Abdullah's administration may not have much to show off. No big legacy, except for some potentially very big white elephants if the regional corridors economic development were allowed to go on. Ironically, Abdullah may yet have the last laugh as the accidental agent for change.
Abdullah's leadership was perceived as weak for his unwillingness to deploy heavy handed tactics on his political opponents. The use of ISA on Hindraf leaders and several socio-political activists such as Raja Petra Kamaruddin was not done at his sole instruction. When he was probed on its use, Abdullah had appeared blur and unsure.
Yet, he was helpless to stop any unscrupulous and undemocratic actions from further deteriorating his support. Abdullah, who wants to be a leader for all Malaysians, fell prey to his own party culture. The long spell of Mahathirism has made UMNO untenable for moderate leaders such as Abdullah Badawi. A leader who can tame the party must be someone who is willing to fulfill the desire of the party leadership to strengthen Malay supremacy and meet the personal interests of party warlords whose cooperation he needs to control the party.
Abdullah squandered his strong mandate in 2004 trying to fulfil these desires when he was forced to consolidate his power base in UMNO. On this note, Mahathir had cleverly turned the table against Abdullah when the latter was trying to deconstruct some of Mahathir's legacies including the crooked bridge.
Abdullah could have stayed his course and continues to implement his reform pledges. The outcome of his commitment would have been different from today. His leadership would have been more enduring and his legacy more profound. Yet, Mahathir was his Watergate.
The only comforting news for Abdullah is Mahathir did not come out smelling like a rose for his role in bringing down his successor. In fact, the feisty ex-premier actions, at times dramatic and overboard, have made his less revered and respected. Mahathir should learn from an old Buddhist proverb; "you reap what you have sown".
However, Abdullah should still be celebrated as an accidental agent for change. Under his leadership, the civil society movement flourishes. Malaysians were forced out of their comfort zone to take an active part in their politics. Opposition parties suddenly enjoy a larger pool of talents to pick from.
These activists were not inspired by Abdullah's leadership but were cautious of what this country may turn out to be if destructive forces were given a free hand to govern like before. Hence, Barisan Nasional was stripped off its 2/3 parliamentary majority and leadership in five states.
Najib Razak is taking over the helm at turbulent times. Since March 8, the movement for change has gained some momentum. Dissenting voices have grown louder amidst unpopular and undemocratic decisions made by the government chiefly the use of ISA against a reporter, a member of parliament and a social activist.
In his outgoing speech, Abdullah has made a promise to carry out his reform pledges. Some of the proposed initiatives such as the Judicial Appointment Commission, the Special Complaint Commission and the strengthening of the Anti-Corruption Agency will not be popular with his party leaders. Najib will be put under tremendous pressure to continue and complete these reforms since it is obvious that Abdullah may not be able to do it given the time constraint.
Najib will face a growing public pressure to abolish the ISA and allow all detainees a chance to legal defence. He will also be tasked with the responsibility to carry out reforms in key public institutions such as the police force and the judiciary in order to restore public confidence in his administration.
After March 2009, his partners in BN will surely expect Najib to carry out a serious revamp of the partnership formula. Most of the component parties which lost badly are dependent on non-Malay support. Najib is inheriting a weak and wounded coalition. Previously, Abdullah was accused of not protecting the Malay interest. Can Najib restore BN to its past glory as a successful multiracial political platform without antagonising his own party members who want a strong UMNO? His component partners are expected to be more vocal and assertive with their approach towards UMNO.
Abdullah exit is timely before more damage is done to his short and thin legacy. Finally, the US financial crisis is becoming contagious. With more Americans defaulting their mortgage repayment, the fear of losing their home will seriously affect consumer demand. Many economies including Malaysia's were unable to decouple fast enough to lower their dependence on the American market.
Almost 50% of Malaysia's E&E and industrial exports are headed for US and Europe. Export will start to slow down by year end. Consumer demand will not recover until at least end of 2009. Competition for foreign direct investment will even get tougher as more investors are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Asia's good run may be disrupted if big economies such as China and Japan are affected by the US financial contagion.
Now, Abdullah's exit may not be a forced one but is actually a calculated move to avoid the crunch. The buck is now passed on to Najib. He is not only inheriting the crown but the risks, responsibilities and blame which come with it.
The impatience of Najib's supporters to see him quickly taking over the leadership may yet be their biggest folly. A mid-2010 succession plan would have been better for Najib. By that time, the world economy would have been more predictable, the US economy on the mend and he would have been more prepared to take over the helm.
Meanwhile, Najib is also facing his own Watergate - the Altantuya's murder case - which has had an irreversible impact on his image. He can be assured of a roller coaster ride ahead. Nothing less than exceptional is enough to make Najib the saviour of this country.
Will Najib be a saviour or a victim?