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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, April 27, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 8 of 14)

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 8 of 14)

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]


The Mind of A Future Leader

It is within us to topple our personal as well as collective coconut shell. Of course, with enlightened leadership the process would be greatly facilitated. With skills and ingenuity we could leverage the very elements of our culture that had imprisoned us to instead free us.

Consider our excessive deference and unquestioning loyalty to authority figures. If perchance we were to be miraculously endowed with an enlightened leader, someone with an open mind and a growth mindset, who accepts and indeed encourages criticism of her leadership, then we would readily emulate her and our society would be transformed in short order.

Consider China; it long endured the stifling rule of communism under Chairman Mao who led that huge nation from one giant leap after another into the abyss. It took the diminutive and uninspiring leader in the person of Deng Xiaoping with a different mindset and a free mind to change direction, and the whole nation followed through, in their Confucian tradition of “follow the leader.” In one generation, that nation was transformed.

This “follow the leader” mentality is typical not just of China but of all developing societies, Malay society included. I go further and posit that this blindly follow-the-leader mindset is what keeps those societies behind. It is also precisely with such societies that the role of leaders is crucial in emancipating the people.

If we were leaderless but yearn to topple our coconut shell, that would still be achievable but the path would be less smooth and take longer. We would also have to endure uncertainties and possible turmoil. This is where Tunisia and Egypt are now. They will eventually reach their goal, but the journey will be long and the views not very scenic.

With a competent leader, the transition would be faster, smoother, less traumatic and more likely to be successful, as with the Irish and Quebec’s “Quiet Revolutions” of the 1960s and 70s respectively. Malaysia is a democracy; we can choose our leaders. The electoral process may not be pristine but then politics even in the most mature democracies never is.

Leaders cannot be leaders without followers; thus the leader-follower dynamics is equally crucial. We can intuitively appreciate that the talents required to be a platoon leader is very different from that of an academic physics department. Even for the same organization, you can have many successful personality types and leadership styles. A leader who is excellent during a certain period of time would be downright dangerous in another. Winston Churchill was a great leader of wartime Britain. Come peace however, the people rightly rejected him. Had he continued to lead Britain after World War II, the ensuing Cold War would not have remained cold. Churchill’s uncompromising stand against communism, reflected in his haughty Iron Curtain speech, would have plunged the world into another great war.

Leaders must have a free mind and growth mindset to adapt, grow and learn with the inevitable changes in society. This is particularly true with a plural society, or one rapidly changing as a consequence of urbanization and globalization. And Malaysian society is all that.

A leader is to an organization what wings are to a plane. Wings define the limits of performance of the plane, so too is a leader to her organization. The earliest plane had double wings – the biplanes – to give the greatest lift at the low speed that their small engine could deliver. Later with powerful engines and consequent greater speed, that wing design exerted too much drag and soon yielded to single wings fitted with slats, slots and ailerons to adjust the shape to be more curved for maximal lift at low speed and then retracted for less drag at cruising speed. With even more powerful jet engines and faster speed that design again proved inadequate and gave way to backswept wings. Supersonic rockets need only winglets.

Likewise with society; it requires different leaders depending on the stage of development. It is the rare individual who could successfully make the transition from one pattern of leadership to another. Most stay put long after their leadership style has proven no longer effective with the changed circumstances.

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia I describe three patterns of leadership. One is the pyramid-type or military style, with one commanding general at the top, followed by a few subordinate generals, then many colonels and many more majors, and sergeants, finally ending with the enlisted soldiers. This is strictly a top-down, command-and-control organization.

This leadership is best suited for an emerging society where its members are not sophisticated or well educated, or one long oppressed through colonialisms. This was MacArthur’s leadership of Japan right after the humiliation of World War II; it was remarkably effective and efficient.

In a developed society this leadership is needed during times of crisis, as in America in the aftermath of 9-11 terrorists’ attack of 2001. This should be the leadership during the Katrina hurricane devastation of New Orleans in 2005. That it was not contributed to the widespread and prolonged anarchy following that tragedy.

This was the leadership of Tun Razak following the May 1969 race riots; it was highly effective. In the annals of civil disturbances and racial conflicts, that incident was mercifully brief. This fact is greatly underappreciated. For perspective, compare the Catholic-Protestant “troubles” of Northern Ireland; it is still going to this day. Then there is the sectarian violence in nearby Sri Lanka.

The second style is the coaching model. The coach has almost absolute power over his players. He is not answerable to them rather to forces outside the team: the owners and fans. If the team does not perform, it is the coach who will get fired.

While the coach is the most powerful person in the team, he (or she) is not the most well known or even the highest paid. The players often get star billing and paid many times more. The skill of a coach leader lies in her ability to merge the various talents in her team towards a common goal: beating the opposing team. Where the military model of leadership is pyramidal, the coaching style is more like a school house block, with a long one or two storey blocks on either side of a central administrative tower only a few stories higher. It is flat and efficient.

The third model is that of a symphony conductor. Like the sports team, here too you are dealing with a group of talented and accomplished individuals, the musicians. As leader you do need to shout in order to be heard; your followers will hear you loud and clear through your performance as leader.

While an orchestra can perform without a conductor, in order for it to shine it needs a skillful conductor. The pattern is akin to the Ferris wheel, with the conductor in the center connected by spokes to the musicians in the periphery. They in turn are connected to each other via the rim. Those musicians have to communicate not only with the conductor but also with each other. With a Ferris wheel, if the load is not balanced there will be considerable vibrations when the wheel rotates. Uncorrected it could make the wheel explode; likewise with an orchestra.

This orchestra style of leadership is seen in think tanks, academic departments, and research laboratories. All the participants (followers) are like the musicians – talented and skillful in their own right, and could perform on their own without a leader.

Malaysians have long emerged from our feudal ways although especially for Malays we are still entrapped by their many elements, as for example, our excessive deference to authority figures. We are also better educated and more informed today. We are definitely more open to the world, actively engaged in foreign trade and exchanges. The authoritarian military style of leadership would definitely push us back.

It is questionable whether are ready for the symphony or coaching model of leadership. We are in a transition mode; we need to be pushed away from the top-down command-and-control military leadership towards a flatter coaching or symphony model.

My preference is for the orchestra model. For that to be effective we need to make our citizens better informed and more critical. I would accept an authoritarian coach model provided that the leader acknowledges and respects our individuality and utilizes and channels our talents towards an agreed goal. My acceptance of an authoritarian streak in a leader carries a major – and very major – caveat. That is, if she fails us in our common mission, she ought to be fired right away. Therein lies the difficulty!

A leader is not a zookeeper, content with keeping his animals healthy, well fed and able to procreate. A lion penned and has be fed is no lion no matter how loud its roar is; a pampered overgrown pussy, maybe.

Each of us is a leader and a follower at the same time. I am leader of my family and of my surgical team, while I am a follower in the greater scheme of things. Today you are a follower; some of you are already leaders of your fellow students. All of you are leaders, for now only to your younger siblings, cousins and nephews. With Allah’s blessings, you too will some day be parents and leaders of your family.

As leaders you should encourage your followers to be critical and unafraid to challenge your views. You should go beyond merely tolerating to actively encouraging and embracing criticisms. You should never equate questioning and criticism with impudence or disloyalty. Likewise, as followers you should never hesitate to criticize your leaders. Do not seek refuge behind some misguided notion of loyalty, politeness, or patriotism.

Today Malaysians are plagued with leaders who are determined to outmatch their predecessors in cronyism, corruption and nepotism, quite apart from sheer incompetence. Einstein observed that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insanity. He was partly right; it would be insanity only if you were to ask the same individuals to do it repeatedly. Incidentally, that insanity applies both ways; to you as well as those you tasked with the job. However, if you were to ask someone else more competent, the results may well surprise you, and it would be far from insanity.

The New Economic Policy, the National Development Policy, and now The New Economic Model; they are all essentially the same and executed by the same cast of incompetent characters. And we expect a different result. Now that’s insanity!

As alluded earlier and not to be unnecessarily Pollyannaish, our very weakness – lacking a free mind and tendency to follow our leaders blindly – could be ingenuously harnessed as a potential strength. Imagine if we were to be blessed with a competent and enlightened leader, one self-confident enough to welcome criticisms and appreciate our individuality. That is a tall order; nonetheless imagine if we were to be so blessed. Then with our cultural propensity to follow the leader, our society would be transformed in short order: free minded and open to criticisms. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!

Just to show you that I am not day dreaming or been smoking something illegal, I will cite examples from our legends and history of such individuals, and how they have transformed our society.


Next: Free Minds in Our Legends and History

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