candidates as possible, could UMNO attract and produce its own Barack Obama. All Malaysians, not just UMNO members, would then benefit.
Those four objectives, three for the nation and one for UMNO, are well within Abdullah’s reach. Focus on them, and Abdullah would be able to redeem his leadership. That would be a legacy worth striving for.