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The autocratic and colorful Mohamad Mahathir has been prime minister of Malaysia for more than 22 years. This October he will step down, allowing his anointed deputy to fill (or attempt to fill) his shoes. In an Asia Program seminar, three experts discussed the achievements and challenges Mahathir will leave behind, and the strengths and weaknesses of his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Panelists agreed that, compared to Mahathir, Badawi will provide little drama. But with his religious credentials—a degree in Islamic studies and a thorough understanding of the Quran—he may be able to successfully maneuver his way through controversial religious issues, such as the rise of extremism and religion in schools. The panelists also agreed that Badawi’s consensual approach of government might do a better job of cultivating new talent than Mahathir’s top-down style.

According to Bridget Welsh, Badawi’s greatest challenge will be managing a scramble for power that will likely occupy elites the next few years. Not only Mahathir, but many other senior party and factional leaders will be departing, creating new opportunities. Although much of the contestation will occur “behind the curtain,” the ramifications for Malaysia’s future will be profound, Welsh maintained.

Karim Raslan pointed out that one of Badawi’s heaviest burdens will be the expectations placed on him. Everyone—elites, ordinary Muslims, intellectuals, business people, nationalists—hope to see change and improvement on a variety of issues. Karim pointed out that Badawi will also be under pressure to keep Mahathir’s legacy intact. He agreed with Welsh that the task of “managing Mahathir” (who is unlikely to disappear from the scene) will be a major challenge.

Bakri Musa predicted no major shifts in policy as a result of the political transition—and finds the status quo “frightening.” He criticized Mahathir for concentrating on Malaysia’s skyline (economic growth) at the expense of education, the judiciary and the rule of law. In Bakri Musa’s opinion, Badawi would do well not to imitate Mahathir’s autocratic style and cronyism, which has warped Malaysian business and stifled creativity.

Robert M. Hathaway, Asia Program director. 202-691-4012
Drafted by Amy McCreedy, Asia Program associate