SINGAPORE — For Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, the sequence of two fast-moving events late last month could not have been more timely — and dramatic.

First was the shocking announcement of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on June 22 — at the conclusion of the general assembly of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the backbone of the ruling National Front (NF) coalition government — that he would resign from his concurrent positions of prime minister and party president.

The next day came the equally shocking news of the death of Fadzil Noor, the president of the main opposition and UMNO’s archrival, the theocratic Islamic Party (PAS), following a heart operation. His demise paved the way for two keenly contested by-elections for the parliamentary and state assembly seats.

While the first event thrust Badawi into the limelight and gave him the opportunity to show the world that he is capable of doing things “his own way” as Mahathir’s heir apparent, the second constrained him to maintain the continuity of his superior’s policies of ensuring a conducive investment climate through political stability.

When Mahathir returned to Kuala Lumpur last week, after a 10-day holiday in the Mediterranean, he emerged much more relaxed — a far cry from his highly emotional condition in June when he was led off the stage in tears. He immediately made it clear that he was finally passing the political baton to Badawi.

“I have already made it very clear that when I leave, I leave completely. I am not hoping to hold any position either in the party or in the government. But it is my duty to support the party, to support the government,” Mahathir told reporters at the airport, where some 3,000 people turned out to welcome him back.

Mahathir’s remarks indicated that he would be taking a back seat from now on and let Badawi take over the steering wheel, although the transition period would not be officially completed until 15 months later to enable the premier to oversee two international conferences: the Nonaligned Movement in February and the Organization of Islamic Countries in October next year, with Malaysia hosting.

For the good part of the 21 years since he became premier, Mahathir had been cajoling, sometimes scolding, the mostly economically handicapped but politically dominant Malay/Muslim community to change their mind-set if they wanted to be as successful as the Chinese in multiracial Malaysia.

Later in his reign, Mahathir expressed disappointment over what he felt was the overall failure of the affirmative action policies of his government to rid the Malays of their crutch mentality, their dependence on the government.

At the UMNO general assembly, Mahathir had cited statistics showing that despite 20 years of the New Economic Policy (NEP) from 1970 to 1990, the Malays had only achieved 19 percent ownership of the corporate sector, well below the target of 30 percent.

Mahathir painted an even grimmer, but more realistic picture. Take away all businesses set up with massive government aid, he said, and the Malays would own barely 1 percent or 2 percent of the corporate sector.

And if all the tall and impressive government buildings and Chinese shops, supermarkets in Kuala Lumpur were to be removed, he added, the Malays would only be left with a small rural enclave in Kampong Bahru.

Citing those suppositions could have been Mahathir’s way of throwing in the towel and giving up on the Malays. Indeed, he broke down after making his resignation announcement in June. Now, he has tasked Badawi with continuing with his policies.

With polling day for the two by-elections in Anak Bukit (state) and Pendang (Parliament) scheduled for next Thursday, Badawi now finds himself leading the UMNO and NF into the electoral fray against UMNO’s formidable archrival, PAS.

In a short eight-day campaign, Badawi as expected, is sounding out to the Malay majority voters — who compose 90 percent of the electorate — in both constituencies to accept Mahathir’s last “wakeup call” to them to change their mind sets, or be swept away in the fast changing currents of the 21st century, brought about by globalization and a borderless world.

But such a message is expected to be strongly resisted by PAS, which accuses UMNO of “selling out” the rights of the Malays to the other communities. PAS, whose strength is based on the Islamic religion, has often accused UMNO of being a kaffir or infidel party that has strayed away from the teachings of the Koran and Hadith.

As the Islamic religion is closely identified with the Malay race, PAS’s campaign hits directly at Mahathir’s message — now being articulated by Badawi — and strikes a sensitive chord among many hardline conservative Malays in the rural areas of Kedah like Pendang and Anak Bukit.

If Badawi succeeds in leading UMNO to victory in the by-elections, it would be a good start in his 15-month journey to officially assume the country’s highest executive position. The way would be paved for him to eventually stamp his mark and do things his own way.

He would also assure the world, including Malaysia’s neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that they need not fear any change in Malaysia’s foreign policy, and that they could count on Malaysia as a moderate Muslim nation that supports America’s fight against Islamic terrorism.

If, on the other hand, UMNO fails to wrest the two seats back from PAS, then Badawi’s legitimacy as Mahathir’s heir apparent could be seriously questioned, first within UMNO, even before PAS has a chance to take aim at him.

As to what direction Badawi’s political future would go, the signs would only be clear come Thursday, when the voters in Anak Bukit and Pendang finally decide on their new elected representatives.

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