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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, October 12, 2008

Wise Decision And A Class Act

Wise Decision And A Class Act

M. Bakri Musa

Prime Minister Abdullah’s decision to resign is wise. That decision is good for him, his party, and most of all, for our nation. I am certain it was not easy for him to reach that decision but in the end he did it, “guided by my conscience” and placing “the interests of the nation above all else.”

I applaud him, especially considering the intense last minute pleas by his many well-meaning supporters. It was a decision that was not expected by many, yours truly included. This is one instance where I am only too happy to acknowledge my misjudgment of the man. [See my earlier commentary below]

Abdullah’s plaintive admission, “I know I’ve not been doing well; it’s time for someone else to take over,” must come only after the most difficult introspection. To admit to one’s limitations is never easy, especially for a leader, as there are always supplicants and subordinates who are only too willing to filter the harsh reality. Some leaders never get it at all. Saddam Hussein went to the gallows still believing that he was Allah’s gift to the Arabs.

I applaud Abdullah’s wise decision for another important reason. I never underestimate the potential multiplier effect of a single good decision. Properly seized upon, it will lead to many other positive consequences. Already judging from his resignation statement, Abdullah is now all the more committed to reforming the anti-corruption agency and the process of judicial appointments, among others.

Freed of the burden of his political future, and fully aware that these last few months could well determine his legacy, Abdullah will hopefully be more focused.

Dignified Statement

Abdullah ready set a standard of sorts in the dignified manner in which he announced his stepping down. He made sure that his cabinet colleagues and fellow leaders in the Barisan Nasional coalition hear of his decision first, in private, and directly from him.

When he made his statement, it was a formal affair, surrounded by his cabinet colleagues and fellow UMNO leaders. He also read from a prepared text; this was not the occasion to ad lib. His tone was proper; his body language and emotions displayed appropriate. He did not blame anyone, nor did he express regret. There was no hint of personal disappointment or a sense of being betrayed. Abdullah gave proper due to the serious occasion.

As well he should. The country has been good to him; he had the privilege of serving the highest office in the land, granted only to a lucky few.

The content of his announcement may have surprised many, but not its timing. There was no unexpected statement that would shock the audience and move them to public hysteria. Nor was there uncontrolled sobbing of his supporters, as the embarrassing public spectacle that accompanied Mahathir’s first announcement of his retirement.

When there are no public tears, then the question whether those displays of emotions are genuine does not arise. As we now know from subsequent events, those earlier hysterical displays of affection as shown by the likes of Rafidah Aziz during Mahathir’s announcement of his retirement were a fraud. Those histrionics were more for public consumption rather than genuine expressions from the heart.

In his resignation statement, Abdullah wisely avoided anointing his successor. He expressed only the hope that Najib would take over, and reemphasized that point in case it was missed. This was not a lukewarm endorsement for Najib or an attempt at getting even with him, rather Abdullah’s correct reading of our constitution.

The leadership of our land has to be earned. It is not your private heirloom to be passed on to a member of the next generation who strikes your fancy. Abdullah is correct in reminding everyone that Najib first has to win UMNO’s presidency.

Abdullah showed great wisdom, besides not being presumptuous, in not even hinting who Najib should pick as his deputy should he win UMNO’s presidency.

Abdullah’s Five Goals

To his credit Abdullah articulated five goals he wished to accomplish in the remaining few months of his tenure. I would be satisfied if he could accomplish two, or at most three. Apart from strengthening the Anti-Corruption Agency and setting up the Judicial Appointment Commission, Malaysians would be satisfied if he were to establish an effective social safety net.

Those three objectives are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are closely related. If we have a judicial system that has the respect and confidence of the people, that would go a long way towards reducing corruption. And by eradicating corruption, then we would have enough resources to devote to helping the needy. We have currently wonderful programs for the poor, at least they are on paper, but because of endemic corruption and abusive political patronage, those programs suffer through considerable leakages.

There is one major reform, supported by many in UMNO, which Abdullah could initiate. That is, remove the current onerous burden placed on challengers to senior party leaders. Instead, relax the rules such that anyone with the minimal number of nominations by individuals, not divisions, could compete. When no candidate could secure a majority vote, then have a run-off election between the top two vote getters.

Abdullah’s calls for a convention of his Barisan coalition parties “to improve inter-racial and inter-religious relations.” I respectfully suggest a more modest and readily achievable goal: focus on improving UMNO. Leave the coalition alone. A clean, strong and effective UMNO will mean an equally clean, strong and effective Barisan.

Such a simple and easily implemented reform initiative would effectively dent the corrosive powers of the party’s warlords that have created the cesspool of money politics. By removing this onerous nominating barrier, the divisional meetings currently underway this month would become mute, at least as far as nominating candidates are concerned. Perhaps then those meetings could become more meaningful with members using these opportunities to discuss substantive policy matters instead of trying to create camps around personalities. That would also elevate the deliberative levels of those meetings to the benefit of the members and UMNO.

Only by opening up the nominating process and encouraging as wide a field of candidates as possible, could UMNO attract and produce its own Barack Obama. All Malaysians, not just UMNO members, would then benefit.

Those four objectives, three for the nation and one for UMNO, are well within Abdullah’s reach. Focus on them, and Abdullah would be able to redeem his leadership. That would be a legacy worth striving for.

Abdullah’s Pivotal “Non-Decision”

M. Bakri Musa

There are three possible decisions that Abdullah Badawi could make on or by October 9, 2008, ahead of his party’s divisional meetings. One, he could bravely declare that he will defend his post; two, announce his resignation; and three, waffle and leave it up in the air, effectively a “non-decision.”

This third option would be more in character with him. Throughout his tenure Abdullah has shown a singular inability to make even the simplest decisions. He would defer them until the last minute when the decision would be forced upon him, as the other choices would have been effectively taken away by changed circumstances.

With the third choice, Abdullah, with advice from his “bright” advisors, would of course frame or “spin” it not as a “non-decision;” rather he would dress it up in a language more in tune with our culture. He would for example “leave his fate to Allah,” or for his “party members to decide.” This would also be a classic Abdullah’s non-decision and “flip-flop!”

This option is also nothing more than a diluted form or an attempt for a more acceptable and less confrontational version of the first choice. Former Tun Mahathir, who knows a bit more about Abdullah, had predicted that Abdullah would not give up his position. Mahathir would be wrong if he were to think that Abdullah would boldly declare his intentions to stay on, that is, go with the first option.

The first option would also be out of character for Abdullah as it would mean an inevitable confrontation with his party leaders, specifically UMNO Supreme Council members who had earlier given him an ultimatum. If there is any certainty about Abdullah, it is that he would do anything to avoid a confrontation, especially with his party members.

That has been the bane of his administration. Abdullah came in boldly proclaiming to end corruption. With the first resistance from UMNO warlords used to plump government contracts san competition, he waffled. Likewise with his “determination” to set up the much-needed Police Commission. That project is still in the air years later because of persistent opposition by senior leadership in the police force.

The decision that millions of Malaysians and I are hoping for is that Abdullah will gracefully announce his resignation, that is, the first choice. Were he to do that, it would give all his critics including severe ones like me a chance to finally praise the man. It would certainly be a brave decision from him. It would portray him as a leader who has the interest of the nation at heart, of a leader who puts the future of Malaysia ahead that of his own, as well of his family’s and cronies’ ambitions.

This painful decision could only come after the most difficult self-introspection. More significantly, it would require him to dismiss the advice of those closest to him. For this reason I believe that this would not be the decision he would make this week.

On a practical level, it would also mean Abdullah giving up those luxurious perks of his office that he has become accustomed to, if not relished. It is more than just having an opulent corporate jet at his disposal; it is all the attention and adulation he is currently getting from his staff, ministers, civil servants, and finally, the people. I recently saw a picture of Rais Yatim, one of Abdullah’s senior ministers, bowing low and very deferentially towards Abdullah while kissing his hand! That is heavy stuff!

More to the point, as Henry Kissinger once observed, power is the most powerful aphrodisiac. With a new wife (albeit a divorcee) at his side, and with Abdullah in his late 60s, this is not a minor consideration.

In a more profound level, by resigning now Abdullah would go on record as being the shortest serving Prime Minister of Malaysia. He is also mindful of the accompanying opinion that invariably would be associated with him, of being the least effective leader of the country. I am certain his advisors, and others whose fate is tied to him, would not too subtly remind Abdullah of these realities in an attempt to dissuade him from resigning.

Gracefully resigning now would require much of Abdullah. It would require of him to acknowledge the worsening situation in the nation as a consequence of his ineffective leadership. Not many of us are courageous enough to face up to our own limitations. This task is made that much more difficult as there would be plenty of folks around him and whom he holds dear telling him otherwise.

Self-examination and serious introspection are not and have never been Abdullah’s strong suits. Meaning, this option is out for Abdullah.

Consequences of “Non-Decision”

Abdullah and his advisors will, as usual, be oblivious of the devastating consequences of his hanging on. For UMNO, it would mean further turmoil and fractious upcoming divisional meetings and the twice-postponed General Assembly; for the nation, continued and rapid decline.

The implosion of UMNO is already inevitable; Abdullah’s hanging on would only hasten this. The decline of UMNO as an institution is not something I would celebrate, notwithstanding the party’s many detractors. Quite apart from it being one of the most enduring political parties, having been in power continuously for well over half a century – a record unmatched anywhere – it is also one of the few successful modern Malay institutions.

UMNO is still the largest Malay party with the strongest grassroots organizations. While not belittling PKR’s remarkable achievements in attracting young Malaysian especially Malay talents, UMNO still has many capable leaders despite the fact that they have been eclipsed by the more numerous corrupt and ineffectual ones.

UMNO’s accomplishments are many and we should not belittle them. It was instrumental in successfully leading the nation to independence, of besting a domestic communist insurgency, an achievement that has yet to be replicated anywhere else, and an earlier enlightened development policy of emphasizing growth with equity, now accepted as mainstream economic wisdom.

If that sounds like an obituary for UMNO, it is, and not a premature one at that!

The fact that these achievements have been corroded and corrupted by later leaders, especially during Abdullah’s tenure, does not in any way diminish those achievements. Instead they should be the inspiration and challenge for subsequent leaders to exceed those high expectations.

The reality under Abdullah is more ugly. While his apologists would claim that the present climate of political “openness” is Abdullah’s finest legacy, the reality is that he was an ineffective bystander. The present climate of openness has more to do with technology, in particular the Internet, than with Abdullah’s stated mission.

For that, it would be best if we were to ask the likes of Raja Petra Kamarudin, the “Hindraf Five,” and hundreds others incarcerated without trial under the ISA during Abdullah’s tenure. That is Abdullah’s real legacy, and the reason I do not look forward to this week when he will announce that he will not vacate his office.

October 5, 2008

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