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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, June 19, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #70

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership

Lack of Checks and Balances in Malaysian Leadership

One unhealthy trend in the Malaysian leadership is the increasing concentration of power and the consequent absence of checks and balances. Invariably this leads to the lack of accountability and potential abuse. It is not so much that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton had put it, rather we do not have a system that prevents the inherently corrupt from becoming powerful.

Consider that Mahathir is not only the chief executive (Prime Minister) of the country; he is also the leader of his party, chairman of a number of government corporations, as well as being the finance minister! With the lack of an effective system of checks and balances, such a structure is a set up for either spectacular achievement given a competent, honest and humble leader, or the destruction of the country given a lesser mortal.

A system with effective checks and balances could handle even the most evil and corrupt. America survived Richard Nixon; he was forced to resign. The American system could also deal with the personal moral turpitude of a president, as when Clinton was impeached, albeit unsuccessfully.

In Malaysia even at the state level we see this same pattern of concentration of power and lack of checks and balances. The chief minister, apart from being the chief executive of the state, is also the state leader of the party, mayor of the capital city, and chairman of various state corporations. Any of those jobs would have consumed the full attention of a skilled executive, yet we have these politicians, many with no formal training in management or special executive skills, who think they can credibly perform all those functions at the same time. No wonder nothing gets done.

If we distribute the power, not only would we ensure the jobs would get done, but there would also be greater accountability. I see no reason why the head of the ruling party should be the same person as the prime minister, or that cabinet positions be reserved for top party officials. The prime minister should be able to select the best person to be in his cabinet and not be hamstrung with whether that person has been elected to a top position in UMNO. The skills to run for a party position are not necessarily the same skills needed to manage a ministry or agency. Similarly if the state UMNO leader and the chief minister were different persons, they would both keep each other on their toes.

Again reverting to the American example, George W. Bush may be the President, but he is not the head of his Republican Party. Although he has the sole power to appoint his Cabinet Secretaries and other senior officials, nonetheless those too are subject to Senate confirmation – a check on presidential power. Even if the president’s party were to control both houses of Congress, there is no guarantee that the president would get a free ride from the Speaker of the House and the Leader of the Senate.

Another unhealthy trend in Malaysia is the lack of regular challenges to the senior leadership. Such challenges are important even when the leaders are strong and popular as such exercises then effectively become an evaluation of the leaders. Earlier leaders of UMNO right down to Mahathir’s immediate predecessor, Hussein Onn, were all routinely challenged at their party’s leadership conventions. Those challengers all had no realistic hope of winning, nonetheless the number of votes they garnered became a surrogate evaluation of the leader. Such exercises would also prevent leaders from becoming another Saddam Hussein. He routinely would get reelected with over 99 percent of the votes. And if he could determine who those 1 per cent of voters who did not vote for him, the next election would see Saddam returned with a 100 percent approval!

Since the debacle of 1987 UMNO leadership crisis where Mahathir was challenged and nearly toppled by Tengku Razaleigh, a new culture has developed within the party, that of not challenging the senior leaders. All in the name of party unity! This is a retrogressive step. Such regular challenges and open competitions are important not only to keep a check on the leaders but also to encourage the emergence of new talent.

What Malaysia needs today is a fresh generation of leaders with new vision, or to pursue my wings analogy, a new set of backswept or delta wings to go with its turbocharged engines. Unfortunately, the very nature of the political structure generally and UMNO in particular, does not encourage new talent. Apart from the emerging tradition of not challenging the senior leaders, the rules for candidates vying for party positions in UMNO are skewed to favor incumbents heavily.

Candidates have to have the backing of at least 10 percent of the divisions before they could be nominated. I am surprised that they did not make that 50 percent and then do away completely with the election!

As with the party, so it is with the country. In the general election of 1999 there was much hype about Mahathir fielding fresh candidates. Alas that was mere hype as in the end they were the same old tired faces being reshuffled. In striking contrast, Singapore had an election in November 2001 that saw over a third of the candidates from the ruling PAP being new faces. Their leaders knew they needed a new set of wings.

I do not see that the political line up in Malaysia to change much in the foreseeable future. The country seems stuck, with minimal influx of fresh talent. UMNO made a tepid attempt at attracting young women professionals with its new Puteri (princess) wing, but that met with considerable resistance from the established order.

The party that is successful at drawing in new talent is PAS. But if that party ever hope to rule the country, these new leaders must replace the rigid set in the ulama council and make that supreme body directly elected by and accountable to the members.

Malaysia’s present senior political leaders do not appreciate the serious need to attract fresh candidates. They simply assume that politics and public service will continue to attract the best and talented. These leaders are in a dream world. With opportunities in the private sector so much more challenging and enticing, Malaysians no longer value public service, and in particular, politics. The marked discrepancy in pay between the public and private sector only aggravates the situation.

The next Malaysian leader will need the IQ (Intelligence Quotient) of a Tun Razak and the EQ (Emotional Quotient) of a Tunku Abdul Rahman. Thanks to the successes of Mahathir’s policies, Malaysia now does not lack for such individuals. The challenge is to entice them into public service.

The Malaysian leaders of tomorrow will not be those who simply bark out orders a la the drill sergeant. Rather they will be individuals with proven personal and professional achievements who can share their vision for the country’s future with their followers. They will be more like the symphony conductor, cajoling and encouraging in order to bring out the best from the citizens. These leaders will lead through personal examples of competence, integrity and excellence, and not merely by manipulating personnel, information, and institutions.

In addition to the political leadership, there is also the leadership of the hereditary class, principally the sultans and territorial chiefs. These hereditary leaders are found only in the nine sultanates; the remaining four states of Sabah, Sarawak, Penang, and Melaka are fortunately spared this additional burden. These hereditary leaders add another layer of inertia to change. The royalty and nobility classes have never provided much leadership to Malays either in their official or personal capacity. Unlike European kings and dukes who through their patronage provided for the development and nurturing of talented artists, musicians, and scholars, Malaysian royalty and aristocrats feel no similar obligation.

A new development among members of the royalty is their increasing involvement in business. To the extent that they are now contributing to the economy, that is good. But if they are using their royal clout to secure unfair advantages over their competitors, that would be dangerous. We must also be mindful of Ibn Khaldun’s admonition about the ruinous effect of rulers’ involvement in commerce. There would be less criticisms if members of the royal family were well qualified and competent to run their businesses, but if they were content in being merely silent partners and figureheads or sultans of their enterprises, then that would easily evoke the hostilities of not only their competitors but also their subjects.

Another trend that I view with increasing concern is the current vogue of installing sultans or their consorts to important bodies such as chancellors of universities. I do not mind them becoming chairman of the Malaysian Society of Orchid Lovers, but for them to be directly involved with important organizations would be unhealthy. Given the typical Malaysian obsequiousness in the presence of members of the royalty, I cannot imagine any substantive discussions taking place in such meetings chaired by these sultans. The government is doing these bodies a great disservice by appointing these royal luminaries. If the government were to honor these bodies, than by all means appoint the sultans in an honorary capacity.

Malaysian sultans and nobilities are akin to bulkheads on a ship rather than propellers. Not only do they not help in pushing the ship of state forward, on the contrary they effect a significant drag. They are an expensive burden to boot. They also set a very poor example to the masses. They sit at the apex of the privileged heap and do not contribute.

The sultans also disproportionately influence Malays by being not only the secular leader but also as head of the Muslim faith. This latter function protects the sultans from criticisms from the masses, for doing so would be tantamount to criticizing the faith itself. And because the citizens are discouraged from criticizing the sultans, this habit is carried over to all the other leaders, including political leaders and also their superiors at work. In short Malaysia has all the makings of a compliant and robotic society – a flock of sheep.

There is one other important factor that accelerates this trend. That is the attitude towards and the influence of Islam, especially in Malay life and culture. This is such a significant bearing that I have a devoted the entire next chapter to it.


Next: Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

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