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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, December 12, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #35

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

Leadership in the Era of Globalization

One consequence of globalization is the diminished importance of sovereign states and the concomitant decline in the powers of national leaders. This aspect of globalization enrages nationalistic leaders like Mahathir.25 Theirs is a losing battle.

For example, Malaysia’s interest rates are determined less by its central bankers and more by bond traders and money managers at major financial centers. Malaysia tried to isolate itself by instituting capital controls following the 1997 economic crisis, but smarter heads prevailed and those barriers have since been dismantled. Malaysian leaders can take comfort that American interest rates too are controlled less by the Federal Reserve and more by Wall Street and large foreign bondholders like China and Japan.

Previously, national leaders thought they could control their citizens by having the monopoly on information, hence the obsession with national news agencies, media control, and outright censorship. With the Internet and ICT, the government’s control is effectively neutralized. Nobody reads Bernama, Malaysia’s national news agency. The New Straits Times (NST), once the nation’s premier newspaper, is today unceremoniously relegated to third place in circulation. Its decline coincided with its control and ownership by UMNO. That paper is today nothing more than an UMNO newsletter, a shocking decline for a once proud brand. Even the Sun, established only a few years ago, has upstaged NST. In the past, totalitarian states could control the flow of their people. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, even the Russians could not do that. They have belatedly learned not to even try.

Sovereign states still have the exclusive prerogative to issue passports and visas, but those documents are increasingly becoming irrelevant, especially for two groups of people. First the highly talented; they are in demand worldwide. Even China is offering immediate “Green Cards” in an attempt to entice the talented. Not that there are many takers. Western countries are laying down the red carpet for the best and brightest. Many from the Third World are responding, oblivious of the patriotic pleadings of their leaders back home.

The second are the unskilled, desperate to escape the hell that is their homeland in the developing world. To them, borders too are meaningless, they will do desperate things like being cooped up in suffocating containers in order to gain entry into the developed world.

With the free flow of information across borders and its democratization within those borders, power is effectively decentralized. A rigid command-and-control system cannot operate in such an environment. What is needed is a flexible and nimble leadership structure, ready to respond quickly to changes. One size fits all, the hallmark of military leadership, would not do it.

In this era of globalization, Abdullah’s coach-like leadership style is better suited than Mahathir’s confrontational tone. If you have to shout in order to be heard, chances are you do not have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation. You are rightly ignored. That was the fate that befell Mahathir in the last few years of his tenure. The shriller he became, the more he was ignored. Abdullah’s low-key style is more in tune with today’s realities. Having the right style is only the beginning; you also have to have substance and effective execution. This is where he is sorely lacking.

To be an effective leader today, one needs to understand the nuances and subtleties of the world as well as your own country, and then adjust accordingly. The hubris of many Third World leaders is that they think they can change the greater world when they cannot effectively do that to their own little state.

Citizens too have their responsibility to nurture effective and responsive leaders at all levels. We must demand this of our leaders.

Next: Chapter 7: People: Our Most Precious Asset

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