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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, October 01, 2006

Grooming the Next Generation of Leaders

Grooming the Next Generation of Leaders

Jack Welch, the retired legendary chief executive of GE, related his less-than-pleasant task before leaving office of personally telling the three or four other capable candidates under him that they were not his choice to succeed him.

There are two points to this observation. The obvious is that GE under Welch had no shortage of capable talent for the top slot; the second, Welch’s acute sense of obligation (and class) to let the other accomplished contenders hear the bad news first and directly from him.

A common lament to my recent call for Abdullah Badawi to step down was the lack of solid candidates to succeed him, best expressed by one of the government’s backbencher in Parliament. Although when he said it, Zaid Ibrahim was merely trying to praise Abdullah Badawi, however awkwardly.

Grooming the next tier of leaders is one responsibility many leaders do not pay sufficient attention. Of all the prime ministers, only Tunku Abdul Rahman had acquitted himself well on this point; he had the capable Tun Razak.

Dynamic Duo of Razak and Ismail

For a while Tun Razak had Dr. Ismail as deputy prime minister. It reflected favorably not only on the caliber of these two distinguished Malaysians but also the prevailing climate in UMNO at the time that the two worked well together, the skills and personality of one complementing the other. In the political climate of today’s UMNO, there would be endless intrigues and Machiavellian maneuverings.

Their smooth rhythm was shattered with the unexpected death of Dr. Ismail. It could not have come at the worse possible time for Tun Razak, for he was at the time fighting his own personal battle against a deadly cancer. This fact was concealed from the public; Dr. Ismail was one of the few whom Tun Razak had confided his innermost secret. That was the kind of trust and confidence they had in one another, a combination and display rarely seen anywhere, or since.

Tun Razak displayed his astuteness in spotting talent on other than Dr. Ismail. The late Tun used his trips to the districts as opportunities to size up junior officers. He enticed many into politics, including some whose talent could easily have been overlooked because of their earlier less-than-stellar academic performance in school. Abdullah Ahmad for example, became his personal assistant. Later following the Tun’s death and the shift of political wind, Abdullah Ahmad was jailed under the Internal Security Act.

Talent, like water, finds its own level. On his release, Abdullah Ahmad went on to Cambridge; he later served as Special Ambassador to the United Nations. The Tun also saw the talent in one young Dr. Mahathir, and quickly brought him back into UMNO’s fold after the Tunku had expelled him earlier.

Not all of Tun Razak’s choices were right, of course. Struggling with his own lethal battle, we could readily excuse his choosing Hussein Onn to replace Dr. Ismail. Hussein’s subsequent tenure as Prime Minister was a forgettable one, but he had one enduring legacy: his choice of a deputy.

Selecting Mahathir was Hussein’s greatest contribution. It was ironic that later in the midst of UMNO’s internal squabbles he would repudiate what turned out to be his wisest decision!

To be sure, Hussein did not make that prescient choice on his own. The three then UMNO Vice-Presidents had essentially given him an ultimatum to pick one of them. It was a reflection of Hussein’s personal weakness and lack of leadership that he did not tell them off for usurping his prerogative.

Hussein displayed other ineptness as prime minister. Mahathir found out about his lucky future not directly from Hussein but through the latter’s press conference. Presumably the other two Vice-Presidents heard their piece of unhappy news likewise. Hussein lacked class in not personally informing them in private ahead of time.

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

Mahathir had three deputy prime ministers before Abdullah Badawi. The principle that practice makes perfect obviously eluded Mahathir, for he now openly regrets his choice. Instead of ruminating over it, he is trying hard to remedy the situation.

In picking Abdullah, Mahathir, like Hussein before him, did not venture beyond party tradition. Mahathir limited his choice to only the sitting UMNO Vice Presidents. By anointing Abdullah and discouraging contests in the two top slots (in the name of party “tradition”) Mahathir denied UMNO members their voice. More crucially, he denied the party a wider selection and the collective wisdom of its membership.

It is a delicious irony that while Mahathir endlessly exhorted Malays to break free from the suffocating bounds of our traditions, he was unable to liberate himself from the strictures of his own party!

Mahathir has one redeeming trait: determination. When he discovered late that Anwar Ibrahim was wanting as a would-be successor, he did not hesitate in correcting the error even though it was painful to him (and also Anwar), his party, and nation.

Whether Mahathir would be successful in rectifying this latest blunder (in selecting Abdullah) remains to be seen. He is now older and, more significantly, out of office. The only power he has is his considerable influence, personal conviction, and, not to be lightly dismissed, good health. Those are the very qualities lacking in Abdullah Badawi.

Abdullah’s Public Piety and “Mr. Clean” Facade

Abdullah’s public piety and “Mr. Clean” image is nothing more than a shrewdly crafted facade. The man’s character does not justify those descriptions.

Take his piety. Soon after becoming prime minister, he unashamedly indulged in a grand gesture of being Imam by leading his ministers in a widely publicized congregational prayer. The latest had him leading an even larger group after breaking fast. These are nothing more than a crass attempt at evoking the powerful images of our great Caliphs, giants who were not only political but also spiritual leaders.

Malaysians forget (or more correctly were never reminded) that Islamic Studies was not Abdullah’s first choice. He stumbled upon it because he could not handle the mathematics to pursue economics. Then, as today, Islamic Studies was a dumping ground for those not inclined for or incapable of rigorous academic pursuit.
Likewise his “Mr. Clean” image; he never had the opportunity before! Now that he is Prime (and Finance) Minister, he is furiously making up for lost time.

All previous prime ministers were magnanimous upon assuming office by pardoning prisoners, especially those held under the ISA. Abdullah granted none; so much for the charity of his Islam Hadhari.

As for his humility and frugality, this was a man who would not move into the official residence until it had undergone multimillion-dollar renovations. Apparently the décor was not up to his exquisite taste! To think that he could not even afford a house when he was dropped as a minister a while back.

Such profligacy reflects an aesthetic sophistication of a Marcos rather than the Kennedy.

The late Tun Razak agonized over putting in a swimming pool for his young children at the old Sri Perdana. He did not have to brag or publicize his frugality, humility, or piety. The fact that Abdullah has to means that he is anything but.

It is not just the citizens who were taken in by Abdullah’s carefully cultivated public persona, even the hardnosed Mahathir too bought into it. Mahathir mistook the man’s eager nodding to mean agreement when actually Abdullah was merely bidding his time as a raccoon would for the farmer to leave the chicken coup. Mahathir now publicly calls his successor a chronic liar. Any self-respecting man would take deep offence to that; Abdullah took it in stride.

Prevention Always Better Than Remediation

Jack Welch offers many insights on preventing such succession errors and the more general lesson of grooming the next tier of leaders. On his frequent visits to the periphery, Welch would ask his divisional heads to identify their promising junior officers. He would then size them up personally to see whether he agree with their superior’s assessment. Additionally he would them what they were doing to nurture those talent.

Whenever promising candidates were fast-tracked, Welch would also reward their immediate superiors. That would encourage them and others to develop the talent under them. It would also prevent the dirty trick prevalent in the Malaysian civil service where promising subordinates would be sent to obscure postings lest they become a threat to their superiors.

The civil service has an elaborate process for evaluating officers, but it is done in secret. When I was in government service, I made it a point to discuss my report with my young doctors individually and in private. There would be no point to the exercise if they were denied the valuable feedback. My senior colleagues pointedly told me that I was breaching the civil service code.

Such sessions benefited both parties; I had occasions to change my evaluations following them. Far from being dyspeptic encounters, they permitted me to know my junior officers better. Today I still get letters and e-mails from them, even those whom my evaluations had been less-than-rosy. I also bask in the reflected glory when they shine, especially those whom I had given glowing reports.

Had Malaysian leaders followed Welch’s example, they would now enjoy the luxury of having an abundance of leadership talent, and the nation would be spared the present embarrassment.


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