Tue, Oct 28, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Malaysia's `Mr. Nice Guy' prepares for power

DIFFERENT STYLE Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is expected to take a softer tone with other nations, but he will be pressured by Islamists keen on creating a Muslim state

AFP , KUALA LUMPUR

They call him "Mr. Nice Guy," but Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will need more than charm to fill the big shoes left by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad when he puts on his retirement slippers Friday.

Within a year, probably much sooner, he will face an election, with his main opposition coming from hardline Islamists bent on turning multicultural, economically vibrant Malaysia into an Islamic state.

Mahathir, 77, has been in power for so long that nobody, in the absence of opinion polls, can be quite sure how his departure will affect his United Malays National Organization (UMNO), lynchpin of the ruling National Coalition.

Abdullah, 63, has not made it any easier, refusing to be drawn on how he might try to change Malaysia when he takes over. He has pledged to continue his mentor's policies, but there is no doubt the style will be different.

Mahathir is outspoken and confrontational while Abdullah is seen as quieter, a team player.

Analysts say Abdullah, who has no experience in economic management, is unlikely to change any of Mahathir's business policies which have brought dramatic growth to the country.

His regional foreign policy is likely to focus on enhancing political ties and trade with Southeast Asian nations and Japan, and it is possible he will be less critical of Australia, one of Mahathir's favorite whipping boys.

On the wider international stage he will probably find major trading partners in the US and the EU delighted to have a less prickly customer to deal with.

Domestically, analysts hold out little hope for improvement on human rights issues, for which Mahathir was regularly criticized.

As home minister, a title he held along with deputy prime minister, Abdullah has over the past two years approved the detention without trial of scores of alleged Muslim militants, many suspected of membership in the regional Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network.

Abdullah's major legitimate political challenge will come from the opposition Islamic Party (PAS), a hardline Muslim group which wants to introduce Shariah criminal law, complete with amputations for theft and stoning to death for adultery.

Abdullah has strong religious credentials, having majored in Islamic studies at University Malaya, but this is unlikely to make much impression on the country's more militant Muslims as long as he upholds the secular nature of the Constitution.

Malaysia is sometimes described as the world's most economically successful Islamic state, and Abdullah made it clear in an interview that he intends to keep it that way.

The biggest picture on the wall of his office seemed designed to reinforce Abdullah's reputation as "Mr. Nice Guy" -- showing him bowing low to kiss his mother's hand on the day he was appointed deputy prime minister in 1999.

But in the waiting room visitors were faced with a different image -- Abdullah with clenched fist raised in classic politician's pose.

Whether the kiss or the fist will dominate when he takes over remains to be seen.

Abdullah is candid about the problems he faces in a multicultural society with radical Islamists on one side and an economically-powerful Chinese minority on the other.

Beneath the picture of his humility before his mother is a large tank containing a single flowerhorn fish, a Chinese symbol of good luck.

It is not clear whether it is there simply for its beauty, as a mark of respect to Malaysia's multiculturalism, or as an acknowledgement that he is going to need a bit of luck to step successfully into Mahathir's shoes.

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