Abdullah Badawi: A Turbulent Journey To Putrajaya
October 31, 2003 09:25 AM
By the Bernama Team
For all his more than 30 years in public service, the fifth Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, remains largely an enigma to many. Everyone knows him as Pak Lah or Mr Clean or Mr Nice Guy but who was he before he became Prime Minister designate?
In school, he was just plain Abdullah, the clean-cut, neatly-dressed boy from Kepala Batas who found it easy to make friends, and, because of his well-disciplined personality and patience, was always seen as leader of the pack.
The friendships he forged more than 50 years ago with his classmates and teachers have withstood the tests of time and as he steps towards the highest office in the land, his old friends do not, even for a moment, doubt that their Abdullah will remain the same.
His scoutmaster, Ng Soo Chye, 72, is aged now but still retains fond and lucid memories of the young Abdullah, a Malay boy from the kampong who excelled in the mainly non-Malay classrooms of the English-language Bukit Mertajam High School in mainland Penang.
"I spotted his leadership qualities when he was in my troop in the Boy Scouts. As patrol leader for four years from 1953, he was patient, calm, humble and friendly to everyone.
"He was always concerned about those under his charge and ensured they had good sleeping spots and enough food when camping. From early on, he showed the caring qualities of a good leader," Ng recalls fondly.
Ng is particularly proud of an incident recently when he asked to have a picture taken with Abdullah and his wife, Endon Mahmood. "He made me sit down while he and Endon stood behind me. He has maintained his good manners. I will never forget that moment," says a moved Ng.
Abdullah was born on Nov 26 1939, the first son to religious teacher and politician Ahmad Badawi and Kailan Hassan in Kepala Batas. He has two brothers, Ibrahim and Tahir, and one sister, Aminah. Abdullah married Endon Mahmood on Sept 4, 1965 and the couple has two children, Kamaluddin and Nori, and four grandchildren.
Kamaluddin, a businessman, read law at Cambrdige while Nori, who graduated from Syracuse in International Relations and Geography, works with an independent think-tank.
Abdullah's grandfather, Sheikh Abdullah Fahim was a well-respected ulama who spent many years in Mecca and later became the Mufti of Penang. The family was very well respected not only in Kepala Batas but also throughout the country.
Tunku Abdul Rahman was informed by Sardon Jubir, then UMNO Youth Chief, and Ahmad Badawi that Sheikh Abdullah Fahim had indicated to them a propitious date for Merdeka. Tunku Abdul Rahman decided to consult Sheikh Abdullah Fahim who gave the auspicious date 31 August.
Sheikh Abdullah Fahim also founded the Daeratul Maarif Al Wataniah religious school which still stands next to the family house in Kepala Batas and was where Ahmad Badawi later taught and where the young Abdullah began his religious education.
Ahmad Badawi was one of the leaders of Malay nationalism during the agitation for independence. He was also one of the ulama who remained in UMNO when the "ulama rebellion" took place in the early 1950s and many of these religious teachers left to form Parti Islam Se-Malaysia. He became deputy head of UMNO Youth from 1953 to 1963, and was State Assemblyman for Kepala Batas (later known as Bertam) from 1972 to 1977.
Abdullah's grounding in UMNO began at that early age and he has remained with the party ever since, not leaving even when the split in UMNO in 1988 saw a large portion of his comrade in arms setting up the rival Semangat 46.
Just like Ng, many of his school friends who came in contact with Abdullah then and have remained friends despite divergent careers, remember him fondly and say that the qualities he displayed then which endeared him to them, still remain as strong as ever despite his ascension to the most powerful office in the country.
Retired JKR engineer S. Shanmugarajah, who first met Abdullah in 1953 when they enrolled in Form One in Bukit Mertajam High School, or BM High, says: "The first time I met him, I liked him because of his friendliness and his generous smile. He has not lost that."
Shanmugarajah says as the years went by, Abdullah was very popular with teachers and students alike not only because of his warm personality but "also his ability to fulfill the responsibilities given to him."
But Shanmugarajah remembers that times were tough then for Abdullah whose family was not wealthy. He had to commute 13 miles (23km) daily from Kepala Batas where he stayed, to the school in Bukit Mertajam.
"He had to wake up early to catch the bus and when students like me went home for lunch before we returned for extra-curricular activities, Abdullah remained in school. I never heard him complain once," he says.
Shanmugarajah recalls that as patrol leader of the Scouts, Abdullah organised excursions out of Bukit Mertajam to places like Penang island's beaches. Parents then, he said, were reluctant to let their children go to the beach but Abdullah managed to talk to their respective parents and convince them that he would look after his charges.
ABILITY TO LEAD
"He took the responsibility and having shown his ability to lead many times previously, the parents trusted him and agreed," he says.
Ng and Shanmugarajah still keep their photographs of the troops and are very proud to show them to anyone who asks.
In school, English was one of Abdullah's favourite subjects and he wrote so well in both the Malay language and English that he was appointed a member of the editorial board for the school magazine called "the Bukit."
One article that Shanmugarajah remembers succinctly is on Independence which Abdullah wrote for the school magazine in his early years. "His group in Form Five was called the Merdeka Group," he says, adding that nationalism was already flowing in Abdullah's veins at a young age.
All his old friends remember his "smiling face" and his pleasant, polite personality and his humility.
NOTHING HAS CHANGED
"Nothing has changed in the 50 years I have known him," says lawyer G. Rethinasamy, who went to school with Abdullah from 1953 right until they moved together to the Methodist Boys School in Penang for their Form Six.
Rethinasamy had to leave school half-way through Form Six because of financial difficulties but went on to toil and become a lawyer through private studies. He lost touch with Abdullah for almost 20 years until they met again in Kepala Batas in 1978 when the civil servant Abdullah became the politician Abdullah.
"He was and still is the same person I knew as a student, ever-smiling, kindly face." Rethinasamy recalls.
Rethinasamy says Abdullah used to carry an oversized bag to school together with another classmate, Radzi Mansor (now chairman of Telekom Malaysia) and two cousins. One day, at the bus stop, Abdullah realized his bag was heavier than usual and opened it to find bricks inside which had been placed there by one of the cousins, the late Manaf Abdullah.
"Instead of being angry, he was very amused and saw the funny side of things," he sys.
DEVOTION TO RELIGION
Rethinasamy also says that Abdullah has lost none of his charm when meeting with old friends. "He always puts his arms around our shoulders, like we used to when we were kids, and I remind him that he should observe protocol because he is an important man now. But he still persists."
Rethinasamy says that besides his absolute disregard for protocol when with his friends, another characteristic that has stayed with Abdullah since they were children in a multi-racial, multi-religious group of friends is his devotion to his religion.
"He is still that simple person we knew who easily mixes around with all races. His upbringing and his religion have made him a fine, nice and clean person which he remains till today. In school, I never saw him missing the fasting during Ramadan and he performed his prayers regularly," he says.
Abdullah went on to further his tertiary education at the premier University of Malaya. Although Abdullah had won a Malaysian Civil Service scholarship to read economics, he decided to follow in his grandfather and father's footsteps when he chose Islamic studies for his honours course.
It was also in university where he continued his involvement in student politics. Abdullah had become active in nationalist organisations when he was still at school, representing the Malay Student's Association of Pulau Pinang and Seberang Perai as a delegate to the annual congress of the Federation of Peninsula Malay Students (GPMS) in 1957 while only in form five. This was the start of a long involvement with GPMS that saw Abdullah becoming its president from 1962-64 until today as its adviser.
Arguably the most important stint in Abdullah's early career was not long after the May 13 riots, when the National Operations Council (NOC) was set up and the young 29-year-old civil servant was given the responsibility of being the principal assistant secretary, working together with Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and the top civil servants and uniformed personnel of that time.
It was, in fact, just before the riots that Abdullah met, for the first time UMNO's most celebrated dissident at the time, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Abdullah was secretary to a special committee headed by Tan Sri Abdul Kadir Samsuddin, tasked with implementing the national language in the education system and Dr Mahathir as Chairman of the Higher Education Planning Council was a member of the committee. That was the beginning of a collaboration between the two men that continued to the highest positions of government.
During Abdullah's stint at the NOC, his father was already an established politician in Penang and the son, too, was being noticed as a future leader by the Tun Razak administration.
Tun Razak offered Abdullah the job of Executive Secretary of UMNO which he declined because he discovered the salary was lower than what he was getting. When told of Abdullah's reason, Tun Razak said, "Abdullah, UMNO has no money."
After the NOC was disbanded, the National Security Council secretariat was created where Abdullah served for a while until Tun Razak asked him to be the Director of Youth at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. Tun Razak told him, "I want you to help Hamzah (Hamzah Abu Samah, then Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports). You must accept because it is a promotion for you ". Abdullah could not turn this offer down as the promotion meant he overtook two batches of officers in the civil service.
DEBATE ON THE MALAYS
This was a time of great introspection for the Malay community. The subject of the future of the Malays was debated widely. Dr Mahathir was then writing his seminal "Malay Dilemma" which was to shock the nation and the region.
In 1968, Abdullah was invited to join the UMNO Youth committee on "Revolusi Mental", chaired by Datuk Senu Abdul Rahman, tasked with looking at how to change the mindset of the Malays to meet the new economic challenges of the day. Abdullah became the coordinating secretary of the committee and one of the writers of the book Revolusi Mental which was widely read by Malay intellectuals, politicians and activists.
In 1978, after the incumbent MP for Kepala Batas, Datuk Sopiee Ibrahim, decided to retire, and just shortly after his own father Ahmad Badawi passed away, the then secretary of the Kepala Batas Umno, Datuk Mohd Nor Ahmad, was asked to look for a young person to contest.
He had two candidates -- Abdullah, who had just been promoted deputy secretary-general of the Youth and Sports Ministry, and Tan Sri Murad Mohd Nor who was then Education Ministry director-general. Both Abdullah and Murad rejected the offer, preferring to remain in their promising civil service careers.
GROUNDING IN POLITICS
This went on for a few weeks and Mohd Nor was on the verge of giving up when in his final meeting with Tan Sri Murad he was told to coax Abdullah again. Murad's argument was that Abdullah had grounding in politics because of the late Ahmad Badawi's involvement in UMNO. Murad said he did not have a base and felt he would do a disservice to politics because he was not adept at it and also a disservice to the civil service if he turned his back on what he was adept at.
"Dollah's grandfather is an ulama and his father is a political hero. You persuade Dollah and tell him what I told you," Murad told Mohd Nor.
Mohd Nor went again to see Abdullah, for the fourth time, and told him word-for-word what Murad had said. Mohd Nor also presented Abdullah with an ultimatum - take it now or you might not have another chance. Only then, he says, did Abdullah ask for two weeks to think about the offer.
Finally, he agreed, but conditional upon Mohd Nor harnessing Kepala Batas Umno to work hard for victory. Mohd Nor said he agreed and today, as Abdullah is about to occupy the highest political post in the country, Mohd Nor says, "I could not be happier. I have always believed in him and his capabilities."
Abdullah resigned from the civil service in June 1978 and contested against PAS' candidate Haji Musa Haji Mohd Yatim, winning by a comfortable 5,029-vote margin.
FAST RISE IN SERVICE
Abdullah's ascent in politics was just as fast as his rise in the civil service. He became Parliamentary Secretary to the Federal Territory Ministry in 1978 and two years later, was made its deputy minister. In 1981, he was made a minister in the Prime Minister's Department by Dr Mahathir, one of the fastest promotions through the ranks in Malaysian politics at that time.
As Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, Abdullah was entrusted with formulating and implementing key Mahathir initiatives in the early years of Dr Mahathir's Prime Ministership. He oversaw the implementation of the Islamisation policy to meet the changing trends and to maintain Malaysia's moderate Islamic stance in the face of radicalism arising from the Iranian revolution. He handled the Look East Policy which was aimed at ensuring good work ethics in the Malaysian work force.
Abdullah was also instrumental in initiating some of Dr Mahathir's most effective policy programmes including the 'Leadership by Example' campaign, Malaysia Incorporated, the privatization policy and the improvement of counter services at frontline government agencies.
Abdullah also introduced innovation in public service by formulating the first one-stop centre for the public to interface with the government. It was also at this time that Abdullah was the minister in charge of the Public Service Department, the National Institute for Public Administration (INTAN), the Tabung Haji, the Islamic Affairs Department and the National Civics Bureau (BTN), an agency that he was responsible for establishing as Director of Youth.
In recognition of Abdullah's ability and following his election as one of Umno's three vice presidents, Dr Mahathir appointed him Education Minister - - then a key stepping stone towards the top post of prime minister in 1984. In 1986, when Dr Mahathir wanted to relinquish the post of Defence Minister, Abdullah was asked to replace him at the Ministry of Defence.
FORTUNE TURNS FOR WORSE
A year later, Abdullah's political fortunes began its turn for the worse. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Musa Hitam challenged Dr Mahathir's leadership at the Umno polls and Abdullah teamed up with them.
Razaleigh and Musa lost the contest for president and deputy president against Dr Mahathir and his new deputy prime minister, Ghafar Baba. Although Abdullah retained the vice-presidency by getting the second highest number of votes, the damage had been done.
Dr Mahathir reshuffled the cabinet in May 1987, weeks after the party polls, and removed those who did not support his policies, reasoning that he could not have an effective cabinet if some its members opposed initiatives decided by the Government in power. Abdullah was one of the ministers dropped and his once-promising political career was in jeopardy.
"Forty-six months in the wilderness" tough time rather than wilderness is how Abdullah describes the period he was out in the cold and often, jokingly equates it to the Japanese occupation of Malaya which also lasted 46 months.
Less than 10 months later, the High Court declared UMNO an unlawful party following a suit taken against the party by supporters of those who had lost in the elections.
After UMNO's dissolution, Tengku Razaleigh set up an alternative called Semangat 46 and Dr Mahathir and his supporters formed UMNO Baru (new UMNO).
Abdullah remained with UMNO although he was not fully trusted by many who had been on the opposing side during the 1987 elections. In the coming months, his loyalty was severely tested as by-election after by-election saw the new UMNO being challenged by people aligned to the anti-Mahathir faction.
Abdullah's first big test was when he had to campaign against his old friend, Datuk Shahril Samad, in the Johor Baharu parliamentary by-election where the dissident won against the UMNO candidate.
Just weeks later, another by-election was held in the Parit Raja state constituency in Johor and again, Abdullah had to campaign against his former friends, including his friend Musa Hitam, who actively opposed the UMNO Baru candidate. This time, UMNO won, albeit by a small margin, and for a while, morale was restored.
Throughout this period, without a government portfolio or his own facilities, Abdullah operated from a small office in his sister-in-law's travel agency in Jalan Raja Laut. Abdullah had only his loyal friend and political secretary, the late Datuk Haji Fatah Abdullah, and a handful of supporters to assist him.
One of his aides then was Datuk Kamarulzaman Zainal, a former journalist who later became his Press Secretary when he re-joined the Government.
"Those were tough days. People were afraid to see him for fear of a backlash. The few of us like Haji Fatah took turns typing letters, writing speeches and serving people from the kampung who came to see him," Kamarulzaman recalls.
It was also a time when they had hardly any money, surviving on Abdullah and Fatah's pensions and what little savings they had, he says. To get by, Abdullah was forced to sell his house in Jalan Medang Kapas, Bangsar.
Kamarulzaman also recalls that when some people wanted to see Abdullah, they would take the lift to the thirteenth or eleventh floors instead of stopping on the twelfth floor where Abdullah had his office. "They would walk up or down the fire escape because they were afraid to be seen getting off on his floor," Kamarulzaman says.
However, Abdullah has never brought this up, Kamarulzaman says, adding that even those who snubbed him are now close to him. "He does not hold grudges. He is very forgiving," says Kamarulzaman, who served Abdullah for 13 years since 1991 as Press Secretary before recently joining a private television station as a senior executive.
CONCENTRATE ON POLITICS
Around this time, Dr Mahathir offered Abdullah a post as chairman of a large government-owned corporation. But Abdullah declined the offer, stating he wanted to concentrate on politics. Dr Mahathir then appointed Abdullah as a head of UMNO delegation and key member of the National Economic Consultative Council (NECC) which framed the National Development Policy to replace the New Economic Policy.
Abdullah devoted his energy to the non-paying jobs of UMNO vice-president and the NECC and his perseverance paid off when in the triennial UMNO party elections in 1990, despite all the opposition from his political foes within the party, he won again as UMNO vice-president.
Less than a year later, on March 15 1991, Dr Mahathir brought him back into the Cabinet as Foreign Minister, a post he held for nine years before becoming Deputy Prime Minister.
Abdullah's contemporary in the civil service and politics, Datuk Abu Hassan Omar, recalls that Abdullah has always been very approachable and wise in his counsel. He is also very receptive to new ideas.
Abu Hassan and Abdullah became friends in the 1970s when they had their offices in the same building at Wisma Keramat in Jalan Gurney.
Abdullah was deputy secretary-general of the Youth and Sports Ministry and Abu Hassan was deputy secretary-general of the Land and Regional Development Ministry. They also ventured into politics at the same time.
"Being receptive is strength for a leader because the people below will always need guidance. Pak Lah is capable of doing that. He is very open and easily liked.
"He has not changed much since when he was a government officer. His subordinates like him and find it easy to talk to him," he says. Asked about Abdullah's leadership style, Abu Hassan unhesitantly replies: "He always smiles but he is very firm."
Abu Hassan says that Abdullah has shown in his long career in civil and public service that he can deliver what he is entrusted to do. "He has the experience and the charisma. Dr Mahathir's chose him because Pak Lah is capable. I personally believe that Pak Lah will be a good PM provided everyone gives him the support," he says.
But Abdullah's roller-coaster ride in UMNO politics had not ended yet with his re-instatement to the Cabinet. The worst was yet to come.
In 1993, two years into Abdullah's renewed career as a cabinet minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim decided to challenge then Deputy Prime Minister and UMNO deputy president Tun Ghafar Baba.
The Anwar juggernaut, backed by the media and some of the most influential young UMNO leaders such as Tan Sri Muhammad Taib Muhammad, then Selangor Mentri Besar, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, then Johor Mentri Besar, was unstoppable.
Abdullah, sidelined by Anwar in Penang (Anwar became Penang Umno head replacing Abdullah after the 1987 UMNO battle), had forged a close relationship with Ghafar, one of the few UMNO leaders who had not been callous with him during his years in the wilderness. When Anwar announced his intention to challenge Ghafar, Abdullah was among the first to publicly state his support for Ghafar.
Abdullah lost the elections by a narrow margin, coming fourth in the contest for the three vice-president's posts. Although he still managed to get votes from his core supporters, he and Sanusi lost to block voting in a campaign rife with money politics. Vote buying was so rampant that delegates were heard saying, "there is no use going to Abdullah's house because you won't get any money."
Although some influential people at that time attempted to persuade Dr Mahathir to remove Abdullah from the cabinet, Dr Mahathir stood his ground and instead, appointed Abdullah as a member of the Supreme Council.
ACTIVELY SERVE THE PARTY
Abdullah continued to actively serve the party and was also required to travel widely as foreign minister to implement the Government's foreign policy objectives.
In 1996, Abdullah contested again and displayed that his core support had remained intact. He won the second highest votes for the vice-presidency.
When the economic crisis hit Malaysia in 1997, Datuk Seri Anwar's supporters made a concerted attempt to dislodge Dr Mahathir but failed and this time, Abdullah stood his ground and backed the Prime Minister.
On Sept 2, 1998, Anwar was sacked as Deputy Prime Minister.
Four months later, on January 8, 1999, a Friday in the holy month of Ramadan, Abdullah was appointed the new deputy prime minister and Home Affairs Minister.
On June 22 last year, Dr Mahathir dropped a bombshell by announcing his retirement from politics at the UMNO general assembly. In the turmoil and emotional scenes that followed, Abdullah showed his calmness in a crisis situation when he walked over to the microphone and tabled an emergency resolution asking the delegates to reject the resignation.
Following this, he led a delegation of top party leaders to see Dr Mahathir and managed to persuade the Prime Minister to remain. Dr Mahathir agreed to stay only until October 31 this year.
When he assumes office, Abdullah will bring with him a wealth of experience in his 13 years in the civil service and 25 years in politics. He has not only served as a minister in all the major ministries in government, he also cut his teeth as a civil servant during the most testing time in Malaysia's modern history.
His time at the NOC as a young protege of Tun Razak saw him contribute to the discussions and deliberations that gave birth to the fundamental principles later to be known as the New Economic Policy and the Rukunegara which remain the foundations of nation building today.
With unparalleled experience and exposure at all levels of government, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi will become Malaysia's fifth Prime Minister on Oct 31, 2003, coincidentally also a Friday in the holy month of Ramadan.