Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reforming Malaysia

Malaysia's economy has long been open to competition, but its political system has not. Last month's opposition-party electoral victories changed all that. Now, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has started to compete for voters' hearts, based on what the people want.

Mr. Abdullah's announcements over the past two weeks are nothing short of remarkable. Last Thursday, he acknowledged "perceived corruption" in the judiciary and announced an independent committee to vet prospective judges. On Monday, he promised to beef up the nation's Anti-Corruption Agency, implement laws to protect whistleblowers, and make changes to government procurement practices – long a source of patronage for his party, the United Malays National Organization, and the coalition it leads, the National Front.

None of these ideas are new. In fact, Mr. Abdullah himself promised better, cleaner governance when he took office in 2004. Malaysia's voters gave him four years to implement his promises. Last month, voters delivered their verdict: They handed opposition parties control of five out of 13 states, up from one – their biggest parliamentary gains since the country's founding.

With that reprimand, Mr. Abdullah now seems to realize that democracy in Malaysia matters. And he's ripped reform ideas straight from the opposition parties' playbooks. Anwar Ibrahim's National Justice Party, for instance, has long advocated judicial reform and the protection of whistleblowers. The new chief minister of Penang, a member of the Democratic Action Party, called for an open tender system for government procurement last month.

A wise leader will always appropriate good ideas, especially ones recently endorsed at the ballot box. Doing so is also a savvy political move for Mr. Abdullah. His standing as head of UMNO was put in question after his party's electoral losses last month. It still is – on Sunday, a former finance minister, Razaleigh Hamzah, said he'd contest for the party leadership.

If the Prime Minister can reposition himself as a reformer who enjoys public support, it will be harder for his internal challengers to unseat him, come the party congress in December. Showing that UMNO can reform is also a chance for Mr. Abdullah to slow the opposition's political momentum at a time when it is still enjoying the aftermath of last month's election victories.

The Prime Minister may also be thinking about his legacy. The first to hold that office after over two decades of rule under Mahathir Mohamad, Mr. Abdullah was seen as a transitional figure who would bring greater freedoms to his country. At first, he did, loosening controls on the press and cracking down on a few corrupt officials. But largely – as last month's vote showed – he has so far failed.

Malaysia needs the reforms now on offer, and fast. Corruption undermines the country's economic competitiveness and its attractiveness as a place to do business. That depresses investment, and employment opportunities for Malaysians. Without a strong judiciary or a free press, the only way citizens feel they can show their discontent is to protest on the streets. Giving Malaysians a justice system they trust would help alleviate some, if not all, of those grievances.

None of these reforms can be implemented overnight, and most will be strongly opposed by UMNO's political machine, which has benefited for years from its opaque patronage system. But the threat of being unseated from office should be a good motivation for the party to take Mr. Abdullah's ideas seriously. It's about time. (Wall Street Journal Asia)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean you take that old dingo's words seriously?

1:17 PM GMT+8  

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