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.
There are as many successful leadership styles as there are organizational entities. More important than the leadership style or type of leaders is the dynamics of the interactions between leaders and their followers.
We can intuitively appreciate that the talent required to be a platoon commander is very different from that of a head of an academic department. Even for the same organization, you can have many successful personality types and leadership styles.
Likewise, 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. He inspired his people when they were being bombarded daily by the Germans. Come peacetime however, the British rejected him. Their rejection of him did not mean that they were not grateful for his brilliant and inspiring leadership during the war. The British felt that they needed a new kind of leader now that the country was at peace.
Had Churchill continued to lead Britain after World War II, the ensuing Cold War would not have remained cold for long. His uncompromising stand against communism, reflected in his haughty Iron Curtain speech, would have plunged the world into another great war very quickly.
Leaders must have a free mind to adapt, grow and learn with the inevitable changes in their followers and society. This is particularly true in a plural society, or one rapidly changing as a consequence of urbanization and globalization. Malaysian society is all those.
In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I likened leaders to wings of a plane. Wings define the limits of performance of the plane, so too does a leader to her people. 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 design exerted too much drag and soon yielded to single wings fitted with slats, slots and ailerons to adjust the shape of the wing 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, this design again proved inadequate and gave way to backswept wings. Supersonic rockets need only winglets.
Likewise with society, it requires different leaders depending on its stage of development and circumstance. It is the rare individual who could successfully transit from one pattern of leadership to another. The wisdom of the British during the immediate postwar period was their recognition of this insight. As for most leaders, even brilliant ones, they stay long after their leadership style has proven ineffective with the changed circumstances.
Stated differently, really wise leaders know when their time is up.
Tunku Abdul Rahman was the perfect leader immediately before and following independence. At that time what Malaysians needed most was stability and reassurance. Tunku’s personality and leadership style amply provided both. Malaysians had good reasons for being wary of ambitious and charismatic leaders; neighboring Indonesia’s Sukarno was a constant ugly and painful reminder.
I discern at least three patterns of leadership. One is the pyramidal or military style, with one commanding general at the top, followed by a few subordinate generals, then many colonels followed by many more majors and lieutenants all the way down to the enlisted soldiers. This is strictly 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 colonialism. This was MacArthur’s leadership of Japan right after the humiliation of World War II; it was remarkably effective and efficient. This was also the leadership of Tun Razak following the May 1969 riots; it was also highly effective.
In a developed society such leadership is needed during times of crisis, as in America in the aftermath of 9-11 terrorists’ attack. This should have been the leadership during the Katrina devastations of 2005. That it was not, contributed to the unnecessarily widespread and prolonged anarchy following that tragedy.
The second style is the coaching model where the coach has absolute power over his players. He is not answerable to them rather to elements outside the team: the owners and fans. However, if the team does not perform, it is the coach who will get fired first.
While the coach is the most powerful person in the team, he is not the most well known or even the highest paid. The players often get star billing and are paid many times more. The skill of a coach leader lies in his ability to merge the various talents in his team towards a common goal: beating the opposing team.
Whereas the military model of leadership is pyramidal, the coaching style is more like a schoolhouse block, with a long block on either side of a central and only slightly higher administrative tower. It is remarkably flat and can be very efficient under the right circumstances.
The third model is that of a symphony conductor. Like the sports team, here too we are dealing with a group of accomplished individuals. In such circumstances, a leader does not need to shout in order to be heard; the followers will respond more to her actions than words.
While an orchestra can perform without a conductor, it needs a skillful one in order to shine. The leadership pattern is akin to a bicycle 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 in the center but also with each other peripherally.
When the load on the rim is not balanced, the spin will not be smooth and the consequent vibrations could break the machine. In an orchestra, too loud a bass would drown out the string section. A creative conductor would carefully choose his repertoire so as to highlight his orchestra’s strength.
This orchestra-style 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. They could perform on their own without a leader. In the orchestra model, the total is more than just the sum of the individual parts.
There is something else remarkable about the orchestra model. That is the lack of leadership struggle among the followers. The first violinist does not conspire to take over the podium; she is satisfied with being the best violinist.
Malays have long emerged from our feudal ways although we are still trapped by their many elements, such as our excessive deference to authority figures. We are also now far better educated and well informed. We are definitely more open to the world and actively engaged in foreign trade and travels. The authoritarian military style of leadership would certainly push us back.
It is questionable whether we are ready for the symphony or coaching model. 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 we have to ensure that our citizens are more critical and fully informed.
I would accept an authoritarian coach model provided the leader acknowledges and respects our individuality and utilizes as well as channels our talents towards an agreed-upon goal. My acceptance of an authoritarian streak in a leader carries a major – a very major – caveat. That is, if she fails us in our common mission, then she ought to be fired right away, as with the coach. Therein lies the difficulty.
A leader is not a zookeeper, content with keeping his animals healthy, well fed and able to procreate. That was Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew brand of leadership; he was an excellent zookeeper. This style however, is appealing only when you are hungry and desperate. Once you pass that stage (an achievement not to be belittled) you yearn for something more enlightened. After all, a lion penned and has to be fed is no lion no matter how loud its roar is; a pampered overgrown cat, maybe.
Each of us is a leader and follower at the same time. I am the leader of my family and of my surgical team, while at the same time I am a follower in my mosque and in the greater scheme of things. Today’s students are mostly followers except for the few who are already leaders of their students’ organizations. Even the others who are not, they are still leaders in some capacity, to their younger siblings, cousins and nephews, for example. With Allah’s blessings, some will be parents and thus leaders of their respective families. A few might go beyond and even lead their enterprises or even society.
Leaders should encourage their followers to be critical and unafraid to challenge their leaders’ views. They should go beyond merely tolerating to actively encouraging and embracing criticisms. Leaders should never equate questioning and criticism with impudence and disloyalty. Likewise, followers should never hesitate to question their leaders and not seek refuge behind some misguided notion of loyalty, politeness, or patriotism.
A large segment of the Malaysian community is sufficiently advanced and sophisticated to resent the authoritarian model of leadership as represented by UMNO's Najib. Another segment, almost exclusively Malay, is still stuck in its feudal ways and for whom Najib represents its ideal leader.
Malaysian society being such, until that second segment becomes a minority, or with more Malays being represented in the first segment, the nation is stuck with a feudal authoritarian leadership of Najib where blind loyalty trumps everything and excuses a whole lot of sins. That UMNO's leadership is far from being the orchestral model is demonstrated by the fact that it is continuously plagued by leadership struggles among the next echelon of leaders.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
leadership qualities needed in a society during times of great changes
and uncertainties are very different from those required in one that is
static. Malaysia today faces many great challenges but is blighted with
a leadership more suited for a static feudal society.
Today's Malaysia is a complex, plural society. The unwary could easily
be misled by official figures and general consensus that may apply to
or describe one segment of society but may well be the very opposite for
There are at least two Malaysias. One is
exclusively Malay, dominated by UMNO and PAS; the other, predominantly
but not exclusively non-Malay. The differences between the two extend
beyond cultural values, socioeconomic status, and general worldview. The
former is feudal, xenophobic, and servile towards authority; the latter
is modern, aligned with the global mainstream, and views government
more as the problem than the solution.
statements like deteriorating local schools apply only to government
ones and attended by the first group. International schools are doing
very well. As for Chinese schools, the increasing number of Malay
parents enrolling their children there speaks of the quality. Both
schools are the preferred choice for the second Malaysia.
The Malaysia of Onn and Razak may have been much less complicated
but no less divided, nonetheless both leaders exhibited qualities of
what James McGregor Burns called "transforming leadership." Both were
great not only because of their exceptional personal and leadership
qualities but because they appeared at a time when those qualities were
most needed – Datuk Onn following the adoption of the Malayan Union
Treaty, Tun Razak in the aftermath of the tragic 1969 riots.
It is said that what makes a great leader great is circumstance.
That was certainly true with Onn and Razak. Malaysians were lucky that
the sterling attributes of the two shone through at those particular
junctures in our history.
During times of stability (or
stagnation) it does not really matter who is the leader as things are
essentially on automatic pilot. For a while Malay society, like all
feudal societies, remained unchanged for generations. So it did not
matter who was the sultan; the peasants’ lives would remain the same
regardless. You could put a monkey in the palace, and life in the
kampongs would remain unaffected.
during those times have minimal impact on the governed. In fact during
feudal times it would have been better to have a monkey in the palace as
then it would not bother the natives to extract expensive tributes.
Besides, monkeys' demands could easily be satisfied with bananas, not so
It is only during times of great change that
leadership is most crucial. It is also during such times that the
strengths of a culture would shine or its weaknesses be exposed, as with
the Japanese reaction to the tsunami of 2011 and the Americans' to
Katrina of 2005 as discussed in an earlier essay.
genius of both Onn and Razak was precisely their ability to leverage the
very elements of our culture that had imprisoned us (or so we thought)
to instead liberate us mentally. They did not stand on the podium and
berate us for the presumed weaknesses of our ways and nature. Instead
they utilized to maximum effectiveness those very same qualities of our
culture that others deemed wanting to bring about profound, positive and
permanent changes in us.
Consider the Malay cultural
attribute of unquestioned obedience to rulers. Onn leveraged that to
maximal effect in mobilizing the Malay masses in a very public display
of loyalty that effectively prevented those sultans from leaving the
palace in Kota Baru to partake in the installation ceremony of the first
Malayan Union Governor. Those sultans were essentially “CB-ed,”
confined to barracks, or in this case, the palace.
Likewise Tun Razak made full use of our cultural trait of obedience to
authority to make his decisive moves. He did not consult anyone or hold
public forums before imposing martial law and suspending parliament. He
did what he had to do, and did it decisively. Order and peace soon
Even in a stable society with no external
forces or natural calamities to disrupt its equilibrium, substantive
change can still be achieved if it is lucky enough to be endowed with an
exceptionally enlightened leader. Meaning, a gifted leader can
transform even a placid society, although the need for effective
leadership is never more critical than when a society is in
disequilibrium or facing major challenges.
first scenario where the society is stable and has the cultural trait of
excessive deference and unquestioning loyalty to its leaders. If
perchance it were to be miraculously endowed with an enlightened leader,
someone who accepts and indeed encourages criticism of his leadership,
then the masses would readily emulate him and that society would be
transformed in short order.
Take China; it long endured
the stifling rule of communism under Chairman Mao who led that huge
nation from one giant leap to another straight into the abyss. The
Chinese too have a long cultural tradition of unquestioned loyalty to a
central figure. Before Mao there was the long line of emperors.
Thus even when the unimposing, uncharismatic and uninspiring Deng
Xiaoping took over, he was able to radically change direction for the
whole nation. He did it not through his personal qualities (being
unimposing, uncharismatic and uninspiring would not get you far in any
society) but by leveraging to maximal effect the Confucian tradition of
“follow the leader.” In one generation Deng transformed China.
This tradition of unquestioned loyalty to a leader is typical not
just of China but all developing (particularly Asian) societies. I go
further and posit that it is this mindset that keeps those societies
behind. On the bright side, it is precisely in those societies where the
role of a leader is crucial in emancipating the people, as dramatically
demonstrated by Deng’s China.
It is within us,
individually as well as a society, to topple our coconut shell. The Arab
spring of 2011erupted without any help from the outside, nor did it
have any recognizable leadership. It was spontaneous. Wael Ghonim, a
Google executive, a geek effectively, would be the closest individual
who could be identified as the leader in the Egyptian uprising. In
Tunisia, it was the unemployed hawker Mohamed Bouaziz, may his soul rest
in peace, who triggered the revolution.
Of course with
proper leadership the process of toppling the shell would be greatly
facilitated and the collateral damages minimized. Also with identifiable
leadership, the movement would not risk being subsequently subverted.
The transition would also be faster, smoother, and less traumatic, as
with the “Quiet Revolution” in Ireland and Quebec of the 1960s and 70s
With the possible exception of Tunisia, the
Arab Spring failed precisely because there were no identifiable strong
and enlightened leaders emerging to lead and channel the rising
aspirations of the people. To be sure, there were many strong leaders
appearing but they exhibited the bad old tendencies of their
predecessors. They were consumed less with fulfilling the demands of
their followers, more on tightening their grip on power and on avenging
the wrongs of their predecessors.
exploiting the soft values of their faith Islam, where being forgiving
and to forgive are highly valued, those new Arab leaders resorted to and
expanded on their primitive cultural ethos of the
enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, except this time degenerating to a more
lethal and protracted friend-of-my-enemy-is-now my-enemy. At least with
the former you could potentially create new friends; with the latter,
only more new enemies.
Like his late father Tun
Razak, Najib too is very much aware of the Malay cultural propensity of
blind loyalty to their leaders. Unlike the Tun who leveraged that
quality to good purpose to end the May 1969 race riots quickly, his son
exploited that very same communal trait to extract support and indeed
blessing for his corrupt and chauvinistic ways!
To Najib's brand of leadership, loyalty is to be exploited to insulate,
if not excuse, his incompetence and corruption. Honest enlightened
leaders on the other hand would never even contemplate betraying their
followers' trust and loyalty
Razak the father solved a major crisis; Najib the son will trigger one, if Malaysians do not stop him.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Notwithstanding their common aristocratic background, obvious brilliance, and genuine nationalism, plus their overlapping leadership in UMNO, Tun Razak had little in common with Datuk Onn Jaafar. To start with, there was their obvious age and thus generational difference, Onn being about 30 years older. The critical differentiating feature separating the two however was their personalities.
Like Onn, there is as yet no authoritative biography of Tun Razak. There is William Shaw’s, published in 1976, sympathetic bordering on the hagiographical. Razak had many contemporaries, some very erudite, but none had sought to pen an account of this great man. Likewise his sons (he had no daughters) who are all well educated, including one who is a Cambridge graduate, yet none has seen fit to write an account of their great father, apart from the anecdotal recollections in responses to interviews.
The contrasting personalities between Onn and Razak could not be more obvious then when they were campaigning or otherwise engaging the common people. To be sure, both were atypical politicians; neither exhibited the usual politician’s backslapping or feigned familiarity and affability. They both seemed aloof and uncomfortable with crowds. While Onn had the imperious look of an aristocrat who is forced to be with the peasants, Razak had that of a policy wonk embarrassed at being unable to articulate more simply his complex ideas. Both however, had great intellect and more importantly, were remarkably free-minded although expressed in very different ways.
Razak was head of UMNO Youth at the time when Onn walked out of the parent party in 1951. Razak's remarkable leadership talent was already widely recognized. The members saw great potential in Razak and very much wanted him to take over the party. He however demurred. A man of quiet self-confidence to match his considerable intellect, Razak was not easily flattered. Or tempted! He knew that he was too young (not yet thirty when Onn bolted out of UMNO) and had joined the party only the year before. He rightly thought that the Malay masses would be more accepting of someone older and more experienced, considering our culture’s reverence for age and seniority for with that, it was assumed, would come wisdom and tolerance.
Razak saw no one in the party’s hierarchy capable of leading it, especially considering the critical mission it was about to undertake – securing the country’s independence. That was an unusually perceptive and brutally honest assessment. Then he remembered his old fellow law student friend back from their days in England who was by then the Sessions Court President, and persuaded him to take over UMNO’s leadership with Razak as the number two.
It was a perfect match. Tunku Abdul Rahman was more than an Anglophile; he was once married to an English woman and thus was very familiar and comfortable with the ways of the English. Though he was a member of the Kedah royalty, Tunku had a touch for the common man. Even more remarkable, he had the knack for extracting money from citizens for worthy projects. An excellent fundraiser is always an asset for any organization, especially a political party.
Tunku presented the benign affable public relations face required of the number one, while Razak was the able second-in-command doing the heavy lifting. Knowing their age difference, Razak was in no hurry to get the top slot.
Razak’s free-mindedness enabled him to view problems from many perspectives. He saw Onn’s departure not as a crisis, as many did, but an opportunity to look beyond the party for new talent, as he did by bringing in Tunku. Razak would later demonstrate this same resourcefulness when as Prime Minister he brought many outstanding young talent into his administration, such individuals as Tengku Razaleigh, Chong Hon Nan, Abdullah Ahmad (not that forgettable Badawi character who would later succeed Mahathir as Prime Minister but the former Special Envoy to the UN), and the late Ghazali Shafiee.
Razak’s subsequent turn to be the number one did not come smoothly however, or in the best tradition of succession. Instead it was triggered by the bloody riots of 1969 that reduced Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to a hapless soul unable to control a nation that had gone berserk.
In his memoir the Tunku lamented the many conniving ways Razak undertook, at the behest of the "young Turks" and others in UMNO, to undermine the Tunku. Razak did not need to go through all those ugly and unseemly contortions. All he had to do was tell Tunku that he (Razak) wanted to take over and the Tunku would have gracefully given way. Razak however, bound by tradition perhaps, could not do that to his old mentor.
That little personal blemish, though regrettable, did not diminish the luster of Razak's leadership. Under less able crisis management, that 1969 conflict could have proved not only deadly but also intractable. Razak however, brought it under control within days. Bleeding-heart liberals may complain of his methods but there was no mistaking their effectiveness. Consider that the 1969 riots coincided with the modern flare-up of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. While Malaysians today have long forgotten that dark period in our history, the folks in Northern Ireland are still busy settling deadly scores.
Razak declared a state of emergency and suspended parliament. To this day he remained the only leader in the world who assumed dictatorial powers because of an emergency and then gave that up voluntarily 18 months later to the previously elected parliament.
Razak was not at all perturbed by negative outside opinions although, unlike Mahathir, he did not purposely go out of his way to thumb his nose at the world. Razak was focused on the job at hand, confident that the results would vindicate his methods. He was right.
In the same manner, Razak’s New Economic Policy was a bold and imaginative piece of social engineering. He was not in the least bothered by possible charges of racism or of favoring one race over another. He did what he thought needed to be done. Forty years later, the various successors to the NEP still keep its basic elements. None however, could match the efficacy of the original.
In instituting his bold NEP, Razak anticipated the wisdom of modern economists by decades. Today it is an accepted wisdom that gross inequities especially between highly visible groups as with race, is not only incompatible with economic growth but would also undo whatever gains you may have achieved.
In the geo-political arena, it was Tun Razak’s free-mindedness that made him undertake that trip to China in 1974, at the height of the Cold War and when the communist insurgency was still active in Malaysia. That also reflected the brilliance of his strategic thinking and visionary aspirations. He saw the rise of China and the importance of its inclusion into the international community earlier than any other statesman, either regional or global.
History records Nixon visiting China two years earlier. However, Razak started his initiative, as did Kissinger for Nixon, in 1971. Unlike Nixon and his State Secretary who went though various intermediaries and did so in secret, Razak wrote directly and openly to Mao’s Chou En Lai. Like the American initiative, Razak’s too followed the visit of the Chinese ping pong team.
Razak was a leader unencumbered by fixed ideas, the hallmark of a free mind. That is precisely the leadership that Malaysia desperately needs today. Alas, I see little hope of that happening.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.