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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, November 12, 2006

Malignant Neglect of Pak Lah's Leadership

Malaysiakini.com November 9, 2006

Malignant Neglect of Pak Lah’s Leadership

The current political anxiety in Malaysia centers over two issues. One is the obvious incompetence of Abdullah Badawi’s leadership and the consequent malignant neglect of his administration. The other is the fear that his replacement would be someone even worse.

Both fears reflect the generally sorry state of the nation’s political leadership. That however should not be the excuse for us to accept the status quo. Yes, change involves risks. The Iranians thought they were doing themselves a great favor by getting rid of the Shah; look at what they have now.

What I am advocating is not simply change, but change for the better. That would not happen easily or spontaneously, we have to work hard to achieve it.

I do not pretend to know who would be best to lead Malaysia. I believe however that Allah in His Wisdom has endowed us with our share of the talented. Offhand I can name a dozen capable candidates; those closer to home should have an even longer list.

If we were to open up the process, we would more likely get better candidates and thus increase the probability of selecting the right leader. Restricting it through putting onerous burdens like having to be nominated by over 50 branches unnecessarily limits our choice. We must cast our net deep and wide.

If those would-be leaders were to present themselves and their ideas, then we could exercise our collective judgment. I believe in the Quranic wisdom that Allah would not let His community be in error. Meaning, have faith in the judgment of the crowd, but first you have to ensure that the crowd is truly inclusive and its decisions reached without corruption or coercion. Otherwise we would have essentially mob rule masquerading as democracy.

Once we have chosen our leaders, we must continually hold them to high standards and demand more of them. If we put our leaders on a pedestal and treat them like sultans, it would not take them long to think that they are. Then they would think that they are not answerable to anyone. Very dangerous! Monster leaders are not created overnight; often their followers are the enablers.

Mahathir’s Supreme Contribution

It is ironic that Mahathir would make one of his greatest contributions only after he retired. Regardless of the eventual outcome of his criticisms of the current leadership, he has already effectively broken down the entrenched cultural taboo against criticizing our leaders. By his not seeking refuge in his comfortable pension, together with his willingness to risk his considerable reputation as well as his trademark disregard for meaningless protocol and misplaced sense of social decorum, Mahathir shocked the normally placid UMNO community with his scathing criticisms of Abdullah.

To be sure, Mahathir is only one factor. Abdullah’s own ineptness invites the avalanche of criticisms and outright scorn. In fact, Mahathir was a latecomer to the party.

Then there are the Internet and the alternative media that give expressions to those dissenting views. Perversely, Abdullah paved the process by appointing incompetents like Kalimullah Hassan and Brendan Periera to run The New Straits Times. The alternative media would not have gained their immense following and respect so quickly had the mainstream media maintained some modicum of credibility.

It is this confluence of factors, the perfect storm as it were, that helped shatter our collective ingrained Hang Tuah-like blind loyalty to our leaders. I hope this particular legacy will endure. To hear his supporters say it, Abdullah claims credit for all these, attributing them to the greater transparency of his administration. Such a misreading of reality! If he had his way, he would muzzle every dissenter.

Rest assured that the next leader would not easily get a free pass. He or she would be subjected to critical scrutiny right from the start. That would be healthy and help ensure that he or she would stay on the straight and narrow path. At least that is my fervent hope!

Abdullah was well meaning, honest, and earnest in the beginning. Malaysians, exhausted by the unrelenting pace of his predecessor, were enthralled by the welcomed change in rhythm. Unfortunately, the unrestrained adulation heaped upon him early on by well-meaning supporters, together with the overwhelming electoral mandate he received soon after, quickly went to his head.

Following the elections, instead of being emboldened, he was content to rest on his laurels. He was like the high school senior who having excelled in his matriculating examination, merely coasted along at university, and then was bewildered by the disastrous consequence. He should have been working doubly hard and set himself an even higher standard after the election.

Alas, that impressive political victory seemed so long ago; it has been a steep and unnerving downhill ride ever since.

The Challenge of Securing Talent

An additional challenge for Malaysia is that politics today no longer attracts the talented. In the past, nationalism and the accompanying struggle for independence inspired many to enter politics. Today, smart young Malaysians have the world as their stage. Their skills are in demand globally. Malaysia has to aggressively entice them. Mindless emotional appeals to patriotism would not do it; challenges and opportunities would.

Even at home, there are many other exciting opportunities, like starting their own enterprises or joining multinational corporations. By default, public service generally and politics specifically is fast becoming the refuge of the less talented. Not surprisingly, our leaders are slow to appreciate this stark reality.

Reversing the trend, while difficult, is doable. Doubling the pay of ministers would definitely help. That alone would not suffice; you still need to attract fresh talent, otherwise only the current crowd would benefit. If we reduce by half the current bloated cabinet, the remaining ministers could easily double their pay without the government incurring additional costs. It would also save by having fewer Secretaries-General and other highly paid support civil servants.

One effective way to enlist fresh talent would be to secure high-level recruitment, or “helicopter candidates,” to use the local parlance. Tun Razak effectively used this strategy. He was successful because he selected only outstanding individuals with proven and widely acknowledged accomplishments. Anyone with less-than-spectacular credentials would only incite endless sniping from the troops.

Relying on members to work their way up through the party as at present merely perpetuates the current corrupt system. It is not the cream that rises to the top, only the crud and dirt that had worked their way loose through the agitator of the party’s washing machine.

Looking For UMNO’s Goldwater

Malaysia cannot endure more of the malignant neglect of Abdullah’s leadership. What UMNO (and the nation) desperately needs is a respected senior statesman (or a group of such individuals) to do what Senator Barry Goldwater did to Nixon at the height of the Watergate crisis. Goldwater personally convinced President Nixon to resign voluntarily and thus spared him (Nixon) and the nation much grief.

The crisis in Malaysia today is much worse; the damage it wrecks is hidden and far more consequential. Sadly, I do not see any potential Goldwater in the party. Tengku Razaleigh is one of the few bold enough to carry the blunt message to Abdullah. However, as the Tengku had earlier challenged Abdullah, such a role would be unseemly for Razaleigh. He could still do it credibly if he were first to publicly disavow any interest in being Prime Minister.

The other possible person would be Musa Hitam, but he is too enthralled with his fresh Tunship and is in no position to be the bearer of bad tidings to the very person who recommended the award to him.

Thus it would be up to the ordinary UMNO members to deliver the message. Knowing full well the party’s culture, that is a very tall order. Meanwhile the malignancy continues to exact its ravages upon the nation. That is the real tragedy, not the fate of any individual or leader.


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