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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, July 30, 2017

The Continuing Failure of Malaysian Leadership and Institutions

The Continuing Failure of Malaysian Leadership and Institutions
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com


If Malaysian civil servants and politicians could not agree on solutions to basic problems, imagine the conflicts that would be triggered by disagreements over substantive matters.

            The conflict that was the consequence of the 1997 economic crisis pitted then Prime Minister Mahathir and his Deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. It ripped apart the nation, or to be more specific, Malays. That fissure is still deep and irreversible; Malays have yet to come to terms with it. Today we have the 1MDB mess. Only the players have changed; the underlying dynamics–unenlightened and unsophisticated Malay leaders–remain the same.

            This lack of political wisdom and sophistication among Malay leaders (those in UMNO and PAS, to be specific–remember, UMNO is Malay, and Malay, UMNO–as well as the overwhelmingly Malay civil service) gets worse as we go down or laterally, as with our hereditary and religious leaders. The banality of the latter is exemplified by their current obsession with naming out-of-wedlock babies. You would think they would deliberate instead on how to prevent unwanted births and the care for those innocent babies with the dignity and love that they deserve.

            As for Malay sultans, consider the roles of Perak’s and Selangor’s during the political crises following the electoral tsunami of the 2008 general elections.

            In Perak, the then Sultan proved unable to escape his feudal mentality. He treated the “People’s Representatives” in the state assembly as his handmaidens, to do his bidding. No surprise then that the political crisis there degenerated in short order. Instead of being part of the solution, the sultan became enmeshed in the problem.

            That Perak crisis demonstrated another key point. It is often assumed that if only we have qualified and experienced people in charge, then no matter how battered or inadequate our institutions are, those individuals would rise to the challenge. In Perak, we had a sultan who by any measure was the most qualified and experienced, having served as the nation’s top judge and later, King. Yet his critical decision following the 2008 election, which demanded the most judicious of judgment, proved unwise and primitive. That is putting it in the mildest and most polite terms.

            The protagonists there were Barisan Nasional’s Zamry Kadir, a Temple University PhD, and Pakatan’s Nizar Jamaluddin, an engineer fluent in multiple languages. With the defeat of the incumbent Barisan, Pakatan’s Nizar took over as Chief Minister. It was short lived. Through shady machinations, Barisan persuaded a few Pakatan representatives to switch, triggering a political tussle culminating in a constitutional crisis. All that could have been avoided by calling for a formal assembly vote of no confidence.

            Instead, the Sultan decided which party had the Assembly’s confidence. From there it was but a short steep slide to seeing the Pakatan speaker of the Assembly being manhandled and dragged out, with chairs thrown all round. The sultan’s representative was reduced to cooling his heels in an adjoining room, unable to address the Assembly because of the mayhem.

            Equally pathetic and despicable were the behaviors of the permanent establishment; they too were ensnared in the mess through their partisan performances. Those civil servants should have acted as a conciliatory buffer.

            The judiciary too, failed. The ensuing lawsuit did not merit an expedited hearing and thus meandered through the judicial process. By contrast, the lawsuit triggered by the 2000 American presidential elections over the Florida ballots ended at the Supreme Court for a definitive decision in a matter of days, not months.

            The credentials of the key players in the Perak mess were all impressive. In performance however, they were no different from street thugs. Their diplomas looked impressive only when hung on walls.

            The latest failure of leadership, demonstrated to national and international shame, was that of Zeti Aziz, former Governor of Bank Negara. A few years earlier Global Finance named her as one of the top central bankers. Rather premature as it turned out. During the pivotal 1MDB crisis, she remained silent. She later used the excuse that she did not have the power beyond imposing fines! She bragged that she imposed the highest fine to date. That may well be. However, in view of the size of the loot, which was in the billions, a few millions in fine is but peanuts. She would have done a far greater public service had she spoken out and exposed the corruption.

            Contrast her performance to her legendary predecessor Ismail Ali, the Bank’s first native Governor. A Queen’s scholar and Cambridge graduate, it would be unthinkable for any minister to even consider undertaking any financial shenanigans during his time. Zeti’s qualification is no less impressive, an Ivy League PhD. As can be seen, superior education does not always equal courage or integrity.

            A mark of a mature democracy, or any system, is the smooth and predictable transfer of power. Perak was a spectacular failure, an unnerving preview for Malaysia.

            The transition in Selangor was no better, with the ugly spectacle of the destruction of official documents and the vandalizing of office equipment by the outgoing UMNO Chief Minister, one local-trained former government dentist, and his staff. That revolting display was made even more obscene when compared to the smooth transition in Penang, also the consequence of the 2008 elections. The transfer of power there was from the Chinese-based Gerakan, a Barisan affiliate, to the also predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party. It was a model of civility, with the two leaders shaking hands. What a contrast to Selangor with the shift from UMNO to the also predominantly Malay Keadilan! No class, again reflecting the sorry caliber of the Malay political leaders.

            This has not always been the case. I remember the 1950s and 60s when opposition leaders, Malays and non-Malays, would attend social functions hosted by then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. There were pictures of PAS leaders in their modern suits and ties at ronggeng (dance) parties at the Residency, and no one would raise a howl. Those PAS leaders did not feel that the revelry on the social occasion contaminated their piety.

            Today I yearn to see such displays of decorum and civility among our leaders. I have seen DAP leader Lim Kit Siang at Mahathir’s Hari Raya “Open House,” but I have yet to see Nik Aziz give a sermon in a masjid full of UMNO members, or Abdullah Badawi, a self-proclaimed alim, in a mosque in Kelantan.

            As for the civil service, in the 1950s and 60s it still had the aroma of prestige, a leftover from colonial rule. That however was more fantasy than reality. The inadequacies of the civil service then so well documented by Milton Esman are still evident today, only far worse. The civil service is now insular, inbred and most of all, highly corrupt and woefully incompetent. Far from being an essential instrument for the development of Malaysia, it is but an encrusted barnacle impeding the nation’s progress.

            Revisiting the earlier Perak debacle, the then Crown Prince Raja Nazrin recently lamented on the quality of advice the sultan (his father) received from senior officials. Dispensing with whether this was but a crude and shameless attempt at shifting blame, two things are worth noting. One, it took the prince this long to acknowledge those inadequacies, and two, his father (the sultan) obviously restricted his sources of counsel! And this sultan was the nation’s former chief judge!


Next:  Malay Underdevelopment Beyond Politics and the Civil Service


Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

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