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Big shoes for Abdullah to fill

Abdullah (L) faces many challenges as he steps out of Mahathir's shadow.
Abdullah (L) faces many challenges as he steps out of Mahathir's shadow.

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(CNN) Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has big shoes to fill as Malaysia's new prime minister, but he also has the political pedigree to meet the challenges of Mahathir Mohamad's legacy.

In his 29 years in Malaysian politics, Abdullah served as the minister of home affairs, foreign affairs, defense and education before his elevation to deputy prime minister in 1999 following the political demise of Anwar Ibrahim.

Sixty-three year old Abdullah was also the son of a UMNO (Malaysia's dominant ruling party) official and holds a bachelor of Islamic studies degree from the University of Malaya.

On leaving university, he joined Malaysia's civil service, rising to the rank of deputy-secretary general for the Ministry of Culture and Youth before entering politics in 1974.

Political commentators seem to agree Abdullah will bring a different style to the Malaysian leadership, steering away from the frequently controversial course charted by his predecessor.

As Mahathir's deputy, Abdullah wisely maintained a low profile, gaining for himself a reputation as a political "Mr Nice Guy".

But beneath the bland exterior, say his supporters, is a steely determination.

He will need it. Any failure to meet the high expectations set by Mahathir could prompt a quick challenge for the leadership from within UMNO ranks.

Other challenges also lie ahead.

Under Mahathir, Malaysia has developed an interwoven business and political culture that critics refer to as Malaysia Inc.

Favored companies and organizations have benefited from state-backed largesse, an arrangement that has led to suggestions of corruption.

More importantly, it is a structure that is struggling to compete for international investment from aggressive new competitors -- most notably China, but also India and Vietnam.

Abdullah himself has referred to the issue of Malaysia Inc in a number of speechs and referred to corruption as a "cancer' which could destroy UMNO.

The new leader will also have to deal with an international community which is becoming increasingly intolerant of terrorism in Southeast Asia.

While Mahathir has been praised by the U.S. for his swift crackdown on terrorist elements following the September 11 attacks, dangerous extremists almost certainly remain in Malaysia.


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