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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, November 26, 2006

Mediocre Followers Have Mediocre Leaders

Mediocre Followers Have Mediocre Leaders

Prime Minister Abdullah’s inept leadership is only half the problem. Leaders do not exist in a vacuum; they are there because of their followers. Mediocre followers tolerate and thus encourage mediocre leaders.

The flip side to Abdullah’s incompetence is that it also reflects on the caliber of his followers. Abdullah’s most proximate followers are his ministers, followed by UMNO Supreme Council members, then UMNO members, and last, the citizens.

His ministers meet Abdullah at least once a week during their regular cabinet meetings. UMNO Supreme Council members get to counsel their President at least monthly. Ordinary party members get to voice their views through their chosen delegates once a year during their General Assembly. Lastly, voters get to pass their collective judgment every five years during general elections.

The leader-follower dynamics with Abdullah is less of “monkey see, monkey do,” more of a bunch of drunken sailors recklessly egging on their equally drunk bumbling skipper. When their ship ultimately plows onto a treacherous rock and destroys everything, it matters not who is at fault.

Followers’ Feedback

The finesse, effectiveness, and consequences of the feedback vary with the various levels of followers. The citizens’ (at least the voters) weapon is the ultimate. While it is the most effective and consequential, it is also very crude. Their decision is simple: keep or reject. There is little subtlety or nuances, as President Bush and his cohorts in the Republican Party found out much to their chagrin recently.

Equally effective but much less crude and therefore potentially more beneficial would be the voices of party members. Former Prime Minister Thatcher was rudely reminded of this reality not too long ago when she was unceremoniously booted out even though she had successfully led her party to three successive electoral victories. Today, Labor Party member are none too subtly reminding Prime Minister Blair that he is fast overstaying his welcome. Like Thatcher, Blair too successfully led his party through three elections. If party members neglect or shy away from their responsibility, rest assured that voters would be more than willing to send the rude message a la Bush.

UMNO members have at least two avenues to register their sentiments about their leader: through their delegates to the General Assembly, and through their Supreme Council members.

The recently concluded UMNO General Assembly, like recent ones, was nothing more than bodek sessions, undisguised orgy of adulation for the leader, funded by ill-gotten “money politics” or even the state treasury. Gone are the days when even the most revered UMNO leaders were routinely challenged. We yearn for the era when one brave Sulaiman Palestin would consistently put his name on the ballot to challenge the exalted party president of the day. Where have the singa (lions) that would have roared into the leaders’ ears gone? Where are the halia (ginger) that would at least give a pungent taste to the leaders’ greedy bite?

If the delegates have failed, well, they can be readily excused. After all they are not the party’s top leaders or its cream. UMNO still has its Majlis Tertinggi (Supreme Council), the party’s elite, men and women who are professionals and party veterans. These individuals have gone round the block once or twice. Surely it would be tough to pass wool over their collective eyes.

This particular Supreme Council was constituted since the last leadership conference over a year ago. Meaning, they have had over a dozen meetings with the party president. Surely there must have been at least one courageous soul on at least one brave occasion who dared tell the party president that he is donning a bark loincloth and not sarong pelakat (cheap cotton wrap), much less samping sutra (silk cummerbund) as the man fancies himself wearing. Perhaps they have collectively deluded themselves that their obviously near-naked emperor is immaculately attired.

It could very well be that members of the Majlis Tertinggi, or MT, have gone the way of the membership. Or as one blogger put it, gone “empty,” to match its initials. In UMNO, instead of the cream rising to the top as in cheese making, it is the crud and debris that have risen to the top, as with dirty laundry in a washing machine.

If party members and leaders have failed to apprise Abdullah of his mediocre performance, then surely there are his ministers who meet him regularly and who could perform that necessary chore, either gently or not so gently. After all it is the future of the nation, not that of any individual. The stakes are high and responsibility awesome.

In the best parliamentary tradition, ministers have been known to resign to express their disagreement or displeasure with the prime minister, as the late Robin Cook did to Tony Blair, and Paul O’Neill to Bush. The stature of those ministers soared following their resignation.

The fact that none of Abdullah’s ministers have resigned in protest means only one thing: they interpret Abdullah’s incompetence as otherwise. Meaning, those ministers are equally incompetent.

Blindly Carrying Water

Prime Minister Abdullah has boldly declared his intention not only to continue but also to serve a second and probably even a third term. Such presumption! Obviously his followers, from his cabinet ministers to Supreme Council and ordinary UMNO members, have been his enablers in feeding his delusion that he has been doing a swell job.

Abdullah saw fit to warn his followers “not to test him!” Obviously this Imam, undoubtedly encouraged by his enablers, has also successfully deluded himself into believing that he is divinely destined to lead the nation. Do not challenge Allah’s wish, he seems to imply!

That leaves only one set of follower to pass their collective judgment on him: the voters. If in their collective wisdom Malaysians renew Abdullah’s mandate, then the aphorism that people deserve their leaders would have been proven true again.

As the citizens’ weapon is crude and consequential, its effects could not be readily predictable. When British voters booted out the old Labor Party and put in Thatcher’s Conservative government, that event transformed Britain, for the better.

When Malaysian voters decided to teach the old Alliance government a lesson in the 1969 elections, the results were devastating to the nation. Following the debacle, there were strong voices within UMNO castigating the leadership, but that was after the event. Had those brave souls delivered their message earlier, the leaders might have been persuaded to change their ways and the nation would have been spared that horrible tragedy.

People have a way of expressing their sentiments, with or without elections. When the Iranians were fed up with their Shah, they used their ultimate weapon: they got rid of him. The uppermost question on their mind was on getting rid of him, not on the consequences of that decision. Thus they paid no heed on who would succeed him or the ensuing policy shifts. Today, the Iranians are still paying the price. That is what happens when you wield the ultimate weapon; you cannot always predict the consequences.

Had the Shah’s advisors, ministers, and other proximate followers counseled him earlier when he could still mend his ways, his fate and theirs, as well as those of the Iranian people, would have been far different.

Abdullah saw fit to characterize those who criticize him as engaging in fitnah, a Quranic reference meaning betraying the faith. It would not be the first or the last time for a politician to seek refuge in religion. Abdullah should instead heed the beautiful verse in the Quran to the effect that when you see a wrong being perpetrated, you should use your hand to stop it. Failing that, then you use your tongue, meaning voice your disapproval. At the very least you should disapprove of it in your heart, knowing fully well that Allah is least pleased with this option.

I may not convince Abdullah or his supporters through my fingers at keyboard, at least I have done my part in registering my disapproval.

There are consequences to the followers’ inaction and remaining silent, or worse, in praising a mediocre and incompetent performance. Abdullah’s ministers and those in UMNO Supreme Council may rationalize their support for him on grounds of “personal and party loyalty,” “not rocking the boat,” “working within the system,” or plain selfish attempts at clinging to power and position. Regardless, the effects are the same.

When you blindly carry water behind your bumbling leader, you will be wet whenever he stumbles. Worse, you may even end up drowning in your own pail.

Abdullah’s ministers, Supreme Council members, and UMNO delegates ought to be reminded of this stark reality.


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