17 January 1999

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Turning to Kissinger, Mao said: "You have been famous about your trips to China." Kissinger, replied: "It was the President who set the direction..... " Nixon responded: "He is a very wise assistant to say it that way. Mao roared with a laughter.

Kissinger, had long distinguished career in the White House and State Department until he retired in 1977.

Politicians are human. They do change and Abdullah is no exception. But, I do hope, Abdullah will try to avoid the fatal mistake of appearing too cosy with the meddling-super power, yet he must also be realistic enough that he has to deal with it.

Mahathir has consistently refused to be managed by that super power. He has always been his own man; independent and a proud Malaysian.

While we realize that the West, Washington, in particular, will remain, for at least three to five decades, even more to come, the strongest world power, we also know that the American and European powers, relative to other evolving powers, is declining.

We, in Malaysia, I believe want to achieve what is already attained by the West without having to inherit its worst excesses. We want to achieve for our children and their children and generations to come economic, political and military power, not to resist the West or anyone, but rather to protect us against the excessive power of the United States and Europe.

Abdullah, did a good job as Foreign Minister for more than eight years and because we pursue in an independent foreign policy, his job was easy and carried out more professionally than many would have believed. He talked to democratic leaders, leaders-in-waiting as well as dictators, including Suharto until his dramatic fall from power in May 1998.

Mahathir and Abdullah have illustrated what a small power in correct with other developing nations can do in international relations and at the United Nations. We are pragmatic at the UN and will be, too, in the Security Council, a legacy Syed Hamid Albar, the new Foreign Minister, is not only happy to inherit but pursue strongly with constant improvisation and its theme and policy contents.

Albar should enjoy his new job, meeting people and being part of the international and regional scene.

Abdullah's main job is to assist Mahathir to strengthen UMNO and together with Daim to improve the economy. As Home Minister, he has to quickly restore confidence in public in the Police Force.

The elevation of Abdullah, hitherto with no close links to business, is expected to boost Umno's and the government's standing among Malaysian voters which appeared to have suffered following Anwar's sacking and the reformasi street demonstrations last September.

Mahathir, though no longer holding the powerful Home ministry portfolio himself, remains all-powerful. A Prime Minister has no need to hold any portfolios which he distributes. Lee Kuan Yew never held any portfolio while he was the Prime Minister, nor now, other than being a Senior Minister, yet he remains powerful. Tony Blair is simply Prime Minister (other than being the traditional Minister of Civil Service).

The question is already being asked here and at home, which keeps me busy on the telephone, as to whether Abdullah is now the favourite to eventually succeed Mahathir. He is almost secure for now, at least.

Mahathir has cleverly, something not unexpected really, avoided a costly, vicious and divisive Umno leadership election in June by deferring it, probably after the general election in 2000. There may be other suprises in store before that, who knows. After all that is a long period between now and 2000, and in politics a week is a long time and going by current American congressional politics, an hour is an eternity!

No one knows this better than President Bill Clinton. Nothing is certain; Anwar was a mere breadth way from the crown, so firm was he the favourite that many who never trusted him began to readjust themselves to accept the inevitability. Then, he was sacked as suddenly as he came into prominence and power from the cold in 1981.

The damage done to Umno in the last few years is evident now: Umno members against Umno members; Malays against Malays, Muslim groups against each other made worse by the ongoing recession.

Abdullah can and must help Mahathir to recapture the respect and trust of the majority in the Malay heartland by uncovering and punishing corrupt politicians and officials who routinely abuse their positions. Without such a credible effort, Umno will find 2000 though going or whenever the election is held. I know Umno will rise to the occasion Umno always responds to the wishes of the rakyat.

For now, as I say, Abdullah is on a strong wicket, however, the future depends on what happens to the economy and in society. Abdullah's name is now on everyone's lips, but we are in a three-act play; we are near the end of the second part. The final act, I dare say, is more dramatic and interesting.

Abdullah moved to Jalan Dato' Onn refreshed and with new confidence - I hope also humbler and less pretentious and presumptuous than one or two of his predecessors.

Abdullah and I are old friends, and here is an unsolicited advice: Keep on being nice to people, listen to them but at the same time don't be too afraid to be furious with anyone if it is going to help govern the nation effectively, and, to lead, you have to anger some people, some of the time. Mahathir is a good Guru as is Lee Kuan Yew.

I called Abdullah to congratulate him. He was pleased. Then I telephoned Najib to console him. He was rather sporting though subdued. We talked and laughed a bit. Despite that, I sensed that he felt anything other than elated. Abdullah and Najib, as always, were in their usual selves; courteous even warm, not just perfunctory.

I hope their good relationship never changes, although I suspect, it will over time, but for the better.

In any event, I feel highly relieved that Mahathir had made his choice thus avoiding expensive, disruptive and distraught contest.

The economy is on the way to recovery, Umno appears united and the people tolerably happy. It is not a bad thing that the Deputy Prime Minister is tested because, sooner or later, adversity is bound to come. I believe Abdullah can rise to the challenge of his new office and let us wish him well (and judge him) in bad times as well as good times.

(Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad is our Special Envoy to the United States.)


(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )

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