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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 25, 2009

Praising Our Leaders Too Soon and Too High

Praising Our Leaders Too Soon and Too High
M. Bakri Musa


Malaysians are generous to a fault. We are too charitable especially to our guests and those new to us, without pausing to consider the significant burden it imposes upon us and those we love. This is best captured in our saying, Kera hutan di tetekan, anak di riba mati kehausan (We breastfeed monkeys in the jungle while our infants die of thirst).

We are also treating our leaders as kera hutan, indulging them only too readily. We are overly charitable to and very forgiving of them, especially our new leaders. I can understand the rationale for such a sentiment; we desperately want our leaders to succeed. By praising them so soon and so highly we hope to inspire as well as encourage them to lead us to greater heights.

The adulation of followers can indeed be a tonic to leaders, invigorating them to redouble their efforts; likewise with prestigious awards and public recognition. The Nobel Committee in awarding its Peace Prize to President Obama so early in his tenure is clearly expressing the hope of many that he would indeed bring about a more peaceful world.

There is however, a dangerous flipside to that hope. Effusive praises, especially when clearly out of proportion or yet to be deserved, risk swelling these leaders’ head. Even if they do not have mega-maniacal tendencies initially, such incessant drumbeat of praises would inflate the ego of even the humblest of leaders. They would then think that they are destined by God to lead us. From there it is but a few easy and enticing steps away from asserting that they are indeed God. Then no one could or would dare question them. There are many ready examples of such inept but egotistical leaders at home and abroad, now and in history. The ravages they inflict far outlive them.


Praising Najib Early and Excessively

Mohd. Najib Bin Abdul Razak has been Prime Minister for barely six months; he delivered his first presidential speech to his party only last week. As Prime Minister he had initiated only a few not-so-major policy shifts thus far, such as liberalizing a small sub-sector of the economy, the effectiveness of which has yet to be ascertained. Yet the high praises are already pouring in by the torrent.

In describing his performance at the recent UMNO General Assembly, one commentator in the mainstream media described it as “one of his best off-the-cuff speeches that many in UMNO had witnessed.” She went on describing Najib as a “thinking president,” gushingly concluding that the meeting he chaired “as one of those special moments in UMNO’s history.” Special moments! Wow!

` Another concluded with undisguised “astonishment at the remarkable ability of the country’s premier political party to renew, reform and reinvent itself after the severe setback it suffered in the 12th general election.” All in the few months since Najib took over!

There was no shortage of superlatives to describe the new Najib, with terms like “transforming leader” and “thinking leader” liberally thrown in, based simply on that first address he gave at the UMNO Assembly.

Now that Najib had presented his first budget, dubbed “People first; Performance now!” expect even more extravagant praises. I do not however, share much of the artificially generated enthusiasm. At least not yet.

It is a measure of our ‘progress’ that in discussing the economy in his budget speech Najib was giddy that it was contracting less severely now. I can see being exuberantly excited if it had actually expanded, however slim. On another item, he proudly announced the establishment of 30 “merit” scholarships for our students to attend top universities. I would be more impressed if, after over 50 years of independence, those scholarships were for sending our students to top doctoral or MBA programs, not for undergraduate studies.


Art of Making Dim Candles Appear Brighter

Such embarrassingly embellished praises from established sycophants and would-be supplicants, as well as blatant favor seekers, are to be expected. After all, old habits are difficult to break, even if you are committed to doing so. More problematic however, are the uncritical rave reviews from otherwise seasoned observers.

This is not a new phenomenon or unique to Najib. When Abdullah succeeded Mahathir, there were similar early outpourings of uncritical praises for Abdullah. One otherwise solid scholar, undoubtedly desperate to ingratiate himself, unabashedly described Abdullah as a “social engineer par excellence.”

Those commentators were not content with merely praising Abdullah. To make him look even better, they resorted to actively denigrating Mahathir. They must have felt that Abdullah’s dim candle could only appear brighter by snuffing out Mahathir’s.

When I took those commentators to task for their nauseating praises, they were furious, accusing me of being unnecessarily negative and not missing any opportunity to denigrate our leaders. How could I possibly know about Abdullah with my being away for so long, they sneered.

I wonder if those who were so enthusiastic about Abdullah so earlier on now feel they bear some responsibility for his subsequent failure. Perhaps if they had been more restrained, Abdullah’s ego would not have been so swollen. Who knows, his basic humility may have taken hold of him and he would have sought wider counsel. His tenure then might have lasted longer and would not have been the colossal waste of opportunities, for him and for the nation.

At the UMNO Assembly, Najib paid tribute to Abdullah for not criticizing Najib, a pointed reference to what Mahathir did to Abdullah. Both Najib and Abdullah are deeply mistaken in this. For had Mahathir not been relentless and even unmerciful in his criticisms of Abdullah, the latter would remain Prime Minister today, and we would all be still enduring that terrible burden.

There is one positive aspect to the current orgy of praises on Najib; at least those commentators are not running down his immediate predecessor. I am uncertain whether that is necessarily a compliment to Abdullah.

Najib should welcome and actively encourage criticisms not just from Abdullah and Mahathir but also from others. That would be the best assurance that Najib would avoid grievous errors in his administration. Even a gifted and charismatic leader as Barack Obama, with an overwhelming mandate from the people, welcomes criticism. As he said in a White House Correspondents’ dinner, “I may not agree with everything you write or report. I may even complain, … but I do so with the knowledge that when you are at your best, then you help me be at my best.”

Like others, I want Najib Razak to succeed, less for his sake but more for our nation. I fear that these uncalled-for and overly generous praises so soon in his tenure might just go to his head, tempting him to rest on his laurels (slim as they are right now) instead of striving harder.

We must not treat our leaders like our pet monkeys; we must never indulge them. Instead we must subject them to the toughest scrutiny and not be afraid to criticize them. And do so early and fiercely. By all means, when Najib proves himself, then we can all be generous to him.

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