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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, April 04, 2010

The Labu and Labi Team (Part Two)

The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin
M. Bakri Musa

[Second of Four Parts]

The Best Team


The Razak-Ismail duo lasted just a month shy of three years, prematurely cut short by the sudden but not unexpected death of Tun Ismail. At first glance they had all the ingredients for a divisive and acrimonious relationship. One was a lawyer the other, a physician; two professionals not known to get along well with each other. Members of the two professions view society differently; likewise their approaches to problem solving. Lawyers cross examine their witnesses; doctors get a history from their patients. Lawyers assume their clients would lie; physicians implicitly trust theirs. Attorneys’ clients may think it is in their interest to lie; patients however risk their lives if they were to mislead their physicians.

What made the Razak-Ismail team worked remarkably well was that both were true professionals as well as consummate politicians in the best traditional mold. It was this combination that made their partnership blossomed. As professionals they were able to separate their personal feelings to address the problems at hand; as accomplished politicians they were skillful in the art of compromise, a fine sense of politics as the art of the possible. They were able to sink whatever personal, political and professional differences and ambitions they harbor in order to best serve their client: the nation.

They also shared many similarities. Under different circumstances or with other personalities, those similarities could well be sources of unending conflicts. Consider their age; only seven years separating them, with Razak the younger. Politicians are inherently ambitious and competitive; they all aspire to be the number one. The number two could hardly wait for number one to exit, making for an often stormy relationship towards the end, as demonstrated by the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown show. Being comparable in age would only aggravate that aspect of the rivalry.

Surprisingly, we did not see that kind of rivalry with Razak and Ismail. While Ismail was as ambitious as the rest, he was the original and genuine citizen-legislator. Meaning, someone who takes time off from his regular vocation to serve his nation, and then after giving his best, leave. Ismail was a rare breed, especially when compared to the specimens we have today; they make politics their permanent careers. Najib’s cabinet, like Abdullah’s and Mahathir’s before that, is infested with tired old career politicians who have no life outside of politics. They hung on long past their shelf-life.

Both Razak and Ismail were also aristocrats, Razak from Pahang and Ismail, Johor. They both attended English schools and the best English institutions; Razak read law at Lincoln’s Inn and Ismail, medicine at Melbourne. Jagoh kampong (village champions) they were not. They were not insular as they had competed successfully against the world.

Those similarities may have contributed to their cordial and workable relationship, but those were not the main factors. Instead what them “click” was their deep commitment to public service. They were true patriots. It was this that made them overcome whatever differences they may have had between them.

And differences there were! In personality, the two could not be more dissimilar. Ismail was the gregarious type; he knew how to enjoy life. As a medical student he idled his time on the cabaret floor on the evening before his crucial anatomy oral examination!

Razak was the studious one; he was a legend at Malay College. He completed his law studies well before his scholarship ended. At social gatherings I could not imagine Tun Razak backslapping his guests or joining them in uproarious laughter, as Dr. Ismail would.

Being from the predominantly Malay state of Pahang, Razak’s political philosophy was more towards Malay nationalism. Ismail hailed from the more urban and cosmopolitan Johor; that shaped his worldview.

Yet these differences complement them rather than being sources of rivalry, a reflection of their great sense of self confidence. Ismail did not need to aspire for the top post in order to show his stuff, while Razak was not in the least threatened by having someone of the caliber of Ismail as a deputy. Malaysians were blessed to have a pair of such caliber helming the nation. It is sad that their success did not inspire the present generation of leaders to emulate if not better that team of Razak and Ismail.


The Longest and Most Enduring

If as Prime Minister Tun Razak did not feel threatened by having a highly capable deputy in the person of Dr. Ismail, the Tun also did not feel that being a deputy to the Tunku would hamper his ability to contribute towards the nation. He also did not view being in the number two slot for an inordinately long time as a reflection of his ability. Only when the Tunku’s leadership was wanting in the aftermath of the 1969 race riots did Razak assert himself.

Razak could have headed UMNO and thus be the country’s first prime minister if he had wanted to; the opportunity was there. When the party’s first president, the towering Datuk Onn, left the party sulking in 1951, many wanted Razak to take over. He was not yet 30 at the time, and already they recognized his exceptional leadership and executive talent.

Razak politely declined the honor, not out of a sense of false modesty or lack of confidence, rather his astute reading of the Malay psyche and culture. He rightly believed that his community would more readily accept as leader someone older and thus perceived to be more experienced. In Malay culture, age equals wisdom; hence his declining the honor. Instead, Razak was instrumental in persuading the initially reluctant Tunku to head UMNO.

At another level, UMNO’s stated mission then was merdeka. Razak was shrewd enough to recognize that the party would need someone whom the British would find comfortable to negotiate. The affable and anglophile Cambridge-bred Tunku fit the bill. That was a particularly prescient call on Razak’s part, reflecting his wisdom and foresight despite his youth!

Razak’s wisdom in turning to Tunku was manifested in other ways. It turned out that the major obstacle in the negotiations for merdeka was not with the British but the Malay sultans. The British knew that colonialism was no longer chic or compatible with the values of a civilized society. They were ready and eager to let go of their colonies. The sultans however, were an unanticipated issue. Their concerns about their status in an independent Malaysia made them recalcitrant. They were not without reasons; they saw only too clearly the fate of the Sultan of Jogjakarta in neighboring Indonesia, as well as the multitude of Maharajas in India.

With Tunku, a member of the Kedah royal family leading the negotiations, the sultans felt reassured. Had it been the commoner Razak, the negotiations would definitely have been tougher.

Many ascribe the enduring partnership of Rahman and Razak to their presumed traditional Malay father-son relationship, with the loyal son always deferring to the father. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had never seen any public display of filial genuflecting by Razak to the Tunku. When the Tunku was swamped in the aftermath of the May 1969 riot, Razak was not at all bashful in taking over. That was certainly not the response of a supposedly obedient son or display of undivided filial devotion.

Instead their relationship was akin to that of a non-executive chairman of the board and the chief executive president. While Tunku was prime minister, it was Razak who actually ran the country. All the major initiatives, from overhauling of the education system to the massive rural development, originated from and executed by Razak.

A comparable dynamics would be between the ambassador and his deputy chef de mission in the old Soviet embassies. The real power and authority resided with the DCM, not the titular number one, the ambassador. He was merely the figure head, the sultan as it were. In that way, he (very rarely she) could indulge himself at diplomatic functions like getting drunk without compromising embassy secrets. Similarly if the ambassador were to be blackmailed, he could be readily expended.

I always thought that to be an ingenious scheme! It was certainly successful with the Soviets; it was no less so with Tunku and Tun Razak.


Next: The Ugly and Dysfunctional Mahathir-Anwar Pair

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