17 January 1999

On the third Friday of Ramadan, the most blessed month in the Islamic calendar, former Foreign Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, 59, got the job he most conveted next to being Prime Minister. He was ecstatic. Patience, perseverance, time and perception conspired to give him an edge over his, closest rival, Education Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, the eldest son of the country's second prime minister.

I was in my study when the telephone rang at 11pm on the evening of Thursday, Jan 8, which was noon in Kuala Lumpur. The caller told me the four-month-long wait would be over by late afternoon. The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, he announced would make his choice of the new deputy known following an Umno Supreme Council meeting that would take place after the Islamic sabbath congregation.

He declined to reveal the name though he knew I knew he knew who was the lucky vice president. Mahathir had scrupulously followed the tradition confining his choice among the vice-president of the ruling party.

Tengku Razaleigh was not sulking when he said he was not qualified for the job; he was talking about tradition. Every Malaysian knows, his ambition is to be prime minister one day, and not a few think he is qualified for the Job. Most of his friends and supporters in the party - after an absence a decade - have either retired or are no longer very active, so if he wanted to pursue his ambition he would have to start forging links all over again.

After putting down the receiver, Fauzah sauntered in. I told her what the "caller" had told me. After Fauzah left the study for the bedroom, I started making a series of telephone calls to various friends and contacts followed by a late supper (sahur - last meal before fasting begins), and finally went to bed.

The "caller", arguably, even probably is one of the most influential individuals.

Abdullah is realpolitik with a human face: gentle and persuasive who cleverly combines indirect pressure with a strong faith to work on his behalf. He relishes being Mahathir's alter-ego and I know he will be unequivocally loyal deputy, an obedient assistant.

He is the antithesis of the former DPM, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim: Abdullah loves what we are and does not care what we are not. Though his knowledge of Islam is more than incredible (he comes from a family of Islamic scholars), and personally a good Muslim to boot, he never ever projects himself as an Islamist nor goes around as a holier-man than thou. This was his strength and he knew it.

I have known him since 1963, having worked together for the former premier, Tun Abdul Razak, especially after the May 13, 1969 race riots. Since then we have been working closely in Umno and government.

I am pleased Anwar had welcomed (albeit qualified) Abdullah's appointment as Mahathir's heir. He said he was shocked that Tun Daim Zainuddin had been named to replace as Finance Minister because Mahathir had once told him that he accepted Daim's resignation as Finance Minister in 1991 because of "allegations against Daim during his first stint in the job from 1984-1991" (Jan 11, New Straits Times, Singapore).

Abdullah, critics say, lacks vision and is dull. However, I also know, even his bitter opponents never say within my hearing; atleast that he is corrupt or amoral compared to many other politicians. This reputation for being clean is a definite political asset especially in the present political environment in Malaysia where corruption, cronyism and nepotism appear to be "dirty words".

The "Mr Clean" and "good Muslim" image not fostered by him; a likable personality in addition to a reputation for reliability gives him, many people believe, a crucial advantage over the much younger Najib. At 46, he has plenty of time and therefore can wait wait, work harder and learn to be schrewder. Abdullah elevation, according to many, was unexpected.

Whatever Abdullah does as Mahathir's deputy and Home Minister (being given this all-powerful portfolio is a confirmation that Mahathir implicitly trusts him), I do hope, the picture most Malaysians will have of Abdullah is the one before Friday, Jan 8, 1999: a nice guy, not pompous or some one with a king-sized ego.

Although he has said he would listen to the people, still, I like to recall for his benefit what Dr Henry Kissinger said to Chairman Mao Zedong on Feb 21, 1972 at the Chairman's house in Beijing.

The then US President Richard Nixon tried to flatter Mao by saying his writing has moved a nation and had changed the world. Mao replied with modesty that he had not been able to do it (change the world), although he had succeeded in changing a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.