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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, August 26, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #118

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Liberating the Malaysian Mind

The one constant with the creative society is that ideas and initiatives often begin with the masses and then percolate upward to the leadership and laterally to fellow citizens. In subsistent and material phase societies, it is the reverse: top-down command and control leadership. The metaphor for the leader-follower dynamics typical of subsistent societies would be the shepherd and his flock, a caring leader who has the interest of his followers at heart. This is the imagery of the bible and other holy books. If that leader were wise, lucky indeed would be the society; if he were a Stalin or Saddam, woe would be unto his followers and others.

The dynamics in a material society would also be akin to that of the military. The general is entrusted with the mission of not only winning the war but also looking after his troops. The soldiers have a reciprocal obligation to do what the leader commands. Only when the commander at whatever level is tyrannical would there be a mutiny, otherwise this relationship dynamics prevail till victory (or death).

The leader-follower dynamics of a creative society would be akin to that seen in an orchestra, a team of highly skilled individuals, each with their own special talent and led by an equally skillful conductor whose primary function is to coax the best out of every player. In this model, a skillful leader could easily spot a sub-par performance by the team members; likewise the “followers” could sniff a weak leader in an instance.

Japan is the one Asian society that aspires to this symphony conductor leadership dynamics. It is not there yet. The remarkable—remarkable because of its rarity—feature is the lack of intrigue and destructive clamor for the top job despite the obvious abundance of talent and thus potential competition. As with an orchestra, there is no leadership tussle among the musicians. The first violinist does not strive to be “promoted” conductor; she is content striving to be the best violinist.

Singapore too aspires to be in the creative phase. It also has many able and no doubt ambitious ministers, yet there is little leadership turmoil. The caliber of these leaders is such that were they to leave politics, they would have no shortage of suitors for their talent and experience. Yet Singapore, unlike Japan, will not reach the creative phase anytime soon because its leaders are still stuck in the material phase mode. They are still control freaks, entrenched in their military style leadership. It is far easier to take them out of Singapore and send them to the Harvards of the world; more problematic would be to take the island (insularity) out of them.

The political scene in Malaysia on the other hand is one of endless intrigue and scheming, with factions forming temporary alliances in order to secure their positions. It is a constant kabuki play, or as we Malays would say, wayang kulit or sandiwara. Malaysian ministers hang on to their cabinet posts for they know very well that once they lose political power, there would be few takers for their talent.

Reaching the creative phase requires changes both with leaders as well as citizens. Leaders have to be enlightened enough to treat their followers not as a platoon commander would his troops, but as a conductor would his talented musicians. Leaders must empower their citizens. Citizens must be given all the opportunities to develop their talent, and be given the freedom to contribute in whatever way they feel best and not be dictated from above. It is all too easy for a leader to usurp the talent and skills of the citizens all in the name of national security and priority. Why should every youth be forced to march under the blazing sun all in the name of developing “discipline?”

If I were to ask today’s middle-aged Malaysian professionals what they would really like to do if they had been given the freedom to choose, over half would pick some other vocation. I have seen so many budding engineers being forced to become doctors or accountants simply because that was the perceived national priority at that time, at least in the view of the officials. What a tragedy, going through your adult life doing something that you lack the passion for. You cannot expect such individuals to shine.

It is easier to liberate citizens from colonial and other political and physical tyranny; more difficult to liberate them mental and cultural tyranny, to emancipate them. It is also an unfortunate but a tragic reality that the greatest oppressor of citizens is often their very own government and culture.

We are familiar with the oppression of homegrown tyrants of the Saddam Hussein variety, or corrupt ones like Robert Mugabe. They are the egregious examples. They are inherently unstable; their brutal overthrow is only a matter of time.

More sinister are the seemingly benign and caring governments and their misguided policies that entrap their citizens into becoming permanent wards of the state. The Saudi and Brunei governments use their precious God-given riches not to develop their people but to narcotize them with easy wealth. This is a much more dangerous form of tyranny as it is subtle. The citizens are effectively reduced to social invalids, forever dependent on the state.

More crude but no less devastating are states like South Korea and Singapore that indoctrinate their citizens into believing that their economic well-being could come only at the price of an authoritarian government. More subtle but equally debilitating are the modern welfare states of Western democracies, with their ever-generous social safety nets that sap the citizens’ initiatives.

Communism successfully turned the once independent and creative Russians into permanent wards of the state, with their every need provided for. Today with the collapse of the Soviet state, they are helpless; it would take a monumental effort to wean them off their government’s largesse. Special privileges for Bumiputras risk repeating the same mistakes of the Russians.

Next: Lessons From the Animal World

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