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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 13, 2010

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #136

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

Caution Versus Indecision

Regardless of how brilliant and skillful his aides and ministers are (few would fit that category anyway), the final direction must come from Abdullah. He must set the course as well as the tone, and then select the right personnel who would share that vision to execute it. One reason President Reagan was so popular and effective was precisely this. He knew the direction he wanted to take his country to, and selected brilliant individuals with proven accomplishments who shared his views to be on his team. They effectively carried out his mission because they believed in it. Had he hired the civil service or liberal types who love big government and whose political persuasions were at variance to his, it would have been counterproductive.

Abdullah is cautious in everything he does, including changing his team. This reflects his civil service mentality; nothing gets done until it has been vetted by committees and gone up the highest chain of command. This ingrained habit is for self-survival. When something goes wrong, no one could be held responsible. Abdullah’s caution accounts for his staying power under Mahathir. Abdullah survived by being unobtrusive. He cannot be expected to change now; that is his personality.

There is a fine line separating caution from indecision, but once you cross it, the boundary is glaring. This is where Abdullah is today. He hides his indecisiveness by asking for more studies and appointing more committees and Royal Commissions. The more information he gets, the more paralyzed he becomes. Paralysis by analysis, the plague of the indecisive!

Take the Royal Commission on abuses in the Police Force. It long ago submitted its detailed and voluminous report. His response? Yet another committee to study the recommendations! A few months later, when the police were again embroiled in another major public scandal over the abusive treatment of female detainees (the infamous naked ear squat episode), Abdullah again acted predictably. He formed yet another Commission of Inquiry. The remarkable aspect of this second scandal was that is was predictable. Had Abdullah acted on the first commission’s recommendations, this second embarrassment would have been prevented.

Abdullah’s impressive electoral victory should have emboldened him to get rid of the tired and tainted ministers. He did not. His advisors intimated that he did not do so because he had yet to consolidate his position within the party. Wait till the party’s upcoming leadership conference, they hinted. Unfortunately by this time, his party members had already sensed his indecisiveness, and rightly took that as a sign of weakness. At the party’s subsequent leadership conference, candidates aligned to him, including some of his ministers, were humiliated. Those who were aligned against him won, and won big.

The UMNO election debacle bared Abdullah’s impotence. Yet he continued his pattern of indecision, or as his apologists would put it, caution. By this time a new and personal element intruded; his wife’s fatal bout with breast cancer. The public, as usual, was kept in the dark until the very end. Her illness must have weighed heavily on him for he appeared even more distracted. His wife’s death affected him profoundly. Like Mahathir, Abdullah was spared the modern Malay blight of acquiring multiple wives. Wives are reduced by these Melayu Baru (New Malay) to being trophies of success, only slightly more expensive than a high end Proton. By all indications, Abdullah and the late Endon were very devoted to each other. Her death left him rudderless.

At my writing, nearly three years as prime minister, Abdullah has yet to find his bearings. His cheerleaders are fast running out of excuses. A sure sign that domestic issues are overwhelming him is his frequent trips abroad. He treats the government’s corporate jet as his private limousine for himself and his family, meaning his adult children and their spouses.

In April 2006, Abdullah cancelled the proposed half bridge to replace part of the Johore causeway. Earlier he and his ministers had assured everyone that the project would go ahead. Indeed the construction contracts had been signed. Then suddenly the government switched gears. The publicly stated reason was that the government was listening to the wishes of the people, but the price tag for the cancellation was massive.

Meanwhile Mahathir, who had not so subtly been criticizing from the sideline, lashed out with some rather harsh remarks, accusing Abdullah of selling the nation’s sovereignty. Mahathir was merely bringing to the fore what observers had long suspected: Abdullah would bend and shift at the slightest resistance. Mahathir’s exceptionally strong and strident criticisms surprised many and shook the Malay political establishment. Malay leaders are used to being put on a pedestal and never criticized. Abdullah assumed an above-the-fray stance, to play the sultan’s role and maintain what former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam described as “elegant silence.” With Mahathir’s relentless assault and Abdullah’s own hapless performance, he (Abdullah) was reduced to being a Pak Bisu (the lovable deaf mute uncle).

The sycophantic mainstream media initially tried to “black out” Mahathir, but the wily old man effectively resorted to cyberspace and the alternative media. In the end, the mainstream media had to acknowledge Mahathir’s assault. That he was devastatingly effective in his criticisms exposed the sorry credibility of the mainstream media. They missed out on the more important theme, that is, the public too wanted answers.

Unlike many, I am not surprised with Mahathir’s strong reaction. Although he admitted to frequently misjudging individuals, and uncharitably let out that Abdullah was not his first choice as his successor, Mahathir does not shy away from correcting his errors no matter how late or at what price. Anwar Ibrahim certainly found that out, much to his great discomfort. Mahathir will not stop until this particular mistake of his (in selecting Abdullah) is rectified.

All is not lost; Abdullah could still redeem himself, but he must act fast and do something dramatic and wholly unexpected of him in order to regain his leadership. That is a very tall order.

It would require strong determination, and Abdullah does not have it. Further, the “warlords” within his party are even more entrenched and emboldened. Dislodging them would be near impossible. Corruption is rife and totally embedded in the government, party, and society. To make it worse, politics and the public service generally no longer attract talented Malaysians. They would rather opt for the more lucrative private sector or move abroad. Abdullah would have a tough time recruiting fresh talent.

Abdullah has two choices. One, a high risk and high reward strategy would be to initiate two or three bold moves much like what he did when he assumed office. His mistake then was that he did not execute those moves fully. Had he done so, it would have sent a bold message. Unfortunately, execution is Abdullah’s weakness.

Thus far Abdullah’s “bold” moves have been directed not at individuals but projects and programs, as with the canceling of the crooked causeway bridge and the double railroad tracks. He needs to be bold by getting rid of the tainted and tired ministers, and clipping the powers of the evidently corrupt warlords within UMNO regardless whether they are his supporters or aligned against him. Were he to “retire” the likes of Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz, Foreign Minster Syed Hamid, Works Minster Sammy Vellu, and others who have been in the cabinet for too long, that would send a strong message that the old ways are no longer acceptable. It would also reduce and streamline his bloated cabinet.

The risk would be that those warlords and tired ministers would gang up on Abdullah. On their own they would be ineffective, but combined they could launch an effective assault on him, not directly but by supporting his current deputy and would-be rival, Najib Razak. This action could be easily preempted. One, the mere threat of an Anti Corruption Agency investigation would settle down these ministers and warlords. Two, the political culture is such that once you lose power, you lose everything. Even such powerful personalities as Tengku Razaleigh and Anwar Ibrahim were sidelined very quickly once they lost power. The influence of the likes of Rafidah would simply dissipate once they are out of the cabinet.

To reduce the political risk even further, Abdullah would have to have an arrangement with Najib to dissuade him from being egged on by these discredited politicians to challenge Abdullah. Agreeing to retire and let Najib take over at a specified time would dissuade Najib not to be too adventurous. Such a private understanding between Abdullah and Najib would mean nothing anyway, for if Abdullah were to prove successful in streamlining his leadership and changing the direction of the nation, his stocks would soar, and Najib would then not dare challenge him.

The second strategy, which would tie in with the first, would be for Abdullah to be a Reagan. That is, choose a capable team and delegate everything, with Abdullah being primarily the Chairman of the Board, in effect a sultan. Such a role is in character with him. He is already good at and fond of playing the sultan: being detached and imperial. Abdullah is not good or quick at grasping details anyway, and awful at execution, so the role of sultan would suit him.

The problem is that while Abdullah likes to play the sultan, he does not exude any regal or charismatic qualities. The man cannot communicate effectively, in writing or orally. He is bland; he lacks Reagan-like qualities. Reagan had great charisma and was the Great Communicator. When he vowed to lead his people to that great shining city on the hill, Americans followed him willingly. When he declared that it was morning in America, they believed him. Abdullah has no such sways.

The second more formidable problem is that, unlike Reagan, Abdullah does not know where he would like to take the nation; he lacks the “vision thing.” Even if he could find competent individuals, it would be difficult for them to be on his team, as they do not know what his goals and directions are. They may not share them. To make it worse, Abdullah is in the habit of backtracking at the slightest obstacle. Early in his term he talked bravely of his “New Malay Dilemma,” of the need to wean Malays off their special privileges crutches. He has since backtracked, with UMNO Youth now openly agitating for extending the NEP. His 9MP keeps many elements of the NEP unchanged.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he knows where to take the nation, he should focus on getting the right individuals who are not only competent but also share his vision and philosophy to serve on his team. Here are my suggestions on selecting Malaysia’s first team.


Next: Reforming the Leadership

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