Beyond Tun Razak
Of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s litany of failures, one of the least recognised yet important ones is that through his “back to the kampung base” programme, Abdullah was trying to solve Tun Abdul Razak Hussein’s problem, not his own.
The ground has shifted since Razak assumed the premiership nearly four decades ago in September 1970 but this fact seems to have eclipsed Abdullah.
As the legacies of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-haj were discredited within the Umno circle, despite a short stint as the country’s second Prime Minister, Razak casts a long shadow on successive Umno/Barisan Nasional administrations since his untimely demise in 1976.
Last year, at a conference commemorating Razak, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak made a startling statement that while he was the “biological son” of Razak, Abdullah was Razak’s “political son”.
At the press conference announcing his decision not to contest the Umno presidency, Abdullah remarked that he was the last of Razak’s generation in government, and now “Razak’s son takes over”.
(The fact is that while Abdullah served the government as a civil servant from 1964 and held senior bureaucratic posts during Razak’s administration, Najib entered electoral politics in 1976, two years before Abdullah.)
Nonetheless, it is time for Umno and Malaysia to look beyond Razak’s grand design.
Razak’s legacies in domestic politics are two-fold. Politically, it was Umno’s dominance built upon the vote bank of Malay rural population and agricultural settlers in Felda and similar schemes.
In the field of economics, Razak set out to create a Malay/Bumiputera middle class and elite corps that was dependent on government scholarships, jobs, contracts and licences in the name of the New Economic Policy.
The Abdullah administration runs a two-dimensional programme. On the one hand, Abdullah attempts to get into the good books of the international financial market — Abdullah has the tendency of mistaking financial games with real investment that create jobs — by having policies that look market-friendly and nominally conciliatory to the West.
On the other hand, Abdullah launched a “back to the basics/base” programme and invested considerable political capital and resources onto the rural sector, a constituency neglected by Abdullah’s predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and who revolted against the ruling Umno in the 1999 election.
After being sworn in as Prime Minister on Friday, Oct 31, 2003 and before he addressed Parliament the following Monday, Abdullah visited flood victims in Kedah’s agricultural heartland. Many subsequent public relations moves carried the same message: Abdullah is the man of the kampung folk.
In his first reshuffle of the Cabinet in January 2004, Abdullah appointed his then key supporter Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as the Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, with a hefty budget to play with.
The grand scheme Abdullah had for Malaysia was to carve the country’s rural areas, both on the peninsula and Borneo, into five massive “corridors”.
While the Iskandar project may just work if the government gets its act together to leverage on proximity to Singapore and the huge price differences between the two, the rest are more politically motivated than economically driven.
For instance, credible insiders acknowledged that the Northern Corridor at first by-passed Penang Island, the engine of the northern economy, and was originally planned as an exclusively agricultural endeavour.
Talk about modernising agriculture and doubling the income of farmers and planters by a certain year is at best wishful thinking, if not economically irresponsible.
There are ups and downs in the international prices of commodities and agricultural products, and a layman can see that the moment agriculture is modernised through mechanisation, the less labour is needed.
How will the government then handle the army of excess labour from agricultural modernisation if manufacturing did not grow?
Further, Abdullah wanted to be a Prime Minister for all but quickly retreated to the familiar ground of Umno through resurrecting the New Economic Policy and allowing racist slurs by Umno leaders to go without check.
The fixation with the Razak formula, which rescued Umno from oblivion in the 1970s, is a reflection of the poor grasp of reality by Abdullah and Umno.
Today, more Malays live in urban areas than in the villages. In fact, the underemployment and poverty of, and the poor welfare for, the urban Malays are the real malaise of the contemporary Malaysian economy that eventually will threaten Umno’s survival.
And, in a globalised world, it is impossible to segregate the Malaysian economy from the rest of the world, not to mention isolating a Malay economy from the rest of the country.
March 8 and Permatang Pauh showed the intensity of the urban Malay revolt and its potential, as well as the bitter pill of ignoring “the rest”.
Perhaps it would now take the son of Razak to dismantle his father’s legacy.