While Abdullah Ahmad Badawi should be commended for his 'promising' start as the nation's fifth prime minister, it is still too early to pass judgement on his nascent administration.
While, I support his more restrained and consensus building style of politics that has endeared him to many Malaysians, I have yet to see any substantive policy decisions to remedy and repair some of the excesses of his predecessor Dr Mahathir Mohamad's 22 years of concentrated power at the helm of the executive.
Abdullah should rightly be praised for extolling the need for greater transparency and accountability in government, enhancing the efficiency and delivery system of the public services, eradicating wide-spread corruption both in government and the private sector and reforming the police force to check its growing decline and unpopularity with the public. But it is unfortunate that he has not made a single policy statement on democratic and political reform since taking office.
There is growing unease within the government and Umno over Abdullah's ambitious anti-corruption drive and people are beginning to question whether he has the political will and wide-based support within the party to continue with this crusade.
I agree with commentators that todate, only insignificant political deadwood and failed businessmen have been produced in court by the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) on corruption charges.
We have yet to see the so-called 'big fish' being hauled up from both within the party and the government or from the private sector who benefitted the most from the previous administration's blatant abuse of power and corrupt practices.
In fact there are still serving cabinet ministers, former chief ministers and senior civil servants close to the former prime minister who have yet to be charged despite the overwhelming evidence of corrupt practices involving them directly and indirectly as evidenced by the leak of classified investigation papers from the ACA and the Attorney General's Chambers, readily available on the Internet, that points to their culpability.
What is equally shocking is that most of them will be re-contesting in the upcoming general election. So much for the new prime minister's anti-corruption drive! I regret that Abdullah's so far timid response to these pressing issues will only convince many that after the 'window dressing' is over, its going to be 'business as usual' for the new government.
I think most Malaysians can read between the lines that the half-measures taken so far are meant to influence them into thinking that major changes are underway although, in reality. it is the same policy of dangling a carrot before the electorate in the hope that they will respond by voting the ruling party back into power.
The same was done by Mahathir before the 1982 general election and as a result of the trust placed in him by a beguiled electorate, he went on to rule with an iron fist for the next two decades which saw the systematic undermining of every independent institution in the constitutional framework that provided checks and balances.
These included the utter disregard for the rule of law and an independent judiciary, the serious erosion of civil liberties and human rights, total control of the press through repressive laws, widespread corruption, nepotism and cronyism, and the subjugation of the legitimate opposition. I doubt that we should pay such a high price again for giving the ruling party huge majorities in successive elections.
While I concede that Mahathir did some good for the country notably in terms of economic and social development, raising the profile of the nation abroad and instilling a greater sense of national pride and patriotism, it is unfortunate that he achieved these successes through the concentration of power in an all-powerful executive that was largely unaccountable and immune from both criticism and prosecution despite its excesses.
He further sacrificed democratic traditions and values on the altar of political expediency for his own self-preservation when faced with unwelcome challenges. In the process, Malaysia has become a country devoid of established and accepted norms of a civil society while aspiring for developed nation status.
Here, Abdullah is right when he says that we are a nation with first world infrastructure and a third world mentality. Sadly, much of this retardation in the societal development of the nation is a direct consequence of Mahathir's elitist policies that only benefitted a few at the expense of many competent, credible, intelligent and viable alternatives.
Despite his cult status within the party and the government controlled media, it would be a political gamble to wheel Mahathir out for this general election given the fact that he has been the target of the opposition's collective dislike, to put it mildly, and a unifying figure for those who resent his excesses in office, notably over the Anwar Ibrahim issue.
Far from attracting new support for the ruling party, the much maligned and 'discredited' figure of Mahathir could unleash a torrent of hostility and anger from certain sections of the electorate notably rural Malays and the educated middle class.
I am appalled that Abdullah can tongue in cheek say that the Anwar factor is no longer relevant for the coming polls or that it's a problem between Mahathir and Anwar or that he can't get involved and it's a matter for the police and court to decide.
Mahathir's statement that the people now accept what was done to Anwar as correct is self-deception at best from a person so heavily implicated in what was and is by far, possibly the biggest political conspiracy seen in any democratic society for a long time.
If indeed the prisoner in Sungai Buloh is not a factor or no longer relevant, it would be a major coup for the BN if the government released him on bail before the elections. That would certainly take the wind out of the opposition's campaign and spell certain death for Keadilan.
Instead, he is still denied bail despite his grave medical condition, and more telling perhaps is his undeserved reputation as being the only prisoner in modern times to have had every conceivable appeal and application made on his behalf dismissed, as if scripted, by a highly compromised judiciary!
As a government that talks about a 'level playing field' in trade matters, this principle should also be extended to politics as well. Alas, this is not the case.
Even under a 'promising' Abdullah, we get the shortest campaign period since independence, the total misuse of the government machinery and media by the caretaker government, no access to public broadcasting for the opposition, a news black-out by the private media whose owners are beholden to the ruling party, the continued ban on public rallies and limited police permits for opposition ceramah s while the ruling party is allowed an unlimited number of 'meet the people sessions.'
The police brutality that ensues whenever there are peaceful protests by the opposition and non-governmental organisations was seen but recently outside Bukit Aman during a gathering by NGO activists. To top it all you now have the u-turn by the Election Commission on the status of key Keadilan leaders who have been disqualified from contesting despite their appeals still pending in various courts.
Malaysians are expecting a great deal of change from Abdullah in order to undo the excesses of the previous administration. This may be a tall order for any political party but the BN has always prided itself on having a 'brilliant track record, a vision for the nation and the interests of the people at heart.'
If this is the case, Abdullah should have the political will to bring about changes and for this he is entitled to a big mandate if he can give the voters an assurance that he can be trusted both before and after the elections.
However, if Abdullah is only bent on building his power base with a hope of neutralising challenges and dissent within his own party, then the voter needs to think twice before giving the BN another landslide victory.
Past experiences such as the Operasi Lalang in 1987, the dismissal of Lord President Tun Salleh Abbas and Supreme Court judges in 1988, the constitutional crises with the rulers in 1983 and again in the 1990s and above all the Anwar episode in 1998, clearly indicate a need to be wary of electing a government with a huge parliamentary majority lest we end up with an elected dictatorship that has scant regard for democratic principles and the rule of law.
The Malaysian voter at present is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand you have the BN with a 'proven track record' in terms of economic and social progress but with an appalling one in terms of defending democratic freedom and the rule of law, human rights and fighting corruption, nepotism and cronyism.
On the other hand, there is an untested and disunited opposition that has suffered at the hands of an oppressive BN government but has managed to survive and thrive on issues of concern to the voters while not having a clear and cogent set of policies that is acceptable for governing a nation.
The Malaysian voter has two well-known attributes, namely a short memory and a fear of change. At the end, they will opt for maintaining the status quo.
My own advice is to return the BN with a comfortable majority for the sake of Abdullah given that his successor Najib Tun Razak is likely to take the country back to the old ways of the Mahathir administration, abuses and all.
Perhaps the new prime minister should be given a chance to redeem the country for ordinary Malaysians once again and move away from the politics of elitism and corruption. But he also needs a strong opposition to keep him on his toes and to safeguard our hard fought for freedoms and fundamental rights.
The proverbial checks and balances must be in place. Voters should not be foolish enough to believe the BN when it talks about the need for a zero opposition to be replaced by their own internal opposition - the very idea itself negates democratic principles and is nothing but a recipe for a single party state.
The BN will be comfortable with 150 seats out of the 219 seats to be contested; the rest can go to opposition parties. The BN has matured enough to the level where it no longer needs the luxury of a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Given the present state of development in Malaysia, the electorate should be wise enough to vote in a stable government with an adequate majority but not one that will abuse its majority to protect its own self-interests as the BN has ably demonstrated since 1969.