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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, January 18, 2009

Exposing Our Leaders to Competition

Exposing Our Leaders to Competition

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

The recent installation of Tunku Muhriz as the 11th Yang Di Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan (the equivalent of a sultan in the other states) illustrates one important point. When the top position is not automatically handed to the putative Number Two and instead you widen your choice, you are more likely to end up with a far superior candidate.

The consensus among the rakyat as well as the establishment is that Tunku Muhriz is a far superior candidate, and a better person to boot, than the other contenders, the three sons of Tuanku Jaafar.

It is too late for the three adult sons of Tuanku Jaafar to appreciate and benefit from the wisdom of my observation. It is hard to learn as an adult the lessons you should have learned as a youngster.

Tunku Naquiyuddin, Tuanku Jaafar’s oldest son, must have felt the sting the most. After all, his father had named him Regent, or acting Yam Tuan, during his recent extended overseas tour. As such Naquiyuddin must have felt that the throne would rightly be his. He had already begun acting as the Yam Tuan, as he did recently when he called for the restoration of the Sultans’ absolute royal immunity. At the personal level, he was already behaving only too well as a feudal king.

As for Tunku Muhriz, he had learned his lesson well, and early, way back in 1967 when the Undangs (Territorial Chiefs) instead bypassed him to pick his father’s half-brother Tuanku Jaafar as the 10th Yam Tuan to succeed Tunku Muhriz’s father. Sensing that the royal throne would not be his, he wisely prepared himself for life in the real world outside the palace. By all measures he has done well, having obtained a law degree and acquitting himself credibly in the private sector.

More importantly, he has also imparted those valuable lessons onto his children. They too have all done well academically and personally san their royal titles, making their achievements that much more credible and praiseworthy.

The Badawi Disaster

The wisdom of my observation is universal. Note the disaster when Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi automatically assumed the top slot upon the retirement of Dr. Mahathir. Had Mahathir been aware of the wisdom of my observation and widened the choice of candidates to succeed him, Malaysia would have been spared the incompetence of Abdullah Badawi.

This pattern of the number two automatically becoming number one is rampant if not standard practice in the civil service. Those senior civil servants behave like airplanes stacked at a busy airport, each patiently waiting his turn and not daring to upset the established pattern lest it would threaten his position and prospect.

I have seen this pattern broken only rarely, as in the early 1960s when Dr. Majid Ismail, then an orthopedic consultant, was tapped to be the Director-General of Health, bypassing many senior bureaucrats. He upset the entire hierarchy at the Ministry of Health; Majid later proved himself to be one of the most farsighted and enlightened health policymakers. Today that Ministry remains one of the few that do not hew to the strict “tunggu geleran” (waiting your turn) pattern of the civil service. It is thus not a surprise that it is one of the more professionally-run ministries.

Come this March with the current Number Two Najib Razak automatically assuming the Number One position with Abdullah’s leaving office, Malaysia risks repeating the same mistake. There will be no contest to select the best candidate for the top slot for in its wisdom UMNO has adopted rules and traditions that stymied competition especially for the top post.

Prior to his elevation to the throne, Tunku Muhriz had the title of Tuanku Besar. Though its literal translation (“Big King”) is misleading, nonetheless in Negri Sembilan the Raja Besar is equivalent to a Raja Muda, the Crown Prince or heir apparent in other states. That did not help him when his father Tunku Munawir died in 1967; the four Undangs in their wisdom bypassed Tunku Muhriz. Nor did that help him with the late Tuanku Jaafar for he named his son Tunku Naquiyuddin instead as Regent.

The public reason given back in 1967 for bypassing Tunku Muhriz was that he was too young – he was only 18 then – to be the Yang Di Pertuan Besar. Additionally, the political establishment then led by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman lobbied the Undangs hard for Tuanku Jaafar, believing that he (and his family) would be sympathetic to UMNO.

Whatever the reasons, the Undangs’ decision was well received, especially by the villagers. They wisely noted that Tunku Munawir died at the relatively young age of 47 from what we would term today as “lifestyle diseases.” They were concerned that the young Tunku Muhriz would follow in his father’s footsteps, in the village tradition of bapak burek, anak rentik (fig: Like father, like son).

As it turned out, Tunku Muhriz was anything but like his father, both in personality and accomplishments. Nevertheless like many, I do not fault the Undangs for their decision back in 1967. By any objective criterion, it was a wise pick, considering that Tuanku Jaafar was a British-trained diplomat while Tunku Muhriz was barely out of high school then.

Today’s Undangs are a far different breed from their predecessors of a mere generation ago. The position of Undang is also hereditary but not in a strict linear fashion, just like that of the Yam Tuan. The various clan chiefs would gather and pick from among the many entitled to be Undang, just as the Undangs would pick the Yam Tuan from among the many eligible princes. A primordial form of democracy and representative government, as it were.

Following my theory, the caliber of Undangs should improve because of the competition among the eligible contenders. Yet we have the perverse situation today where the present generation of Undangs being even more poorly educated and of lower caliber than their predecessors. While a generation ago we had a lawyer and a university graduate among the Undangs, today we have a former utility meter reader and a petai seller.

The erosion in the caliber of today’s Undangs is of course directly related to, like everything else in Malaysia, corruption. Yet despite that, today’s Undangs were able to collectively come to a wise decision. The erosion in quality and integrity of individual Undangs notwithstanding, the institution itself was able to deliver a wise decision. This demonstrates the vital role of institutions. Imagine how much good these Undangs would do for society if only they were more competent and less corrupt.

The aberration that is today’s Undangs remains the exception that proves my theory. Nonetheless what is relevant is that because we have the institution and process in place, the right decision was made, those deficiencies in personnel notwithstanding.

Najib’s Dangerous Mindset

The experience with the Negri Sembilan royal selection process illustrates the wisdom of exposing our leaders to continuous competition, and of having the right institutions and processes in place to ensure that. That is the best if not only way to hold these leaders accountable. The biggest mistake would be to make them “President for Life” or heap some such similar honors upon them. Such excessive accolades are what corrupted otherwise sensible leaders. Even once wise and patriotic leaders like Sukarno ultimately succumbed to and became a tyrant simply because he was not held accountable or subjected to rigorous checks and balances.

UMNO once had the fine tradition where its leaders were routinely subjected to regular challenges. Even such venerable leaders as Bapak Merdeka Tunku Abdul Rahman were not spared. Today we look askance at such once brave figures as Sulaiman Palestin who would not hesitate to challenge any leader regardless how popular that leader was at the time. In contrast, today’s UMNO leaders are given a free pass, all in the misguided quest for “party unity.”

However, only through such constant competitions could we “toughen up” our leaders. During the recent American Presidential primary season, many members of the Democratic Party were upset that Candidate Hilary Clinton would not give up her race earlier and let the leading candidate Barrack Obama be the nominee sooner. As it turned out, the long primary was beneficial to Obama as it toughened him up such that he could easily withstand the subsequent onslaughts from his Republican opponent.

UMNO is making a terrible mistake in letting Najib Razak take over the top slot without subjecting him to a tough campaign. Such grueling leadership competitions are necessary for “baptizing” a leader. It would help sharpen his leadership skills as well as let party members and voters preview his abilities.

Because he was not subjected to any competition, Najib Razak now feels that the country owes him the Prime Minister’s office by virtue of his being the son of the much-revered Tun Razak. That is a dangerous mindset for anyone, especially a leader, to have. Ultimately it is the citizens who would bear the burden of such hubris in our leaders.

The many effusive comments about Tunku Muhriz would not easily go this head. Having once been bypassed for the top slot, Tunku Muhriz is fully aware that he could only secure his position by doing an excellent job and by diligently attending to his royal duties. In contrast, Najib Razak has had an easy ride all along; he has yet to learn this important lesson.

Malaysiakini.com January 8, 2009

1 Comments:

Blogger Economist Kampong said...

Dr Bakri

Let us launch a journalistic inquiry (blog style, everyone contribute to the project by wriring up bits of information of what they know) on why YAM Tengku Razakleigh managed to get only 1 nomination for UMNP presidency. IT is abvious that he is much more experienced, pah proven his mantle and made monumental contributions to the nation, and thus better qualifird to be President during this trying times. THis is really ODD if we assume that UMNO functionaries could not see this issue.
Thanks

10:04 PM  

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