2006: Asians To Watch

December 28, 2005
Updated:2005-12-27 12:49:19 MYT

As part of a series on top Asian newsmakers, The Straits Times correspondents in Malaysia profile 10 people to watch in the country next year. This is the fourth in the series. Next week, the team in Indonesia will file its reports.

All Eyes On PM Abdullah As He Fulfills Election Vows

2006 could well be the year that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi comes into his own.

After two years of tidying up the excesses inherited from Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s administration, the Malaysian leader recently acknowledged that he needed to start delivering on some of his promises.

Those made during last year’s general election, when his ruling party won by a landslide, are at the top of his list. Thus, all eyes will be on the Ninth Malaysia Plan, the blueprint for the country’s development for the next five years. It will be unveiled early next year.

Besides the usual programmes aimed at eradicating poverty and improving infrastructure, the plan is likely to map out the country’s direction, especially in how it balances the interests of Malays and non-Malays.

While Malaysia is not likely to turn into a freewheeling democracy, more political freedoms are expected.

Datuk Seri Abdullah has been more willing than his predecessor to listen to opposing views. He has also allowed debate over a host of sensitive issues, from religion to Malay rights, to help shape government policy.

He has also done what was impossible under Tun Mahathir’s administration: He has improved ties with Singapore, the United States and Australia.

But perhaps the most overlooked achievement of his administration so far has been its management of political and economic reforms.

The Premier has spent the past two years addressing all that is wrong with the country, from corruption to abuses of power and the lack of political freedom.

Criticism and dissenting views have crept into local newspapers, which had been kept under a tight rein by Tun Mahathir.

At times, even some ministers seemed to have been publicly at loggerheads with one another.

Some political analysts see recent events as evidence that Datuk Seri Abdullah could be losing his grip on power.

“There is a certain sense of messiness in the country,” a senior editor of one major newspaper told The Straits Times.

Critics point to the continuing controversy over police abuse of powers in subjecting female detainees to doing squats in the nude.

They see the public debate over human rights as unnecessary, with suggestions that it could lead to racial tension.

But Datuk Seri Abdullah has been adamant that he would wait for a report from an independent inquiry to be delivered next year before the government decides what to do over the issue.

Notwithstanding the critics, Malaysians seem convinced that the Prime Minister’s Mr Clean image is genuine.

At the recent Pengkalan Pasir by-election in opposition-held Kelantan, it was clear that he made the difference in a close contest.

UMNO candidate Hanafi Mamat was initially seen as trailing the opposition, but he went on to win by 134 votes after Datuk Seri Abdullah turned up to support him.

Mahathir The Mouth Or Mouse Next Year?

If there is one thing this year has shown about former premier Tun Mahathir Mohamad, it is that his biting wit is still very much intact.

When he retired in 2003, he had promised to keep his peace. But that ended as soon as he suspected his legacy was being questioned.

Tun Mahathir, 80, broke his silence, loudly, when his cherished Proton, the national car company, was made to face what he saw as unfair competition from foreign cars.

The drama kept Malaysians glued to the news for months as accusations and counter-accusations flew.

By then, it was also no secret that Tun Mahathir had plenty of other grouses about the new administration, besides that over Proton. He spoke frequently about his grievances in private conversations that soon became public.

In particular, he was said to be upset about the snide remarks that rampant corruption and over-spending during his tenure had created problems for the new administration.

At a talk organised by a private think tank on Dec 10, the eve of the ASEAN Summit, Tun Mahathir openly criticised several policies of the government, albeit in fairly temperate language.

Singapore was not spared. Raising the issue of a proposed bridge to replace the Causeway, he said sarcastically that “the present government plays golf and pats each other on the back. But after two years, the bridge is still not built.”

So far, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has not reacted to his predecessor’s constant needling.

But that may be changing.

When Tun Mahathir criticised government policy at the thinktank talk, the New Straits Times carried a quick rebuttal.

Each major point made by the former premier was countered by a minister or official. The report was also prefaced by a preamble that recalled the former prime minister’s pledge not to interfere in the new administration.

That was seen as a direct challenge to Tun Mahathir and prompted speculation that he was skating on thin ice.

Some observers believe he runs the risk of an open attack by his former colleagues, and even the media, if he continues to take on the present administration.

Thus all eyes–and ears–are on Tun Mahathir, for signs of whether he will become even more vocal next year, or retreat into silence once and for all.

His Own Name Is Perfectly Bankable

His father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, was the second prime minister. His elder brother is Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Fortunately, Malaysians respect Datuk Nazir Razak not because of those ties but because he became the country’s top investment banker without relying on the family name.

“There is some pressure when (I am) linked to my father, but I just keep on working,” he told an interviewer in September. “People’s expectations are high but I have proven I could work.”

At 39, Datuk Nazir is already chief executive and managing director of Southeast Asia’s largest investment bank, CIMB Bhd, but he is hungry for more.

By next month, CIMB will be merged with Malaysia’s second biggest lender by assets, Bumiputra Commerce Bank.

Sometime in the new year, the banker who crafts deals for others hopes to seal his own deal by bringing the 9th largest bank, Southern Bank, into the group. A tough fight is on the cards; not all major Southern Bank shareholders are agreeable.

Regionally, Datuk Nazir has not been idle. CIMB has a deal to buy Singapore’s No. 2 broker, GK Goh, and a tie-up with Indonesia’s 7th largest bank, PT Bank Niaga Tbk.

CIMB has a research unit in Bangkok which plans to offer stockbroking services. It also recently launched an operating office in Brunei.

Datuk Nazir joined CIMB 16 years ago after receiving his master’s degree from Pembroke College, Cambridge. CIMB was then the 7th biggest of 12 Malaysian investment banks.

Today, his name is whispered when the country needs a Mr Fix-It. There has been recent speculation that he might be heading to the finance ministry. But he has laughed off speculation that he would enter politics any time soon.

In October, he had said: “This is the life I know. This is the life I love. This is the life I want to enjoy.”

Pint-Sized Smash Hit

In a country where the three sports that really matter are football, badminton and hockey, the biggest star is a squash player.

That is not surprising. Nicol David, the pint-sized 22-year-old from Penang, is the World No. 1 women’s squash player.

She is also the first woman to win the British Open, the World Open and earn the top ranking in the same year. She achieved all that in just six weeks in October and November.

Not only has she made squash more popular than ever, she is now being held up as a role model for young Malaysians.

Colonel Wong Ah Jit, the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (SRAM) executive director, told The Malay Mail tabloid: “She is an inspiration to new players. Nicol has raised the bar so high and we hope the other national players will try to emulate her.”

David is tipped to dominate women’s squash for some time, because of her age and abilities. Her role as a unifier in Malaysia cannot be overstated.

Malaysia has always loved its sports heroes. More importantly, the country has always come together despite racial and religious differences to celebrate its champions.

When Malaysia’s badminton team finally beat Indonesia and China to wrest the coveted Thomas Cup in the early 1990s, the country erupted with singular joy.

Thus, political leaders have been quick to recognise the importance of sports heroes.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi made a personal call on David and her parents in Penang when she was crowned the world’s best player.

She was given a grand welcome back in Penang and has been handsomely rewarded.

David has also given Malaysians something new to cheer about.

When she turned professional, at the age of 18, few people were interested in squash. Now Malaysians everywhere have become instant experts on the sport.

Is Anwar Really Poised For A Comeback?

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s upscale home in Kuala Lumpur’s Damansara Heights is beginning to look a bit worn, having doubled as his political base since he was ousted from the government in 1998.

The former deputy prime minister himself, however, has never looked better.

Late last month, he hosted a Hari Raya open house. Gone was the gaunt man who had aged tremendously when he was first released from prison last year after the Federal Court set aside his conviction for sodomy.

At the open house, a rejuvenated Datuk Seri Anwar greeted supporters and a sprinkling of politicians, businessmen and diplomats, making it the highlight of one of his few trips back in Malaysia.

Datuk Seri Anwar has spent most of this year abroad, teaching in the United States and Britain. This kept him out of the news and, as the year wore on, the euphoria over his release from prison also died down. Even a number of startling court judgments that bolstered his long-held protest of innocence failed to stir up excitement.

Talk of his rejoining UMNO–the only way that he can return to government–also dwindled away.

It would be tempting to write off Datuk Seri Anwar as a spent political force, but he has plans to turn things around next year.

To start, he will be spending more time in Malaysia after February, when his stints as a visiting professor at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities in the US and Oxford in Britain end.

“He will be in Kuala Lumpur permanently, although there will still be a lot of travel as he has many speaking engagements abroad,” said his aide Azmin Ali.

He also said Parti Keadilan Rakyat, led by Datuk Seri Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Ismail, was set to give the former deputy prime minister a platform to build a higher domestic profile.

It had spent the year building up its membership and machinery to enable Datuk Seri Anwar “to move on in his political career,” although the party has not really been able to find a niche for itself.

Datuk Seri Anwar plans to hold a series of programmes with the businessmen, professionals, religious groups and civil society organisations to explain his vision.

“There is no way for us to reach the people through the media, so we will be holding small workshops rather than large rallies through the year,” said Azmin.

Datuk Seri Anwar is barred from active politics, including running for office, until 2008 as his conviction for corruption remains on the books.

He has refused to seek a royal pardon.

Datuk Seri Abdullah’s future could depend on whether he is able to light a spark under the current lacklustre efforts to bring the opposition parties into a cohesive pact.

AirAsia Boss Clips Sceptics’ Wings

For a good story on the Malaysia Boleh spirit, look no further than Datuk Tony Fernandes.

Four years ago, he ignored scepticism over starting a low-cost air carrier so soon after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Today, he is the boss of Asia’s largest low-cost carrier, AirAsia.

Few then had thought his ideas would fly–make money on local Malaysian routes with low fares–Herd passengers aboard with no seat numbers and no drinks?

Impossible, said the naysayers, pointing to giant Malaysian Airlines (MAS), which had for years complained that no one can make money flying to Terengganu or Kedah.

Today, Datuk Fernandes, 41, is feted as the kind of entrepreneur Malaysia needs more of.

He got his start at Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines as an auditor before becoming financial controller for Virgin Records in London from 1987 to 1989.

He moved on to Warner Music International London in 1989, before being transferred Malaysia in 1992.

In 2001, he bought the loss-incurring airline with a RM40m debt and two modest Boeing 737-300s.

In the quarter which ended Sept 30, 2005, AirAsia reported a net profit of RM11.67m despite the sharp spike in global fuel prices, up from RM10.47m during the same period a year ago.

By contrast, MAS reported a loss of RM367.7m for the same July to September quarter.

AirAsia now has a fleet of 22 Boeing 737-300 aircraft, according to its website. It has also taken delivery of the first of 60 Airbus A320s, as part of a total fleet renewal plan.

It serves 60 destinations, having expanded to Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Macau, Xiamen in China and Singapore via Thailand. It hopes to fly to Laos and Myanmar soon.

It also has stakes in other no-frill lines, Thai AirAsia and PT Indonesia AirAsia.

Indeed, there is even speculation that Datuk Fernandes’ AirAsia would soon be given the task of taking over some of the domestic routes flown by MAS.

Pop Star Has Them All Tuned Up

Few Malaysians had even heard of Mawi five months ago, let alone heard him sing.

But today, even the country’s top politicians listen to him.

Mawi’s performance at a Hari Raya celebration at his home village in Johor last month drew a crowd of 15,000 people and created a traffic jam which stretched for 10km.

Born Asmawi Ani, the 24-year-old pop star has reportedly earned RM1m since he won the third edition of Akademi Fantasia reality TV show in August. His first solo album sold 110,000 copies in a matter of weeks–almost unheard of in Malaysia in these days of pirated CDs.

He also endorses Canon cameras and Mamee noodles.

As if that is not enough, both UMNO and opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) are begging him to grace their functions in order to pull in the crowds.

Forget about teeny-boppers. His biggest fans seem to be makciks who see him as the Boy-Next-Door.

Riding the current wave of religiosity, Mawi also wears Islam on his sleeve. He can recite the Quran as well as sing.

In fact, his biography said he was training to be an imam (mosque cleric) before he embarked on a singing career.

Clerics in PAS fought publicly over whether to invite him to the first public concert the party was organising in Kelantan in October.

Those who wanted him to perform, won, but not before a bitter exchange of words as some party clerics felt that a singer could hardly be a model Muslim.

The conservative Islamic party has even published a book in Malay, The Mawi Phenomena–Has PAS Changed? which told of the raging debate over the singer.

A few months ago, a different tussle took place as Malaysia was abuzz that Mawi would join Putera UMNO, a new wing set up for young people below 25. But Mawi apparently declined, saying he wanted to stay out of partisan politics.

“If I am invited to a political function to sing, my presence there is to sing, nothing else,” he said. “I am still the same Mawi, the kampung boy….”

Young Turk To Present The “Softer” Face Of PAS

Malaysia’s biggest opposition party is trying to soften its image and leaders like Husam Musa are leading the way.

The 46-year-old is one of the Young Turks of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and a leading contender to be the next Menteri Besar of the only state it rules, Kelantan.

In recent years, PAS has veered more towards the radical tenets of the Taleban than the moderate Islam practised by Malaysian Muslims. It has pushed its concept of an Islamic state with strict syariah law which includes chopping off the hands of thieves and caning for adulterers.

But its reality check came in March last year, when it lost control of Terengganu, and nearly Kelantan as well.

It was also decimated everywhere else, with the number of its Parliament seats dropping to six, from 27.

Thus it was that in June, party members voted in a group of urbane young leaders to reduce the influence of the old conservative clerics.

Husam, who loves riding horses on the beach in Kelantan, won one of the three vice-president seats.

Unlike most PAS leaders, who are trained clerics, Musa had read economics.

And as Kelantan’s state finance chief, he is expected to rise higher in the party. His powerful backers include the respected Kelantan Menteri Besar and PAS spiritual leader, Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat.

PAS raised eyebrows when some of its leaders recently played football with local singers and actors at a stadium. Yet the Young Turks pushed the envelope even further in October by organising a concert in Kelantan starring top singer Mawi, despite stiff opposition from the pool of conservative clerics.

More such gestures towards mainstream Muslims are expected from Husam and company in the new year.

Abdullah’s Influential Son-In-Law Earns His Spurs

Few politicians in Malaysia attract as much respect, fear and venom–all rolled into one–or are watched as closely as Khairy Jamaluddin.

Although he will turn only 30 next year, his influence is considerable.

The son-in-law of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, Khairy’s quick rise in politics has been well-documented: Starting as a special assistant to his father-in-law, he assumed the post of deputy youth chief of the UMNO ruling party last year.

Whenever he is asked about his political ambitions and the accusations that he is manoeuvring himself into a position to become prime minister by the time he turns 40, he shrugs and rolls his eyes in resignation.

“Dynasties are not born out of in-laws but through one’s own children,” he said earlier this year, in response to allegations in a book that he wants to succeed Datuk Seri Abdullah.

Still, there is no doubt about the tremendous influence that Khairy wields, whether with the Prime Minister or in UMNO. But not all of it can be attributed to family ties.

He has worked the ground in UMNO tirelessly, turning the boos he attracted at last year’s party assembly, when he won his seat unopposed, to a much warmer reception at this year’s gathering.

He has helped transform UMNO Youth from a mere pressure group in the party into an effective election campaign force.

A case in point was the recent Pengkalan Pasir by-election, in Kelantan, when a more personal campaign helped convince voters in the hardcore opposition state to vote in the candidate from the ruling party.

So far, family ties have actually kept Khairy from running for Parliament. The ruling party surprisingly omitted him from its list of candidates during last year’s general election.

But he is likely to make a tilt for an elected seat at the next general election.

Staid Chief Shows His Other Side

Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon, the Chief Minister of Penang, is hardly an exciting personality. He is staid and a little bland–in short, quite unlike his brash and bold party boss, Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik.

The Gerakan president is an in-your-face politician who rarely minces his words or moderates his strong opinions.

Tan Sri Koh, the party’s deputy president, is the opposite in temperament and political style.

But a few months ago, he surprised many when he threw his trademark caution to the wind and attacked the government’s policy of using English to teach mathematics and science.

He called for a review of the policy that has been in place since 2003, saying it was easier for children to learn these subjects in their mother tongue.

On the surface, that was nothing more than what a number of Malay politicians have been saying, but his words were perceived differently.

Gerakan is a small party, but it is influential in advocating its independent views. It also controls the state government of Penang and has the country’s only Chinese chief minister.

Thus Tan Sri Koh was seen as supporting opposition Chinese politicians and educationists who demand greater government support for Chinese schools.

For that, he felt the wrath of the Malay politicians, and even came under strong attack from fellow Barisan Nasional colleagues.

UMNO politicians criticised his views, with Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein describing them as communal polemics and irresponsible.

The issue died after Tan Sri Koh stepped back. But he had already revealed an unexpected side. Previously, he had been cautious, refusing to run for the party’s deputy presidency despite strong support from Datuk Seri Dr Lim.

When he finally did so this year, he won the post unopposed. He is also slated to take over the presidency when Datuk Seri Dr Lim retires.

The Straits Times/ANN



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