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Last Updated:  Thursday, 6 March, 2003, 09:32 GMT
Malaysians ready for regime change

By Jonathan Kent
BBC, Kuala Lumpur

Malaysians woke up on Thursday to a foretaste of life without their prime minister of more than 21 years.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 77, who has ruled the country since 1981, is taking a two month holiday and leaving his deputy Abdullah Badawi in charge.

In October Dr Mahathir will relinquish power again, this time for good.

On the streets of Kuala Lumpur people seemed to be almost completely unmoved by the change.

Mahathir Mohamad
Dr Mahathir has overseen the country's transformation
"The leadership goes on, that's it. No one's indispensable," one market trader said.

"There won't be many changes, probably Abdullah Badawi will put more of his own men in," chipped in a pensioner carrying his bags of shopping home.

To most Malaysians, the 63-year-old deputy prime minister is a familiar face, a fixture in government since the 1980s.

"I suppose that he's been groomed for a while, there probably won't be any major changes," was the conclusion of one lady.

Even the younger generation, most of whom have no memory of anyone other than Dr Mahathir in charge, are taking it in their stride.

"I think he's had his thing, he's done a good job long enough. I think the country's ready to move on. I am," a young woman told me.

When Dr Mahathir announced his immediate resignation at his party's annual conference last June it was met with a wailing and a gnashing of teeth.

An hour later Abdullah Badawi was able to announce to an emotional but relieved audience that Dr Mahathir would not be shedding his political coil quite so soon.

It has helped that the country has had eight months already to get used to the idea of life without Dr M, as he is often referred to, and there are still another eight months to go before the final curtain falls on the Mahathir era.

He will have ruled Malaysia for almost half of its post-independence life.

Under his leadership, the country has been transformed from a backwater economy producing raw materials like rubber and tin, into one of the most ferocious of the Asian tiger economies, albeit one that has pulled its claws in since the Asian economic crisis of 1997.

In many ways he has made Malaysia in his own image, reflecting his mixture of political credos - capitalism, Islam and a Malay nationalism that over the years has evolved into a Malaysian nationalism, embracing the country's large Chinese, Indian and tribal minorities.

Style matters

Few are looking to Abdullah Badawi to set off fireworks in the next couple of months. He has not survived for as long as this by upstaging his boss.

Abdullah Badawi
Is the soft-spoken Abdullah Badawi too nice?
Even after October's handover few expect him to provide Malaysia with excitement - more a safe pair of hands.

While policies are not expected to change radically, the style will.

Dr Mahathir is confrontational and outspoken, Abdullah Badawi is consensual and soft spoken.

Whereas Dr Mahathir made his name in politics lashing out at the Chinese and defending the interests of the Malays, Abdullah Badawi cut his political teeth rebuilding relations between Malaysia's ethnic groups after the race riots of May 1969.

In many ways he is the embodiment of Malaysian multi-culturalism.

He is a devout Muslim from a family of distinguished religious teachers. Even the Islamist opposition accord him a degree of respect for his religious learning.

Yet he also reaches out to non-Malays. He appears at their religious festivals. His wife is half Japanese and has written a book about the Nonya kebaya, clothing worn by early Chinese settler women in Malaysia.

Nevertheless, there are fears - expressed privately - that Abdullah Badawi could fall prey to one of his many ambitious political rivals.

He's not strong enough, he doesn't have enough supporters, the doubters say.

When I met Abdullah Badawi and put it to him that many think he is too nice, he gently refuted the suggestion.

"They say I'm too nice, and then when I shut people away under the Internal Security Act they say I'm not nice," he said.

Dr Mahathir's deputy has not baulked at using Malaysia's widely criticised security laws to lock up suspected Islamic militants in recent months.

More than 70 are being detained without charge or trial. Malaysia is waiting to see whether Abdullah Badawi's velvet glove truly conceals an iron fist.




SEE ALSO:
Malaysia's Mahathir to quit
25 Jun 02 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
25 Jun 02 |  Asia-Pacific


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