Former Malaysia PM Abdulla Badawi. Photo: AFP PHOTO/Jimin LAI

Former Malaysia PM Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi. Photo: AFP/Jimin Lai


Greg Lopez looks at the legacy of former Malaysia PM Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and whether power corrupts even the most ‘ethical’ of Muslim leaders.

In Malaysia, is being a Muslim a prerequisite to being an ethical leader?

The iconic former spiritual leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS), the late Tok Guru Nik Aziz Nik Mat, stated that only a Muslim could be the prime minister of Malaysia. His popular argument was couched in terms of majoritarian politics but a deeper introspection suggests that the Tok Guru had a vision for a Malaysian state that was ruled by Islamic scholars.

An analysis of Malaysia’s fifth Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi, who ruled from 2003 to 2009 and is considered the most qualified “Islamic” leader among Malaysia’s six Muslim prime ministers, raises more questions than it resolves.

To-date, the most comprehensive analysis of Tun Abdullah Badawi years as prime minister is Awakening: The Abdullah Badawi Years in Malaysia, a book edited by Bridget Welsh and James UH Chin and published in 2013.

While extensive it does not provide any definitive answer (the editors acknowledge the difficulty in attempting to do so). The book certainly provides an interesting analysis. It also most certainly provides several interesting facts and raises several interesting issues in relation to whether being a Muslim is either a necessary or sufficient condition to providing ethical leadership in Malaysia.

Tun (then Datuk Seri) Abdullah Badawi – popularly known as Malaysia’s Mr Clean – would fit the Tok Guru’s conceptualisation of a “good leader” and certainly an “ethical leader.”

Abdullah Badawi comes from a line of prestigious religious leaders. His paternal grandfather, Syeikh Abdullah Badawi Fahim, was Penang’s first mufti after independence. His stature was such, that it is widely reported that it was he – Sheikh Abdullah – who advised Tunku Abdul Rahman (Malaysia’s first prime minister) that 31 August would be good date to declare Malaya’s independence. Syeikh Abdullah also helped establish Hizbul Muslimin, a party that promoted Islamic tenants. Members of Hizbul Muslimin were also often members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Abdullah Badawi’s father, Ahmad Badawi also became a mufti. He also joined UMNO and was a member of the Penang legislative assembly from 1959 until his death in 1978. Interestingly, both Abdullah Badawi’s father and grandfather were among the founders of PAS. There is no doubt that Abdullah Badawi understood the role of leader from an Islamic perspective and the role of Islam in promoting good governance.

Abdullah Badawi did not become a mufti but graduated with a degree in Islamic Studies from the University of Malaya (although he was offered a scholarship to study economics). This would have solidified his lived experience of Islam in leadership and governance. He joined the Malaysian civil service after graduation. In 1978, he resigned from the civil service and stood for election in the Kepala Batas constituency held by his father since 1959.

Although UMNO had begun to use Islam as a political strategy in earnest since the time of Dr Mahathir Mohamed, Malaysia’s fourth prime minister, it was Abdullah Badawi who was the first prime minister to formally introduce Islam into mainstream Malaysian public policy making. He did this through the introduction of Islam Hadhari. While Islam has always had an elevated position in Malaysia Abdullah Badawi made it the hallmark of his administration. These efforts further strengthened the already formidable powers [pdf] (both formal and informal) of “Islam” in Malaysia.

But was Abdullah Badawi an ethical leader and did all these Islamic overtures improve governance in Malaysia?

Here are some fascinating insights extracted from Welsh and Chin’s book.

Abdullah Badawi’s son
Kamaluddin Abdullah was a businessman with moderate holdings before Abdullah Badawi became prime minister. After his father became deputy prime minister and prime minister, Kamaluddin’s holding company, Scomi Group, was perceived to have grown into one of the largest companies in Malaysia and Kamaluddin became one of Malaysia’s richest men. In 2004, Kamaluddin was ranked by Malaysian Business, a leading business magazine, as the 32nd richest man in Malaysia, with a net worth in the region of US$ 100 million.

Abdullah Badawi’s son-in-law
Khairy Jamaluddin, the current Minister for Youth and Sports, married Abduallh Badawi’s daughter in 2001. When Badawi became prime minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, then a political novice with no experience in government was accused of running his father-in-law’s government through his control of the ‘Fourth Floor Boys’ – a group of young professionals who manned the policy-making unit of the PM’s office. Khairy Jamaluddin himself held the posts of ‘special officer’ and Deputy Principal Private Secretary (2003-2004) in the Prime Minister’s office.

After resigning from the prime minister’s office, Khairy Jamaluddin joined a merchant bank, ECM Libra. In 2005, one year after Abdullah Badawi became prime minister, Khairy Jamaluddin helped in the merger between ECM Libra Capital Bhd and the Malaysian government-owned Avenue Capital Resources Bhd. A year later in 2006, the three founding members of ECM Libra – Lim Kian Onn, Kalimullah Masheerul Hassan and David Chua – announced that they were each selling one per cent of their shares in the company to Khairy Jamaluddin. The deal was transacted at 71 cents per share for a total of approximately US$ 2.6 million. Khairy Jamaluddin was able to finance it through a soft loan from the founders.

Abdullah Badawi’s other family members and friends
Abdullah Badawi’s brother, Ibrahim Badawi, Chairman of LSG Sky Chefs-Brahim’s Sdn Bhd was criticised for being given a long term catering contract by state-owned Malaysian Airlines. The terms were deemed so favourable that even the minor caterers complained.

Another close business associate of Abdullah, Patrick Lim was able to buy a prime piece of land belonging to the Penang Turf Club. Using his company, Abad Naluri Sdn Bhd (a private limited company), Patrick Lim proposed to build a multi-million development project called Penang Global City Centre and managed to secure federal approval for the project.

Abdullah Badawi’s name also appeared twice in The Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Oil-for-Food Program chaired by Paul A Volker. The Oil-for-Food program was established by the United Nations to allow Iraq to sell oil in exchange for food, medicine and other vital supplies. The Iraqi government however abused the program by demanding kickbacks from these contracts.

Mastek Sdn Bhd was at that time owned by three persons: Noor Aishah Dato Mahmood (Abdullah Badawi’s sister-in-law), Faek Ahmad Sharef (Noor Aishah’s ex-husband) and Jaya Sudhir (a businessman).

The report stated that Iraqi officials gave Mastek a large allocation because of Faek Ahmad’s relationship to Abdullah Badawi. Iraqi officials referred to Faek Ahmad as ‘Mr Faek Ahmad Shareef/for the benefit of Abdullah’.

Support for Prime Minister Najib Razak
Most surprisingly, in the recent scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak, Abdullah Badawi instead of supporting calls for the prime minister to resign, has come out instead, in support of the prime minister.

While the book provides extensive coverage of the Badawi administration and of Abdullah Badawi himself, the question if being a Muslim is either a necessary or sufficient condition to providing ethical leadership remains unanswered.

Yet, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Malaysia’s longest-serving parliamentarian, in the forward of Welsh and Chin’s book, may have provided some resolution to this burning question:

So the best way to conclude Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s stewardship of the country is to say that he has failed to live up to the legitimate expectations of the people. People say that he failed miserably to translate the aspiration of the people in wanting real reforms for the country. Perhaps it could be said, he fell into the same trap as many third world leaders as he too succumbed to corrupting tendencies of power.

Greg Lopez is research fellow at Murdoch University Executive Education Centre, Murdoch University and visiting fellow, Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University.