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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Open Letter to PM Abdullah

(Personal note: The next two Sunday postings will be excerpts from my forthcoming book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges for the Twenty-First Century. It is due to be released this October 2006. This excerpt is the last chapter, essentially a summary of the book. MBM)

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi

Dear YAB Perdana Menteri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi:


When Prime Minister Mahathir selected you back in early 1999 to be his Deputy, and thus his successor, you described the event as a promotion.

That reflected your humble and understated style. I hope that in your heart you did not consider the exercise to be just another step up the civil service rung, rather a rare and privileged opportunity to lead Malaysia to greater heights. Malaysians certainly thought so, for they subsequently gave you an overwhelming mandate.

In the few years as Deputy Prime Minister, you remained the dutiful number two, respectfully keeping yourself in the background. I do not know whether that was an expression of your personality or that you were shrewdly mindful of the sorry fate of your three predecessors. Besides, it would have been tough to shine in the shadow of such a towering personality (if I can borrow your phrase) as Dr. Mahathir.

As leader, you intimated early the direction you wish to take the nation. You spoke bravely of the “New Malay Dilemma,” of weaning our people off the special privilege crutches. You exhorted us to be competitive. With your Islam Hadhari, you aspired that our great faith should emancipate, not entrap us. Malaysians also bought into your “Excellence, Glory and Distinction” election rally. You pleaded with them to “Work with me, not for me.”

When you in quick succession set up the Royal Commission on the Police, scrapped the exorbitantly expensive double track railroad project, and arrested a cabinet minister and a prominent corporate figure on charges of corruption, the nation cheered. Malaysians, yearning for a change, saw in your early moves the promise of even greater changes to come.

Yet barely a couple of years later, the citizens were becoming restless. You asked them to be patient, and sought Allah’s forgiveness for your mistakes. You also saw fit to warn your critics not to question your niat ikhlas (noble intentions).
With leadership, good intentions alone are not enough. The one critic you cannot ignore or wish away – the man who appointed you, Dr. Mahathir – is also your toughest and most persistent. Despite attempts by those sympathetic to you in the mainstream media to ignore him, he is getting an increasingly receptive audience.

I am on record expressing my lack of enthusiasm over Mahathir’s choice of a successor, but I take no pleasure in pointing that out. Like other Malaysians, I want you and the nation to succeed. I would love to be proven wrong.

Increasingly, you are demonstrating that those early moves were not only your best shots but also your only ones. Despite your early commitment to reform the Police Force, you have now backtracked in the face of opposition from senior police officers. You took that in stride; to me, it was clearly gross insubordination, which in turn reflects the level of discipline. Your “New Malay Dilemma” turned out to be your own personal dilemma; you are unable to rein in the keris-brandishing elements in UMNO who are as dependent as ever on their NEP crutches. As for corruption and transparency, your promise of open tenders and competitive biddings proved to be nothing more than the typical politician’s promise before an election.

You professed not to be concerned with your critics. You should. Those closest to you would tell you only what you want to hear. To them, you would always be donning samping sutra (silk cummerbund) even if you were wrapped in sarong pelakat (cotton sarong), or even a bark loincloth. That is an easy trap for unwary leaders to fall into. In the end, it is you who would be embarrassed. They would go on to praise the next sultan’s new cloth.

You would have noticed that those who are most critical of Mahathir now were once his unabashed supporters when he was in power. Do not be taken in by these professional cheerleaders (kaki bodek). That is nothing more than expressions of our angguk and gelek (head shaking and nodding) culture. Your predecessor’s domineering personality has done much to encourage that, and old habits die hard. The cabinet and UMNO Supreme Council have degenerated into an echo chamber for whomsoever is leader. Do not be taken in by the echoing chorus of support.


The Jittery Joget Girl

You are trying to achieve too much: to be the nation’s imam, lead the Muslim world, undo the excesses of your predecessor, dispense with the special privileges crutch, and be a “nice guy” to all. It cannot be done.

Concentrate on a few important areas. Success creates its own momentum and would get transferred onto other areas, creating a critical mass effect. Jumping from one problem to another without solving any, risks making you like a jittery joget (dance) girl, flipping from one partner to another whenever the song changes, leaving only her scent. You will leave no impression; there will be no legacy.

I respectfully suggest that you focus on making Malaysia and Malaysians, in particular Malays, competitive. To this end, four areas need emphasizing: establishing effective leadership; enhancing the quality of human capital; strengthening our culture and institutions; and harnessing our geographic attributes. These are the four cardinal points of my “Diamond of Development.”

Effective leadership begins but does not end with you. You have to lead the way and set the pace, but you cannot do it alone; you need a team. You have essentially the same tired and tainted crew you inherited from Mahathir. If your intent is to dismantle the excesses of Mahathir, your present team is the wrong choice. They enthusiastically supported him to build the half bridge over the causeway; now they profusely praised you for canceling it! Such are their true characters and commitment!

You have also kept your campaign team as advisors. Managing a country requires completely different sets of skills and talent from those needed to run an election campaign. Your political advisors will see everything from the political angle, which may not necessarily be in the best interest of the nation.

One difficulty you have is that politics no longer attracts the best and brightest Malaysians. Your long tenure in government insulated you from this reality. You had intimations of this however, for in searching for new leaders for GLCs, one of your stated requirements was that they should have substantial experience in multinational corporations.

You repeat your predecessor’s mistake in not casting your net wide and deep in search of talent; you still pan in the same polluted puddle of UMNO.

You should emulate Pakistan’s President Mushawar Sharif. He broke tradition and went outside of politics, and indeed the country, by recruiting Shaukat Aziz, then a Citibank senior executive, to be Finance Minister and later, Prime Minister. In his short tenure, Shaukat transformed Pakistan’s economy.

You have kept the deadwood you inherited; your excuse is that you prefer the soft approach. Others view that as timidity; you are unsure of yourself and fear that they might revolt. You recognize this, hence your warning Malaysians not to misinterpret your lembik (limpness).

You should liberate the Anti Corruption Agency to do its job; that should occupy those tired and tainted ministers should they bother you when you let them go. It would also serve as a timely reminder to your new ministers should they too feel tempted to stray. You missed a splendid opportunity to demonstrate your abhorrence for corruption by not demanding the immediate resignation of your ministers Kasitah Gaddam and Isa Samad. By letting them resign voluntarily and on their own sweet time, you appeared to condone their actions.

Next: Enhancing Competitiveness

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