It doesn’t pay to be a nice guy

Posted by Penarik Beca Tuesday, October 14, 2008

NST (10/10/08): It was not an easy decision for Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to make.

Particularly when the democratic norm — as practised worldwide, save perhaps in Zimbabwe and countries like that — was that he led the party that won by a comfortable 58-seat majority and, therefore, he was the winner.

But in Malaysia, the democratic norm is to win by more than a two-thirds majority, thus having the ability to amend the Constitution whenever you want, and using that legitimacy to make even unpopular decisions as much as you want. Using that principle as a basis, Abdullah had failed.

He lost four states more than previously.

He lost the two-thirds majority by eight seats and, therefore, he had lost and should resign.

What was the choice before him? He could fight to defend the presidency of Umno but that would have come at a cost. An already fractured party would have become even more split.

And for Abdullah, who has always been loyal to Umno, that was not an option. So, despite much pressure from his ranks, he decided not to hand his successor Datuk Sri Najib Razak a party more racked with internal dissension than he could. He decided to retire.

For Umno and for the Barisan Nasional, he made the right decision.

And by making that decision, he learned the hard way. In Umno, loyalty to the leader has one important caveat and that caveat is “as long as you are powerful”. For as long as he was powerful, the Umno ranks, especially those in the supreme council, would bend over backwards to be seen as loyal.

But the moment the chips were down, they would abandon the “sink - ing ship” and run to where they saw the power shifting. And so it was with someone he trusted, like his vice-president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was among the first to call for his resignation. When Muhyiddin saw that the supreme council seemed to be backing Abdullah for the so-called transition programme which would see him in office until June 2010, Muhyiddin backed off, in deference to the party and his “loyalty ” to the party.

But when Umno lost the Permatang Pauh by-election, Muhyiddin once again saw an opportunity and chose Singapore in which to express no confidence in his prime minister, the man who appointed him international trade and industry minister.

As with Muhyiddin, also sneaking away were people who had backed Abdullah to the limit, even when his decisions were perhaps worthy of more critical analysis and opposition.

People like Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein who, perhaps, should realise that March 8 showed that Malaysians, including Malays, are not impressed with kris-waving leaders.

It has happened before. To a man like Tun Ghafar Baba who did not have a mean bone in his body. To people like Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Tun Musa Hitam. And to people like Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

To the ordinary man with ordinary assumptions of what loyalty means, what happened to Abdullah would be seen as treachery. But in his world, it’s called realpolitik.

To be fair, Abdullah paid the price for the wrong decisions he made, for the promises he could not fulfil. After the March 8 general election, his position had become untenable.

He took responsibility for it. Yet, all those who had backed him previously conveniently slunk away, allowing all the blame to be heaped on one man — Abdullah.

But yes, that’s politics. Not much honour there, as we all know, no matter what your stripe.

Still, it is an exercise in behavioural science to try to fathom how different the political lexicon is from that of ordinary folk.

Take for example Abdullah’s predecessor, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

He says he is happy for Umno that Abdullah is quitting and that “Umno can now be rebuilt”.

In ordinary circumstances, that would mean that Dr Mahathir loves Umno and cares for Umno.

In the same breath, Dr Mahathir described Najib as “incompetent” and says he is “not impressed with Najib’s performance as deputy prime minister now”.

And why is Najib incompetent in Dr Mahathir’s view? Because Najib “did not have his own stand and was always following Abdullah’s advice”.

If anyone has forgotten, Dr Mahathir backed Musa as his deputy when he became prime minister in 1981. He chose Ghafar as his deputy when Musa quit over “irreconcilable differences” with him in 1985.

Dr Mahathir backed Anwar in 1993 when that ruthlessly ambitious man who would later become his nemesis took on Ghafar in what was one of Umno’s most corrupt party elections. When he sacked Anwar in 1998, he chose Abdullah as his deputy.

Five years later, Dr Mahathir said he was retiring and that Abdullah was ready to succeed him. Dr Mahathir chose Abdullah — as he did Musa, Ghafar and Anwar. And barely months later, Dr Mahathir started the attacks on his successor, just as he had on all those he had chosen and thrust upon Malaysians before.

Almost his whole family got in the act. His sons Mukhriz and Mokhzani and his associates made numerous unsubstantiated and slanderous allegations against Abdullah and his family, friends and aides. Even Abdullah’s late wife, Datin Seri Endon Mahmood, was not spared Dr Mahathir’s sharp tongue.

And just before the general election, he publicly urged Malaysians not to give the BN a strong mandate.

And when the BN indeed failed in that, Dr Mahathir urged Najib to fight Abdullah. Then he asked Muhyiddin when Najib refused (for which Dr Mahathir called him a coward).

One has to go back to Dr Mahathir’s 1996 Umno presidential address to see what he thought of Muhyiddin.

(Muhyiddin lost his bid to be re-elected vice-president that year.) But today, he backs Muhyiddin for Umno deputy president.

What will he say about Muhyiddin when Muhyiddin does not listen to him any more? When everything he tried failed, Dr Mahathir quit Umno. And he says he loves Umno.

Dr Mahathir has not been charitable to many people. His family and close friends are perhaps the exception.

When he was not attacking the United States, Margaret Thatcher, the West, the Zionists and the Jews, George Soros, Singapore and currency speculators, it was his own Umno members, the Malays “who forget easily” (Melayu mudah lupa), non-governmental organisations and the judiciar y.

At least Dr Mahathir believes that no one is perfect. Well, almost… One thing Najib will not have to worry about is a predecessor breathing down his neck slandering him, his cabinet, his party colleagues, his family, aides and friends. Because, for all his weaknesses, Abdullah is a decent, religious man.

Hopefully, Dr Mahathir will also give him a break. Perhaps the only person who can rival Dr Mahathir in invective and tenacity to condemn others is, ironically, Anwar, his onetime protégé-turned-nemesis.

Najib will have enough on his hands trying to fend off Anwar. If there is one thing Najib should learn from the politics of the last three decades, it is that he must have competent, able people who will give him frank and honest views and back him fully when he makes the right decisions and stick with him when the chips are down.

Reform still needs to be done. And Najib must do it. It will also be inevitable that many will clamour for the old ways to remain, but the truth is Malaysians rejected the old ways on March 8.

Najib must accept that if he is to succeed in revitalising Umno and the BN. It was not the pull factor of the opposition that made people vote for them. It was the push factor of a BN and Umno which just refused to change.

No more racism and religious bigotry, even at the lowest levels, no more cuddling up with businessmen already charting their paths to Putrajaya, no more shadowy awards of contracts and licences other than on merit.

Like it or not, Najib has to make unpopular decisions because the rot set in long ago... long before Abdullah became prime minister.

Abdullah could not, and did not, make the changes that people expected of him. For that, he paid the price. That is the way it should be.

There are two other lessons that Najib can learn from Abdullah. One, that the openness and freedom Abdullah allowed cannot be turned back; and two, that it does not pay to be a nice guy in politics. (Kalimullah Hassan)

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