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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Exchanges With Din Merican

Dear Din:

Thank you for sending me the laudatory piece on Badawi that appeared in Singapore’s Straits Times. I do not share the writer’s enthusiasm for Pak Lah. He is like a golfer who has good swings, but there is no follow through.

That writer commented favorably on Pak Lah’s utterances (swings) but not on his achievements (follow through), simply because there were none. Pak Lah’s fight against corruption is such that Isa Samad (found guilty of money politics by his own party) is still in the Cabinet, Osu Sukum (with multimillion dollar gambling debts) is still in UMNO's Supreme Council, and the latest flap, expensive retirement parties for civil servants, is a bust. The Police Commission Report is just that – a report, and a very expensive one.

I dearly wish for him to succeed, but he is detracted by two major events: One, his wife’s serious if not fatal illness, and two, basically he has not done any reading since his graduation. In short, his intellectual horizon is limited and he is satisfied with blurting out headlines given to him by his son-in-law.

I am noticing something strange. Almost the only positive comments on Badawi come from the Singapore media. It too, like that in Malaysia, is government controlled. My gut feeling is that those Singapore folks have figured out that Badawi is your typical Malay, susceptible to flattery. Praise a Malay effusively, and he will give away his inheritance. The British did that very effectively with our Sultans and now the Singapore Chinese are eagerly learning the lessons of the Brits.

Appreciate your comments!



Dear Bakri:

Pak Lah has been in government and politics for a long time. He has enough experience. He has not been a clerk all these times and he must have learned something. His boys cannot continue to spin on his behalf. That has to end fast.

Investors, local and foreign, have no confidence in him. He just does not have the intellectual and physical energy to lead our country. We face challenging times ahead that demand firm and decisive action.

I do not expect much from the 2006 Budget because our civil servants and policy professionals have run out of ideas. He is certainly not providing the leadership.

We need growth; people must have jobs. Cutting the budget deficit is simplistic; it stifles growth. Yes, we need to manage public spending better and allocate resources more rationally. Right now much of the public spending is wasteful, and the politicians, corrupt. As the public leadership is essentially in Malay hands, this gives our race a dirty reputation.

Badawi has been away, again, for the past few weeks. Fancy that! As Minister of Finance, he is not involved in budget preparations and strategies. He is reduced to simply reading a speech in Parliament! When journalists asked him detailed questions, dia gagap saja (he stuttered!). Investors lose confidence when the leader does not know what he is talking about or just fumbles. His Trade and Industry Minister is a prime example of ministerial irresponsibility. As Badawi is a weak leader, the barons and warlords are at war with each other in his Cabinet and party.

Mahathir too, as Prime Minister, was swallowed up by the YAB (the Right Honorable) syndrome and forgot himself. Now he is back in the real world, minus the adulations and trappings of the office of prime minister. I am sure in his private moments he is full of regrets. Eventually, like us, he too will face Almighty Allah and have to account for his deeds. I admire the man greatly yet I am quite disappointed with his management of our country and UMNO.

I am an admirer of Mahathir, but I find that he does not have the ability to choose good people. You pointed this out to me years ago. You were right.

The hallmark of a good leader is the ability to nurture a pool of able would-be successors. The idea of “a crown prince” is wrong and dangerous, as we saw with Anwar Ibrahim.

To get things done, a leader needs capable subordinates and great followers. Before one can be a good leader, one must first be a good follower (not ahli bodek [yes man])). Was Mahathir a good follower? Examine what he did to the Tunku and Tun Hussein Onn. That is something I learned in management and from James McGregor Burn’s excellent book on leadership. Leadership is critical for success in business and politics. A good leader must have a grasp for details, not just vision. Overall, Mahathir was a good leader.

I cannot believe that a strong leader like Mahathir cares what UMNO wants or thinks. He always had his way, by fair means or otherwise. For him to say that Badawi is what UMNO wants is a little far-fetched. Like Nehru, Mahathir did not develop people under him. He made all the decisions; he did not empower his ministers and party colleagues. He had zero tolerance for “smart fellas.” He never had time for you, Bakri, or me, or anyone with views of their own.

UMNO needs to be strong and always relevant. It must have a built-in system of self-renewal and an organized machinery (cadre system if you like). It must stick to its tradition of listening to, and respecting the grassroots. Otherwise, Malay sovereignty and control over national politics and public administration will be lost. We must not lose our premier position in national politics.

The democratic system is essentially adversarial. It is a battle of ideas and programs aimed at delivering maximum happiness to the Malays. This should always be UMNO’s first concern; then comes the other Malaysians. If UMNO is careless and complacent, PAS and its allies can take over.

UMNO needs strong, able and dedicated leaders, not corrupt ones. That is why we must get rid of money politics, and all forms of corruption. Today, as you never fail to remind me, UMNO is corrupt to the core. God help us, the Malays, if UMNO does not reform itself soon.

UMNO leaders have forgotten their original struggle. Leaders like Najib (he is corrupt, so I am told, and with a greedy wife to boot!) who talks about Melayu glokal are out of touch. We cannot even compete locally with non-Malays. How can we go global and compete with the rest of the world?

Amanat Presiden (President’s Address) over the years contained plenty of platitudes, gushes of hot air, free flowing rhetoric, and irrelevant foreign policy pronouncements. Ordinary Malays cannot relate to them in any meaningful way. UMNO should re-look at the content of its Amanat Presiden. It should be a report card, practical, and simple. Focus on things that are achievable within the context of the overall vision and plan. Be modest and down-to-earth. The General Assembly is the only time when the party President has the chance to speak to the grassroots.

I am not sure that Badawi is aware of his weaknesses. His sycophants tell him that he is great, wise, and a Yang Amat Berhormat, and they kiss his hands. He is the proverbial Emperor with no clothes. He has only his “imagined reality,” and his advisors keep him isolated. Intellectually too, he is isolated as he does not read widely.

He thinks that running a country is simply reading speeches, inspecting Guards of Honor, and making official visits abroad and at home. To put it crassly, he has an attitude problem. You said it well when you wrote about The Sultan Syndrome in your The Malay Dilemma Revisited. Malaysia already has an Agung and nearly a dozen sultans. It does not need another one.

To be a leader one needs mental strength, a set of unshakable beliefs, plenty of guts, and mastery of details. A leader must lead and not be concerned with being a populist. He must do what is right, not what is popular.

In the end, he must have the character and integrity to say what he means and means what he says. Meaning, he must execute.

Fortunately, I am not a member of any political party. It is great to be just the man in the street.




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