Sun, Nov 02, 2003 - Page 5 News List

PM Abdullah's first day at the office

AP , PENANG, MALAYSIA

Malaysia's new Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is greeted by supporters while surrounded by riot police after arriving in the northern state of Penang yesterday. Abdullah was greeted in his home state by thousands of supporters on his first day in office .

PHOTO: AFP

Malaysia's new leader, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, started his first day in office yesterday with a visit to his home town, where thousands of people gathered to give him a hero's welcome and mark a fresh era.

Mahathir Mohamad, who stepped down on Friday after 22 years in power, began his retirement by flying out for a European vacation.

Abdullah took over as Malaysia's first new prime minister in a generation when Mahathir bowed out after a rule that propelled this former tin- and rubber-producing backwater into the ranks of Southeast Asia's wealthiest, most developed nations.

Officials estimated at least 10,000 people with flags and welcome banners will greet Abdullah and listen to his first public speech as prime minister at an airport in Penang state, about 300km north of Kuala Lumpur.

Abdullah will then be taken in a motorcade that would include thousands of motorcycles to the village where he grew up in a clan of religious leaders and politicians. In the evening, he was due to break the fast with which Muslims mark the holy month of Ramadan with his 79-year-old mother.

Abdullah takes the reins of power on the heels of an international furor that Mahathir sparked by claiming that Jews rule the world.

Earlier this week, the US House of Representatives condemned the remarks, while the US Senate amended a bill to withhold US$1.2 million in military aid from Malaysia until the State Department determines it better promotes religious freedoms, including tolerance of Jews.

Mahathir has downplayed the Senate's action, saying it shows his comments about Jews were true and Malaysia doesn't need US money.

Abdullah, who has promised not to make any major government policy changes, is considered milder than the blunt-spoken Mahathir, an advocate of the developing and Islamic worlds known for his fiery criticism of globalization and US policy in the Middle East.

Abdullah -- dubbed the "Mr Nice Guy" of Malaysian politics -- has so far resisted pressure to name a deputy, saying an announcement would come after Mahathir retires. The coveted post is traditionally a springboard for leadership challenges.

The chief contenders are Najib Razak, the current defense minister and Mahathir's favorite, and Muhyiddin Yassin, the consumer affairs minister.

The new government faces elections within 12 months, and Abdullah faces a big test in leading his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) against a powerful fundamentalist Islamic opposition party.

While the opposition has almost no chance of winning power outright, a poor showing by UMNO would place Abdullah's leadership under great pressure from within the party.

Abdullah, who has a degree in Islamic studies and once worked in the civil service, waded into politics after the death of his father, a pioneer member of the UMNO. He entered parliament in 1978, holding the education, defense and foreign affairs portfolios before becoming Mahathir's deputy.

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