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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.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #27

Chapter 6: Great Nation, Great Leaders (Cont’d)

The Military Model

Watch old war movies and we would be impressed by the way the military operates. Even away from the sanitized version, as in a real war, the military does things efficiently. It feeds, houses, and moves thousands of troops smoothly, while a comparable civilian operation would inevitably result in traffic jams, bewilderment, and outright chaos. Witness the rescue operations during the Katrina Hurricane.

The rigid hierarchical and central control-and-command structure of the military is very efficient under such circumstances. Everyone knows his or her place in the organization, and the chain of command is clear: top-down and rarely sideways. Information and resources are controlled at headquarters, and then dispersed to the troops at the frontlines. The platoon commander is responsible for the troops under him, and he in turn is answerable to his superior officers. This pyramidal command structure is the most efficient, especially where there is a clear mission that is agreed upon, as in wars or national emergencies. Military commanders often exhibit an authoritarian streak, and the physical bearing that goes with it, including the swagger a la Patton, at least in the movie version as played by George C. Scott.

This is also the leadership needed to mobilize massive rescue operations as after an earthquake. It is the leadership best suited to restore law and order after a civil turmoil. Tun Razak used it effectively in the aftermath of the 1969 riots; he restored peace very quickly.

Military leadership may be defined as “the art of direct and indirect influence, and the skill of creating the conditions for organizational success to accomplish missions effectively.” (Hawkins)7 In the military, junior leaders like platoon commanders exert their influence directly through their intimate contacts with those under their command. Often this bonding occurs in the most trying of circumstances, as in a foxhole during battle. Such experiences make for strong and enduring personal bonds; they depend on each other literally for their lives.

Senior officers exert their influence for the most part indirectly, through the orders they give down the chain of command. Many still value the direct personal influence, hence the sight of commanding generals visiting the troops on the front line. Such “showing of the flag” visits are more for morale boosting rather than for any strategic or command value. It is unlikely for the commanding general to get any fresh intelligence or insight that he does not already have before

the visit.

There is also a comparable difference between managers and leaders in the military model, that is, between staff (or headquarters) officers and front line commanders. “Staff” people are responsible for ensuring that the frontline troops are fed and have adequate armaments and supplies. Wars have been lost for lack of fuel, food and bullets, that is, failures of staff operations. To win wars however, you depend on the troops at the frontlines, not the staff personnel at headquarters. There is no mistaking that.

Tun Razak’s military-style National Operations Council in the aftermath of the 1969 riots was very effective. Less well appreciated is his similar very successful approach to rural development before the riots. Tun Razak patterned his rural development efforts after General Gerald Templer’s war against the communist insurgency, complete with its district “Operations Room.”8

In the early days of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew emulated the military style of leadership, in part to instill discipline in his cadres. They even sported collarless stiff white shirts, saluted each other (albeit with limp wrists), and marched about endlessly (though not in straight lines). After decades of slumming and pretending to be lowly comrades, Lee and his ministers now revert to their fondness for their London-tailored suites. Their military façade was just that.

Nonetheless with his regimented style, Lee successfully whipped unruly Singapore into a model modern state. Before Lee, Singapore was like any other Asian city: dirty, corrupt, disorderly, and where nothing worked. With his military style, he even succeeded in making Singapore Chinese to quit spitting, chewing gum, and hanging their laundry out of their apartment windows. Heck, he even made the young sport crew cuts, just like real army recruits! Those were remarkable achievements.

Many claimed he was too successful. He expunged the soul from the citizens, reducing them to robots. They may be highly educated, but robots nonetheless. Singaporeans meekly put up with the most inane intrusive rules without so much as a squeak of protest. Of course their leaders interpret that to be the hallmark of discipline.

Lee may have had all the traits of a military dictator nonetheless he was duly elected. Not so with South Korea’s General Pak Chung Hee. He simply grabbed power. As leader he treated his countrymen as a drill sergeant would an ill-disciplined bunch of peasant recruits. He was banking that after rigorous book camp, these youngsters with their new spit-and-polished look would forever be grateful to their drillmaster. Pak was fully aware that he did not have political legitimacy, but he was banking that with economic success, he would win the hearts and minds of his people.9 He was right, up to a point.

His rural development and industrialization policies were very effective. He used his military bearing to mobilize the peasants. Overnight the countryside was transformed; roads were straightened, thatched roofs replaced with more modern metal ones, and rural electrification expanded. He pushed for industrialization, unabashedly emulating the successful Japanese. Pak and his team were diligent students of the Japanese despite the Koreans’ natural antipathy towards the Japanese, a consequence of being colonized by them.

Pak single-mindedly focused on economic development, he tolerated no opposition. Like a true military leader, he controlled everything, from the giving out of import and export permits to the allocation of credits. He was so successful that within a decade the South Koreans markedly improved their social and living standards to the point that they forgot their recent privations. Their horizons expanded; they now had higher aspirations. Those earlier assaults on their civil rights and personal liberties were tolerated, if not grudgingly, in exchange for enjoying the fruits of economic development.

These developments transformed the Koreans, but it did not catch on with Pak. The Koreans now had the metaphorical powerful jet engine and modern fuselage, but their wings were still the old biplane variety. Something had to give; it did. Pak was eventually assassinated; his own CIA chief did it.

Had Pak withdrawn earlier and let other leaders take the Koreans to their next level of development, Korean history would be very different. Not to mention that he might have lived long enough to see the fruits of his daring initiatives.

The difference between Pak and Singapore’s Lee was that Lee took twice as long to accomplish his goals. For another, Pak transformed a country with a huge hinterland with its large poor rural dwellers, while Singapore is an urban diminutive island with a much smaller population. Lee however, bettered Pak in one crucial point; Lee knew when to quit, or at least withdraw a little.

The military model when used in civilian settings for productive purposes, as Lee and Pak did, can be amazingly effective. That same efficiency however could be abused for less-than-benign purposes. For a dramatic contrast, consider Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. Both quickly drove their country to the ground.

Next: The Military Model in Industry

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