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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.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Dealing With UMNO's Childish Tantrums

Dealing With UMNO’s Childish Tantrums

Editorial lead: Today, Umno is the problem, for Malays, non-Malays, and Malaysia. Umno has long ceased being part of the solution.

It is heartening that with few exceptions Malaysians have learned to ignore the ritualistic childish tantrums that are now the standard staple at UMNO’s gatherings. The recently concluded General Assembly was true to form, except for the chauvinistic chanting and virulence of the racism breaching even earlier heights of vulgarity.

Child psychologists tell us that the best way to deal with unacceptable behaviors is to indicate your disapproval in no uncertain terms the very first few times the child engages in them. This may include punishment.

If the child were to persist, then other strategies become necessary. Continued disapproval or punishment would be counterproductive, as the child would perceive that as getting attention. We would thus be unwittingly reinforcing the pattern.

This is where UMNO leaders are today. The more angry and ballistic the responses from Malaysians, the more encouraged these infantile Hang Tuah wannabes become. The censuring remarks of the likes of DAP’s Karpal Singh, Gerakan’s Lim King Yeik, and other commentators merely feed on these UMNO leaders’ hunger for attention.

Fortunately most Malaysians have learned to ignore these attention-seeking antics of UMNO. I had to force myself to view the videotapes of the General Assembly; I was bored after the first few keris-brandishing episodes. The only redeeming feature this time was that they did not drip their kerises with ketchup; they probably could not afford the laundry bill the last time.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Najib Razak, then UMNO Youth Leader, was the first to exploit this now infamous keris-brandishing stunt a few years back. Despite his evident clumsiness, he did not accidentally stab himself. Had that mishap happened, that would have been the end to this obscene choreography, and also to Najib. It did not, and Najib went on to greater heights, in UMNO as well as the nation. So, monkey see, monkey do.

This year we had Hishamudin aping Najib. Next year, if things go as planned, it would be Khairy’s turn. Being an Oxford graduate, he would want to prove that he is better than Hishamudin by trying to upstage him. Expect Khairy to perform the silat or some other equally silly act with his keris brandishing. Being not athletically gifted, watch him fall flat on his face with his keris inflicting a career-ending injury. Such theatrics have to end on a dramatic note.

Were that to happen, it would not be good for Khairy, of course, but it will be for UMNO, Malays, and Malaysia. UMNO members (and Malays generally), still steeped in their mystical beliefs, would view the accident as divine retribution, and we would then be spared further ugly taunting and displays of racism. Short of that happening, expect even more idiotic and obnoxious flaunting. What will they think of next?

Obviously it is much easier to come out with such stunts than it is to bring novel solutions to the intractable problems facing Malays. That would be too taxing intellectually for these folks, their Oxbridge education notwithstanding. Their preoccupation with trivialities matches their juvenile mindset.

At the recent UMNO Johore convention, its leader Ghani, who is also the Chief Minister, suggested that meritocracy was not suitable for Malays! That would unfairly penalize Malay pupils attending poorly equipped rural schools, he argued. That has been the lament since colonial times. I would have expected that after over fifty years of UMNO rule, they would have solved this long-standing problem.

To think that Ghani was once dean at the University of Malaya! Obviously, had meritocracy been practiced there, he would not have reached such academic heights; hence his defense of the status quo.

Breaking the Obnoxious Habit

As UMNO members have abrogated their collective “parental” responsibilities in not disciplining Najib Razak the first time he engaged in that obnoxious stunt (indeed they egged him on), it has now become entrenched. That such ugly behaviors are also career enhancing further reinforces the pattern. Consider that Najib is now Prime Minister-in-waiting.

The only way to disabuse UMNO of such behaviors is not to reward them. The only way to deliver that message to UMNO is in the language its members can understand: blunt, brutal, and delivered in no uncertain terms, as in not voting for them in the next election. This is not the time for subtleties or niceties.

Non-Malays are now the critical swing votes. Even PAS recognizes this reality; its leaders are consciously toning down their Islamic messages and trying to broaden their appeal. At its last Muktamar (convention), it even entertained fielding non-Malay candidates, a seismic shift in attitude and thinking.

If non-Malays abandon UMNO and join the many Malays already disillusioned with UMNO, its candidates would be defeated. The Barisan coalition need not be defeated to effect major change in UMNO. If PAS were to win more seats than UMNO, that would deal a crippling psychological blow. The ensuing blame game and infighting would implode UMNO.

The last time UMNO was threatened electorally in 1969, it triggered a deadly riot. If UMNO were dethroned today, there would be jubilations in Kampong Baru as well as Chow Kit Road. Then UMNO was seen as the defender of Malays; today thanks to the obscenely ostentatious lifestyles of the UMNOPutras, it is nothing more than the party of social and economic parasites. Then Malays were economically marginalized, today with a sizable Malay middle class, Malays have as much to lose as non-Malays should there be turmoil. If there were to be any riot, it would be UMNO members blaming each other and seeking retribution for their collective debacle.

Contrary to Khairy’s naïve expectations, a weakened UMNO would not embolden its Barisan partners to challenge it. Their choice then would be to merge with PAS, not exactly a demure bride-in-waiting. Even if they were to flirt with PAS, it would not necessarily be bad for Malaysia. These non-Malay parties might just be the influence needed to moderate PAS. PAS is after all a political party, not a religious organization. If the price for gaining power is for them to tone down their Islamic message, they will. Currently PAS leaders are self-righteously rigid because they have not been given the political opportunity.

The implosion of UMNO would not be bad for Malays or Malaysia; on the contrary, it would be good. UMNO has long ceased being part of the solution. Today, UMNO is the problem, for Malays, non-Malays, and Malaysia.

We do not need divine interventions like Khairy accidentally falling on his keris to solve UMNO’s problems, it would suffice if voters were to instill a much-needed parental discipline to the party.

Mediocre Followers Have Mediocre Leaders

Mediocre Followers Have Mediocre Leaders

Prime Minister Abdullah’s inept leadership is only half the problem. Leaders do not exist in a vacuum; they are there because of their followers. Mediocre followers tolerate and thus encourage mediocre leaders.

The flip side to Abdullah’s incompetence is that it also reflects on the caliber of his followers. Abdullah’s most proximate followers are his ministers, followed by UMNO Supreme Council members, then UMNO members, and last, the citizens.

His ministers meet Abdullah at least once a week during their regular cabinet meetings. UMNO Supreme Council members get to counsel their President at least monthly. Ordinary party members get to voice their views through their chosen delegates once a year during their General Assembly. Lastly, voters get to pass their collective judgment every five years during general elections.

The leader-follower dynamics with Abdullah is less of “monkey see, monkey do,” more of a bunch of drunken sailors recklessly egging on their equally drunk bumbling skipper. When their ship ultimately plows onto a treacherous rock and destroys everything, it matters not who is at fault.

Followers’ Feedback

The finesse, effectiveness, and consequences of the feedback vary with the various levels of followers. The citizens’ (at least the voters) weapon is the ultimate. While it is the most effective and consequential, it is also very crude. Their decision is simple: keep or reject. There is little subtlety or nuances, as President Bush and his cohorts in the Republican Party found out much to their chagrin recently.

Equally effective but much less crude and therefore potentially more beneficial would be the voices of party members. Former Prime Minister Thatcher was rudely reminded of this reality not too long ago when she was unceremoniously booted out even though she had successfully led her party to three successive electoral victories. Today, Labor Party member are none too subtly reminding Prime Minister Blair that he is fast overstaying his welcome. Like Thatcher, Blair too successfully led his party through three elections. If party members neglect or shy away from their responsibility, rest assured that voters would be more than willing to send the rude message a la Bush.

UMNO members have at least two avenues to register their sentiments about their leader: through their delegates to the General Assembly, and through their Supreme Council members.

The recently concluded UMNO General Assembly, like recent ones, was nothing more than bodek sessions, undisguised orgy of adulation for the leader, funded by ill-gotten “money politics” or even the state treasury. Gone are the days when even the most revered UMNO leaders were routinely challenged. We yearn for the era when one brave Sulaiman Palestin would consistently put his name on the ballot to challenge the exalted party president of the day. Where have the singa (lions) that would have roared into the leaders’ ears gone? Where are the halia (ginger) that would at least give a pungent taste to the leaders’ greedy bite?

If the delegates have failed, well, they can be readily excused. After all they are not the party’s top leaders or its cream. UMNO still has its Majlis Tertinggi (Supreme Council), the party’s elite, men and women who are professionals and party veterans. These individuals have gone round the block once or twice. Surely it would be tough to pass wool over their collective eyes.

This particular Supreme Council was constituted since the last leadership conference over a year ago. Meaning, they have had over a dozen meetings with the party president. Surely there must have been at least one courageous soul on at least one brave occasion who dared tell the party president that he is donning a bark loincloth and not sarong pelakat (cheap cotton wrap), much less samping sutra (silk cummerbund) as the man fancies himself wearing. Perhaps they have collectively deluded themselves that their obviously near-naked emperor is immaculately attired.

It could very well be that members of the Majlis Tertinggi, or MT, have gone the way of the membership. Or as one blogger put it, gone “empty,” to match its initials. In UMNO, instead of the cream rising to the top as in cheese making, it is the crud and debris that have risen to the top, as with dirty laundry in a washing machine.

If party members and leaders have failed to apprise Abdullah of his mediocre performance, then surely there are his ministers who meet him regularly and who could perform that necessary chore, either gently or not so gently. After all it is the future of the nation, not that of any individual. The stakes are high and responsibility awesome.

In the best parliamentary tradition, ministers have been known to resign to express their disagreement or displeasure with the prime minister, as the late Robin Cook did to Tony Blair, and Paul O’Neill to Bush. The stature of those ministers soared following their resignation.

The fact that none of Abdullah’s ministers have resigned in protest means only one thing: they interpret Abdullah’s incompetence as otherwise. Meaning, those ministers are equally incompetent.

Blindly Carrying Water

Prime Minister Abdullah has boldly declared his intention not only to continue but also to serve a second and probably even a third term. Such presumption! Obviously his followers, from his cabinet ministers to Supreme Council and ordinary UMNO members, have been his enablers in feeding his delusion that he has been doing a swell job.

Abdullah saw fit to warn his followers “not to test him!” Obviously this Imam, undoubtedly encouraged by his enablers, has also successfully deluded himself into believing that he is divinely destined to lead the nation. Do not challenge Allah’s wish, he seems to imply!

That leaves only one set of follower to pass their collective judgment on him: the voters. If in their collective wisdom Malaysians renew Abdullah’s mandate, then the aphorism that people deserve their leaders would have been proven true again.

As the citizens’ weapon is crude and consequential, its effects could not be readily predictable. When British voters booted out the old Labor Party and put in Thatcher’s Conservative government, that event transformed Britain, for the better.

When Malaysian voters decided to teach the old Alliance government a lesson in the 1969 elections, the results were devastating to the nation. Following the debacle, there were strong voices within UMNO castigating the leadership, but that was after the event. Had those brave souls delivered their message earlier, the leaders might have been persuaded to change their ways and the nation would have been spared that horrible tragedy.

People have a way of expressing their sentiments, with or without elections. When the Iranians were fed up with their Shah, they used their ultimate weapon: they got rid of him. The uppermost question on their mind was on getting rid of him, not on the consequences of that decision. Thus they paid no heed on who would succeed him or the ensuing policy shifts. Today, the Iranians are still paying the price. That is what happens when you wield the ultimate weapon; you cannot always predict the consequences.

Had the Shah’s advisors, ministers, and other proximate followers counseled him earlier when he could still mend his ways, his fate and theirs, as well as those of the Iranian people, would have been far different.

Abdullah saw fit to characterize those who criticize him as engaging in fitnah, a Quranic reference meaning betraying the faith. It would not be the first or the last time for a politician to seek refuge in religion. Abdullah should instead heed the beautiful verse in the Quran to the effect that when you see a wrong being perpetrated, you should use your hand to stop it. Failing that, then you use your tongue, meaning voice your disapproval. At the very least you should disapprove of it in your heart, knowing fully well that Allah is least pleased with this option.

I may not convince Abdullah or his supporters through my fingers at keyboard, at least I have done my part in registering my disapproval.

There are consequences to the followers’ inaction and remaining silent, or worse, in praising a mediocre and incompetent performance. Abdullah’s ministers and those in UMNO Supreme Council may rationalize their support for him on grounds of “personal and party loyalty,” “not rocking the boat,” “working within the system,” or plain selfish attempts at clinging to power and position. Regardless, the effects are the same.

When you blindly carry water behind your bumbling leader, you will be wet whenever he stumbles. Worse, you may even end up drowning in your own pail.

Abdullah’s ministers, Supreme Council members, and UMNO delegates ought to be reminded of this stark reality.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Malignant Neglect of Pak Lah's Leadership

Malaysiakini.com November 9, 2006

Malignant Neglect of Pak Lah’s Leadership

The current political anxiety in Malaysia centers over two issues. One is the obvious incompetence of Abdullah Badawi’s leadership and the consequent malignant neglect of his administration. The other is the fear that his replacement would be someone even worse.

Both fears reflect the generally sorry state of the nation’s political leadership. That however should not be the excuse for us to accept the status quo. Yes, change involves risks. The Iranians thought they were doing themselves a great favor by getting rid of the Shah; look at what they have now.

What I am advocating is not simply change, but change for the better. That would not happen easily or spontaneously, we have to work hard to achieve it.

I do not pretend to know who would be best to lead Malaysia. I believe however that Allah in His Wisdom has endowed us with our share of the talented. Offhand I can name a dozen capable candidates; those closer to home should have an even longer list.

If we were to open up the process, we would more likely get better candidates and thus increase the probability of selecting the right leader. Restricting it through putting onerous burdens like having to be nominated by over 50 branches unnecessarily limits our choice. We must cast our net deep and wide.

If those would-be leaders were to present themselves and their ideas, then we could exercise our collective judgment. I believe in the Quranic wisdom that Allah would not let His community be in error. Meaning, have faith in the judgment of the crowd, but first you have to ensure that the crowd is truly inclusive and its decisions reached without corruption or coercion. Otherwise we would have essentially mob rule masquerading as democracy.

Once we have chosen our leaders, we must continually hold them to high standards and demand more of them. If we put our leaders on a pedestal and treat them like sultans, it would not take them long to think that they are. Then they would think that they are not answerable to anyone. Very dangerous! Monster leaders are not created overnight; often their followers are the enablers.

Mahathir’s Supreme Contribution

It is ironic that Mahathir would make one of his greatest contributions only after he retired. Regardless of the eventual outcome of his criticisms of the current leadership, he has already effectively broken down the entrenched cultural taboo against criticizing our leaders. By his not seeking refuge in his comfortable pension, together with his willingness to risk his considerable reputation as well as his trademark disregard for meaningless protocol and misplaced sense of social decorum, Mahathir shocked the normally placid UMNO community with his scathing criticisms of Abdullah.

To be sure, Mahathir is only one factor. Abdullah’s own ineptness invites the avalanche of criticisms and outright scorn. In fact, Mahathir was a latecomer to the party.

Then there are the Internet and the alternative media that give expressions to those dissenting views. Perversely, Abdullah paved the process by appointing incompetents like Kalimullah Hassan and Brendan Periera to run The New Straits Times. The alternative media would not have gained their immense following and respect so quickly had the mainstream media maintained some modicum of credibility.

It is this confluence of factors, the perfect storm as it were, that helped shatter our collective ingrained Hang Tuah-like blind loyalty to our leaders. I hope this particular legacy will endure. To hear his supporters say it, Abdullah claims credit for all these, attributing them to the greater transparency of his administration. Such a misreading of reality! If he had his way, he would muzzle every dissenter.

Rest assured that the next leader would not easily get a free pass. He or she would be subjected to critical scrutiny right from the start. That would be healthy and help ensure that he or she would stay on the straight and narrow path. At least that is my fervent hope!

Abdullah was well meaning, honest, and earnest in the beginning. Malaysians, exhausted by the unrelenting pace of his predecessor, were enthralled by the welcomed change in rhythm. Unfortunately, the unrestrained adulation heaped upon him early on by well-meaning supporters, together with the overwhelming electoral mandate he received soon after, quickly went to his head.

Following the elections, instead of being emboldened, he was content to rest on his laurels. He was like the high school senior who having excelled in his matriculating examination, merely coasted along at university, and then was bewildered by the disastrous consequence. He should have been working doubly hard and set himself an even higher standard after the election.

Alas, that impressive political victory seemed so long ago; it has been a steep and unnerving downhill ride ever since.

The Challenge of Securing Talent

An additional challenge for Malaysia is that politics today no longer attracts the talented. In the past, nationalism and the accompanying struggle for independence inspired many to enter politics. Today, smart young Malaysians have the world as their stage. Their skills are in demand globally. Malaysia has to aggressively entice them. Mindless emotional appeals to patriotism would not do it; challenges and opportunities would.

Even at home, there are many other exciting opportunities, like starting their own enterprises or joining multinational corporations. By default, public service generally and politics specifically is fast becoming the refuge of the less talented. Not surprisingly, our leaders are slow to appreciate this stark reality.

Reversing the trend, while difficult, is doable. Doubling the pay of ministers would definitely help. That alone would not suffice; you still need to attract fresh talent, otherwise only the current crowd would benefit. If we reduce by half the current bloated cabinet, the remaining ministers could easily double their pay without the government incurring additional costs. It would also save by having fewer Secretaries-General and other highly paid support civil servants.

One effective way to enlist fresh talent would be to secure high-level recruitment, or “helicopter candidates,” to use the local parlance. Tun Razak effectively used this strategy. He was successful because he selected only outstanding individuals with proven and widely acknowledged accomplishments. Anyone with less-than-spectacular credentials would only incite endless sniping from the troops.

Relying on members to work their way up through the party as at present merely perpetuates the current corrupt system. It is not the cream that rises to the top, only the crud and dirt that had worked their way loose through the agitator of the party’s washing machine.

Looking For UMNO’s Goldwater

Malaysia cannot endure more of the malignant neglect of Abdullah’s leadership. What UMNO (and the nation) desperately needs is a respected senior statesman (or a group of such individuals) to do what Senator Barry Goldwater did to Nixon at the height of the Watergate crisis. Goldwater personally convinced President Nixon to resign voluntarily and thus spared him (Nixon) and the nation much grief.

The crisis in Malaysia today is much worse; the damage it wrecks is hidden and far more consequential. Sadly, I do not see any potential Goldwater in the party. Tengku Razaleigh is one of the few bold enough to carry the blunt message to Abdullah. However, as the Tengku had earlier challenged Abdullah, such a role would be unseemly for Razaleigh. He could still do it credibly if he were first to publicly disavow any interest in being Prime Minister.

The other possible person would be Musa Hitam, but he is too enthralled with his fresh Tunship and is in no position to be the bearer of bad tidings to the very person who recommended the award to him.

Thus it would be up to the ordinary UMNO members to deliver the message. Knowing full well the party’s culture, that is a very tall order. Meanwhile the malignancy continues to exact its ravages upon the nation. That is the real tragedy, not the fate of any individual or leader.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Lead! Or Get Out Of The Way

Lead! Or Get Out of the Way!
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)
(First posted on Malaysia-today on Friday November 3, 2006. This would serve as my regular Sunday posting. MBM)

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi should quit whining. Lead, or get out of the way! He has had three years to make up his mind. If there is any jantan (male) left in UMNO, this is the brutally frank message he needs to deliver to his leader.

There is a place for loyalty to the leader, but not at the price of the followers being led collectively over the cliff.

The singa (lion) in UMNO is long gone; the kittens of the kucing kurap (scruffy cats) have taken over. Their meows would be heard loud and clear (and incessantly too!) only when they run out of milk. The ginger has also been long uprooted from UMNO’s garden. What we have instead are Bell peppers; colorful but pepper only in name, it spiciness long ago bred out of them.

At the upcoming UMNO General Assembly, expect effusive choruses of praise and an orgy of adulation for the leader of the day. In spectacle, it would not match what the North Koreans regularly put on for their “Dear Leader,” but the exuberance of the glorifications and the superlatives used would; their intensity matching the desperation of the speakers in being beholden to their leader.

Abdullah’s sycophants have already bestowed him the glorified title of “Father of the K-Economy,” whatever that means. I suggest he be adorned with a more appropriate appellation, “Bapak Tanah Kayangan!” (Father of Fantasyland!). After all he is heading a cabinet of Mat Jenins (Malaysian Walter Mittys), individuals who fancy themselves as legends in their own fertile imaginations.

Obscenely generous money politics and political patronages have effectively emasculated UMNO. To be sure there will be plenty of gaily-attired putris (princesses) gracing the gathering. They will add color to the otherwise dull background, but nothing more. As for the putras (princes), they will be dozing off, having spent their late nights with the Mat Rempits terrorizing the streets and neighborhoods with their motorcycles.

I long for brave souls along the fashion of the late Sulaiman Palestin. He never hesitated to challenge even the most esteemed leader. If he were alive today, he would courageously introduce a “No Confidence” resolution at the Assembly. Even if it were not successful, it might just prove to the needed shock for Abdullah to come out of his slumber. The man has been daydreaming for too long.

Pathetic Performance with Mahathir

Abdullah’s performance after (and also presumably during) his one-on-one meeting with his predecessor was pathetic. If Abdullah cannot stand up to Mahathir, how on earth can we expect Abdullah to look after the nation’s interests in even tougher negotiations with foreign leaders?

Mahathir effectively reduced Abdullah to an errand schoolboy guilty of being delinquent in his homework and now has to write down a hundred times, “I must pay attention to my work and not doze off!”

According to Abdullah, Mahathir did most of the talking. Abdullah by his own admission was too polite to interfere. Touching! According to Mahathir (and Abdullah corroborated this), he brought up the very same issues he had been harping on for the past few months.

Abdullah does not need to listen to the details again; presumably he had heard them before and would by now be ready with the answers and rebuttals. Malaysians and the world have certainly heard Mahathir’s litany of complaints. What he and we needed were answers. Yet there was the sorry sight of Abdullah pleading for more time! If Abdullah does not get it by now, he never will.

What Abdullah should have done when Mahathir began to repeat what he had said many times before was to stop him cold and assert, “With due respect Tun, I have heard them all before, and many times over. Let me address them one by one!” With that, effectively take over the meeting. Then we would know who was in charge!

After the meeting, Abdullah should have called for a press conference and publicly invited Mahathir to join in. That of course would take confidence and leadership, the very qualities so clearly lacking with Abdullah.

Instead it was Mahathir who gave not one but two press conferences to let the public know what transpired between them. Abdullah was reduced to whining and complaining that Mahathir was spewing “venom.” He took solace behind the protective but ineffectual barks of his ministers and spinmeisters.

Abdullah forgot that the issues Mahathir raised are also very much in the public mind. He owes Malaysians, not just Mahathir, an explanation. Whining, maintaining an “elegance silence,” or asking his surrogates to answer for him merely exposes Abdullah lack of engagement. What we have in Abdullah is not a chief executive but a pseudo sultan, and not a very regal one at that. Malaysia already has nine sultans; it does not need a tenth.

During this past Ramadan, Abdullah was busy being an imam, dispensing homilies and delivering sermons. Again, Malaysia has no shortage of imams and khatibs, what it needs desperately is a chief executive.

The Issue is Abdullah’s Leadership

Mahathir has long retired as Prime Minister; his legacy is for historians to dissect. Abdullah Badawi is a significant part of that legacy. At issue here is Abdullah’s leadership, or lack of it. He hides his inability to make the tough decisions by rationalizing that he leads through consensus. That has long been the excuse of the indecisive.

Mahathir singled out Kalimullah Hassan and Brendan Pereira for their sinister influences on Abdullah. Mahathir is being kind to Abdullah. In my view, Abdullah’s faults and weaknesses are his own making. If he had guts, he would have long ago fired the two, not for their presumed bad advice but for their juvenile commentaries, blatant plagiarisms, and inability to stem the declining readership of the once proud The New Straits Times. If the two cannot even run their paper, how can they presume to know how to run the country?

When the issue of conflict of interest with his family’s businesses arose, Abdullah at first denied it. When confronted with the facts, he did not deny the business dealings rather that he did not know about them! He should have been embarrassed by his ignorance; instead he used it as a pretext! Now that Mahathir had brought the issue directly to him, Abdullah’s latest excuse was that Mahathir’s sons too were involved in the past. Soon Abdullah will exhaust his explanations.

Instead of seeking solutions, Abdullah grabs at excuses. Since his advisors and those on the “infamous fourth floor” have not offered him any, I will offer my solution on avoiding future potential conflicts of interest.

Henceforth, any family member (spouse, sibling, children, in-laws) of the prime minister, minister, or any senior government official doing business with the government would have their contracts and bids subjected to a post-decision independent review by a commission to be headed by a former senior judge. That body would have court powers to subpoena witnesses and records. Its deliberations would also be open to the public. Details like the companies’ capabilities and principals, as well the bids of other competitors, would be examined. Let the sunshine in; that is the only effective way to disinfect the current cesspool that is the government’s procuring process.

Related to the issue of conflict of interest is the increasing private use of public assets by Abdullah and other leaders. The Prime Minister is treating the government’s luxurious corporate jets as his private limousines. Someone in Parliament ought to inquire whether the Prime Minister and his adult children and in-laws reimburse the government for using the jet on their recent umrah. When President Bush uses Air Force One for his campaign, his party had to reimburse the government for the non-official use of the plane.

If we do not make an issue of such abuses at this early stage, it would not take long for more egregious patterns to emerge. Soon you would have some sycophantic politicians suggesting that Sri Perdana be deeded to Abdullah.

Abdullah constantly decries about Malaysians having First World facility but Third World mentality. The government’s fleet of corporate jets is certainly First World, but its current users are not.

Abdullah should draw up clear guidelines of when and under what conditions can members of his family (as well as other leaders) partake in business relationships with the government, as well as when public assets can be used for private purposes. That would go a long way towards satisfying Mahathir as well as other Malaysians.