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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, May 25, 2008

UMNO's Tuah-Jebat Dilemma

The furor over Tun Mahathir’s quitting UMNO cannot hide an increasingly obvious and ugly reality: Abdullah’s incompetence as Prime Minister. Ranting and raving against Mahathir will not alter this singular fact.

Only an ardent few – his family members, closest advisors, and those beholden to him – believe that Abdullah has executed the duties of his office diligently. These individuals will forever remain faithful to him even if he were to drive the country to ruins. Consider that Saddam Hussein and Shah Pahlavi still have their ardent admirers today.

For others, their only excuse for wanting Abdullah to stay is for “party unity.”

Mahathir’s poser to Abdullah’s putative successor Najib Razak on whether he is loyal to UMNO or to Abdullah is a dilemma shared by all party members. Najib as well as all UMNO members would do well to re-read our classic Hang Tuah-Hang Jebat legend, and in particular ponder the fate of not only the two protagonists but also the sultan and the Melaka sultanate.

In 1987 when UMNO was split, a consequence of the Mahathir-Razaleigh rivalry, the party was weakened but it survived because it had a strong leader. Early in its history when its first president Datuk Onn left the party, the impact was minimal as the party was strong and it had a cadre of capable young leaders like Datuk Razak. This time however, both the party and its leader are weak.

If party members were to shy away from doing the dirty but necessary job of removing Abdullah from the leadership of UMNO, and thus the Prime Minister’s office, then others would by default remove that office from him, and from UMNO. With every delay, Abdullah (and UMNO) gets weaker while Anwar Ibrahim (and his Pakatan Rakyat) becomes stronger.

Seeing Through Abdullah

Like Mahathir, most Malaysians believed in Abdullah, at least initially as evidenced by his overwhelming electoral victory in 2004. Barely four years later, they, like Mahathir, are sorely disillusioned.

Some still believe (or more correctly, hope) that Abdullah could yet salvage his leadership. This hope for a miracle is misplaced. Incompetence cannot be readily remedied, especially in someone with a demonstrated flat learning curve. Besides, the highest office in the land cannot be used as a training ground. We cannot have an “intern” Prime Minister; the stakes are just too great.

If Abdullah could not lead when he had a commanding mandate, what chance is there for him now that his hold is tenuous at best? He is already consumed with putting out political brush fires, distracting him from his most important task of leading the nation. Abdullah is now clearly damaged goods; Malaysia deserves better.

Only a tiny minority saw through Abdullah and recognized his emptiness right from the very beginning. It is more with sorrow than vindication that I admit to being in this group. I would have preferred to have been proven wrong.

I have never met Abdullah; my assessment of him is based entirely on his records and accomplishments, or lack thereof. Perhaps because of this I am not swayed by the man’s put-on piety, seeming humility, or servile loyalty. Those attributes are held in high esteem in Malay culture, which may explain why many, including the shrewd Mahathir, overestimated Abdullah’s ability.

Abdullah was a longtime civil servant rising to Deputy Secretary-General in the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports before entering elective politics. Respectable enough achievement, but then that ministry is not exactly the hotbed for super-achievers.

Before being kicked out of the cabinet in 1987, a casualty of the Mahathir-Razaleigh rivalry of the time, Abdullah had served as Minister of Education, and later, of Defense. One is hard pressed to discern his legacy in both positions. A measure of his worth was that the best he could do outside of government was as a ticket agent … in his sister-in-law’s travel agency! That was the private sector’s valuation of his talent and experience, despite having served in two most senior and prestigious portfolios.

Later when he re-ascended the UMNO hierarchy, Mahathir invited him back to serve as Foreign Minister and later, Home Affairs. In the latter position he was responsible for the police. Our current inept and corrupt-ridden police force is his legacy.

Mahathir’s Mistake

You have to give credit to Mahathir. Not only did he admit to his colossal mistake in selecting Abdullah back in 1998, he is also making a vigorous effort to undo it. Admitting to or rectifying your error is a rare attribute among leaders.

Abdullah has yet to learn this essential lesson. Merely uttering that you are taking responsibility, as Abdullah did for his party’s routing in the last election, is not enough; you have to act on it.

The current crisis in UMNO is not, as is widely commented upon, simply a battle between Abdullah and Mahathir. The fundamental issue is Abdullah’s incompetence, and its impact on the nation.

Winning an election is a partial measure of effective leadership; it is not the only or the full measure. Abdullah’s predecessors Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn were both successful at elections, yet when their leadership was found wanting they withdrew gracefully. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher also had the grace to resign when support for her was declining even though she had led her party through three successive electoral victories.

Abdullah has neither the grace nor the competence of Thatcher. He is too syok sendiri (self indulgent) with the perks of his office, with its luxurious corporate jets and palatial mansion, to even contemplate resigning. It is easy to be stubborn in such circumstances. Like a dumb mule surrounded by lush hay, Abdullah will not move. It will continue mindlessly chewing the cud, oblivious of the turmoil it caused. It is well to remember that a mule with too much hay will inevitably succumb to lethal gas bloat.

Many consider Mahathir’s resigning from UMNO an irrational act as that would only hasten the ascent of his old nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim. To me however, Mahathir may be signaling something significant. He must believe (or have reasons to) that Anwar’s chances are real and strong. By resigning now, Mahathir would be spared the fallout from UMNO’s inevitable implosion. He could then with a satisfied smirk remind us, “I told you so, this Abdullah is a disaster!”

Many are wondering why Abdullah is not coming out swinging at his tormentor. There is a reason for Abdullah’s reticence. His entanglement in the UN’s Iraq Oil for Food Program scandal is only a hint and a glimpse.

I am reminded of J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI director who was the most feared and powerful man in Washington, D.C., simply because he held so many secrets of important people. Nobody dared touch him for fear that he would spill the beans.

Mahathir was Prime Minister for over two decades. He is also a shrewd observer of human behaviors and a meticulous record keeper. Think of the many shenanigans committed at home and abroad by our sultans, ministers, and other senior officials that were simply hushed up, let alone prosecuted. Those who are tempted to sneer at the old statesman better have pristine personal and official backgrounds; otherwise they would be well advised to maintain their “elegant silence.”

Notice Mahathir’s immediate stinging riposte to Shahrir Samad and Musa Hitam recently. In so doing Mahathir sends a not-so-subtle message to his other detractors, including those on the Royal Commission on the Lingam Tape, that their stinking laundry too could be aired out for all to see and smell. As Prime Minister, Mahathir must have had more than his share of favor seekers, shameless flatterers, and the outright corrupt who groveled before him. He could easily expose them. If that is blackmail or vengeance, so be it.

I have a different take on Mahathir’s behavior. Far from being blackmail or nasty vengeance, such ugly revelations could prove to be a necessary national catharsis. Much as I hate to see what would be revealed, it would be good to have all the rot finally out in the open. The hope is that the subsequent shame will effect some change.

As a former physician Mahathir knows only too well that the best if not only remedy for a long festering abscess is to lance it wide and deep, letting all that trapped putrid pus out. Only then could the healing begin. If that were to happen, we can all thank Mahathir. The man may yet make his greatest contributions after he retired.

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