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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, January 06, 2010

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #135

Chapter 21: Gemilang, Cemerlang, Terbilang … atau Temberang?
(Excellence, Glory, and Distinction … or Merely Hot Air?)

Unless a leader knows where he is going, any road will take him there.
—Theodore Levitt in “Marketing Myopia”

When Abdullah Badawi became Prime Minister on November 2003, expectations were necessarily low. After all he was succeeding the towering Mahathir. For another, Abdullah had no record of significant accomplishment. Yes, he had been in government all his adult life, and had been in charge of such prestigious portfolios as Education, Foreign Affairs, and Defense. When examined closely, it is difficult to ascertain his mark in any of those areas. They were merely entries on his resume. At 64, the oldest to assume that office, one can hardly expect any hitherto hidden talent to emerge, or the remote possibility of a late bloom.

Yet within a few months this unassuming man in his usual plodding way did something that even normally skeptical observers took note. One, he rescinded one mega project dear to his predecessor’s heart—the outrageously expensive double railroad tracking scheme—and promised that all future government projects would be awarded through open competitive biddings. That was a novel concept for a nation used to “negotiated contracts” and with bids doled out on a “first come, first serve” basis, and with that, opportunities for underhanded shenanigans and plain outright corruption.

Two, he appointed a Royal Commission to investigate the police, an institution with a deserved reputation for corruption and abuse of power. Even the fervently pro government mainstream papers regularly carry reports of police brutality.

Three, the Anti Corruption Agency (ACA) arrested in quick succession two high profile personalities, a businessman closely associated with Mahathir, and a sitting—albeit low level—cabinet minister. For good measure, the ACA also arrested a few low-level politicians and executives of GLCs. Spurred by these early moves, and capitalizing on the public disgust with pervasive corruption, then Law Minster Rais Yatim was emboldened to proclaim that another “high profile” arrests were in the offing.

Malaysians, yearning for a change, cheered Abdullah on.

Seizing the advantage of the “good feel” vibes created by these early moves, Abdullah quickly (within five months of assuming office) called for a general election, with the slick campaign theme of cemerlang, gemilang, dan terbilang (excellence, glory, and distinction). Through modern public relations gimmickry and undisguised support of the mainstream media (all owned by the ruling parties), the theme was relentlessly drummed onto the electorate. Abdullah intimated that more was coming. Voters, believing that the best was yet to come from this hitherto underestimated leader, were persuaded and gave him and his party a massive mandate.

Having received such an impressive electoral victory, I would have expected him to be emboldened in carrying out his promises. Alas, that was not to be; he suddenly had wobbly knees. His post-election cabinet choice was telling. True, he brought in a few fresh faces, but he did not get rid of the old, tired and tainted characters. His admirers rationalized that were Abdullah to do so, it would be tantamount to condemning them! The result was an unwieldy and bloated cabinet.

As for rooting out corruption, after the two celebrated arrests, the ACA soon reverted to its usual lap dog posture, of awaiting command from its master. The highly touted promise of 18 other “high profile” cases remained just that, a politician’s empty promise before an election. The minister who previously boldly proclaimed of these impending arrests was demoted to looking after old buildings. Is there more to come, or has Abdullah given his best shot? Will he and his supporting cast lead Malaysia to greater heights, or will his adulating cheerleaders and spinmeisters proclaim that their man’s flailing shots were indeed effective jabs? Or, to borrow columnist Aman Rais words, were those truly cemerlang, gemilang and terbilang, or simply temberang (hot air or more crudely but idiomatically correct, bullshit)?

In politics, perception is everything. If leaders act or give out body language that suggests tentativeness, they would quickly be pounced upon. On the other hand, if a leader were to give a public perception of power and a persona of being in charge and having a vision, then citizens would rally behind quickly.

George Bush, Jr., did not even win the majority popular votes in the 2000 US Presidential elections; the Supreme Court handed him the victory. Yet he acted boldly and decisively as if he had a commanding mandate. In his first few months he put through and was able to get the legislations and initiatives he wanted. Congress went along because its members perceived him to be strong and effective. Had Bush been wobbly, forever conscious of his tenuous mandate, he would not have been able to command such a following so quickly.

Bush had the further advantage of being underestimated initially. He capitalized on this low expectation; his aides purposely cultivated this image. Thus when he gained his first few congressional victories, their significance was amplified, and people took note quickly, thus emboldening him.

Abdullah Badawi, like George Bush, also had low public expectations. Thus when Abdullah made those first few bold moves, Malaysians took note. Unfortunately, unlike George Bush, Abdullah was not emboldened to go further. Despite the impressive electoral victory, he wobbled soon after. There was widespread disappointment even among his supporters to his unimaginative post-election cabinet. He had the opportunity to stamp his mark, and he blew it.

Like George Bush, Abdullah has many young capable advisers. They shrewdly crafted his successful campaign strategies, emphasizing their man’s positive qualities rather than on specific programs and promises. Unfortunately, running an effective election campaign is not the same as running an administration. The skills required in the two endeavors are completely different. The common and understandably all too human mistake would be to keep the same advisors who successfully managed your campaign to help you run the government. They would then continue to behave as if they were still running a perpetual campaign and focus not on what was good for the nation rather on what would sell politically—a self-defeating strategy.


Next: Caution Versus Indecision

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