In his luncheon address to a conference on Malaysian Politics in the 21st century jointly organised by the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Abdullah said that Indonesia's "political cataclysm" is proof that Western-style liberal democracy does not work for every country.
He said Indonesia had undergone "nothing short of a political cataclysm" in the past two years as its system of government was "stripped naked and reconstructed along lines which were lauded by the benevolent international community."
But he said Indonesia's "foreign partners" were not satisfied with a gradual approach to political transition and "The nascent post-Suharto government was backed into a corner on issues of independence and secession for Indonesia's provinces," referring to international support for last year's independence vote in East Timor which was followed by militia bloodshed.
He said: "They believed that change needed to be infused, like a shock therapy. The tragic circumstances are still unfolding for the world to see. It is clear that the floodgates of liberal democracy do not necessarily usher in peaceful societies.
"Yet the case of Indonesia is held up as an example par excellence of how liberal democracy is the saviour of the supposedly oppressed, marginalised people of the Third World."
He said: "It seems that Malaysia is now an outcast because in the eyes of the West and even some quarters at home, we practice an illiberal democracy.
"Such a critique is simplified and misplaced. The liberal democracy championed by the West and deified by naive Malaysians, cannot and should not be applied to every country."
Abdullah’s first foray into a major policy speech setting out his political vision and concept of democracy is most unfortunate for at least four reasons.
Firstly, his dismissal of the democratisation process of Indonesia as a "political cataclysm" and proof that "liberal democracy" does not work for every country and his interpretation of the events are open to argument and debate.
Secondly, the timing of his reference at a very critical moment in Indonesian political reforms with the showdown between President Abdurrahman Wahid and General Wiranto with the Indonesian capital awash with rumours of a military coup - an acid test as to whether Indonesian democracy has passed another milestone breaking the military’s role in politics and turning it more into a professional force.
By passing adverse judgment on the Indonesian democratisation process, Abdullah’s speech could be construed as the Malaysian government sending a signal of support to the anti-democratic forces in Indonesia who advocate a military coup to get rid of President Wahid and end the democratic experiment.
I will never agree if anyone should allege that Abdullah was interfering in the domestic affairs of Indonesia when he clearly showed that his sympathies were not with the democratisation process, just as nobody should use such a similar charge of interference in the domestic affairs of Indonesia when voices are raised expressing concern that the Indonesian armed forces might seize power from the elected government of the republic.
Defence Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who was present at Abdullah’s speech yesterday, said two weeks ago that the Indonesian Armed Forces is a professional force, loyal to the government elected by the people and is not inclined to seizing power from the elected government of the republic.
To avoid any possibility of Abdullah’s speech being construed as supporting an Indonesian military coup, is the Malaysian government prepared to be the first ASEAN nation to publicly declare support for the elected government of Indonesia and to speak up against any notion of a military coup by the Indonesian Armed Forces?
Thirdly, Abdullah’s speech is most unfortunate as it showed that Malaysia has had no sympathies whatsoever for East Timor independence aspirations, even when East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmao is due on Monday for a three-day visit to Malaysia.
Last Monday, an Indonesian inquiry team recommended that six generals, including former armed forces chief General Wiranto, should be formally investigated in connection with the violence that erupted after the independence vote in East Timor on August 30 last year where hundreds of people were killed, a quarter of a million forced from the territory and cities burned to the ground.
A separate United Nations Human Rights Commission report also released on the same day came out with similar findings blaming the Indonesian military which Wiranto then headed and called for the establishment of a human rights tribunal.
Will Malaysia support impartial and thorough-going investigations to ensure that all those responsible for the gross human rights in East Timor are brought to justice?
The fourth reason why Abdullah’s speech is unfortunate is his defence of increasingly autocratic rule of Mahathir even to the extent of stifling democracy in UMNO - the largest political party in the country which had always prided itself for its internal democracy.
In dimissing the concept of liberal democracy, and equating it with the political hypocrisy of the West and "political cataclysm" in Indonesia, Abdullah has only exposed his lack of democratic convictions and credentials.
No on in the Opposition had ever advocated absolute freedoms or total democracy and if Abdullah refuses to understand the cries of Malaysians for more democratic space and the horror of the people at the repressive responses of the government after the general election, then there is nothing for the young generation of Malaysians to look for even when Abdullah succeeds in becoming the fifth Prime Minister after Mahathir.
Just because former Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim recently wrote and castigated the "illiberal democracy" in Malaysia, it is no justification for Abdullah to regard "liberal democracy" as a dirty term. He should be reminded that one of his strongest lieutenants, Datuk Dr. Rais Yatim, had also written and castigated the lack of "liberal democracy" in Malaysia just only a few years ago!
But the fourth factor, concerning Malaysian democracy and politics, will have to be left to be treated at greater length at a different occasion.