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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.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #25

PART II Basic Building Blocks

Chapter 6: Great Nation, Great Leaders

Negara endah kerana penghulu (Great nation, great leader)

—Malay proverb

A narration attributed to Prophet Muhammad (bpuh) has it that when two people are traveling together, one should be the leader. This wisdom recognizes two universalities. One, humans are essentially social beings; we like to be with one another. The other is that when in a group, someone has to assume leadership or take responsibility.

Even in a group of two, one has to serve as the leader, implicit or otherwise. The role may be interchangeable, but at any moment or event, someone has to assume leadership. Absent that and the pair could not even organize a two-car parade. There would be endless arguments on who should go first, and whether the honor goes to the leading or following car.

There is another relevant saying of the Prophet (pbuh): A day of anarchy is worse than a year of tyranny. Today’s Iraq is a severe demonstration of that wisdom. Anarchy is the absence of effective leadership. Tyranny is cruel leadership, but at least there is still leadership. The importance of leadership is encapsulated in this wisdom of the Prophet, “When power and authority are in the hands of the unfit, then wait for the Hour of Doomsday.” It may not be the biblical doomsday, but certainly the end of your world as well as that of the nation.

Leaders include not only political leaders but also others whom the community considers as such: traditional leaders as sultans and nobility, as well as religious and business leaders.

The aphorism that people deserve their leaders means just that: the type of leaders is reflective of the followers. Leaders and followers influence each other (as well with the other two elements—culture and geography—of my diamond of development). The Iraqis may have deserved Saddam, but it is also true that Saddam’s sadism has also rubbed off on his people. He is lucky to have been captured by the Americans, for had it been the Iraqis he would have received his own brand of justice. He would be butchered and his remains desecrated. The Iraqis have not always been like this, but after a generation under Saddam’s brutal dictatorship, this is what happens.

Malay sultans behave like feudal lords because the citizens treat them as such, and the sultans in turn act accordingly. During the brief period of the Japanese Occupation, the authorities did not recognize the sultans. The people in turn were so destitute that they could not bring the usual material tributes to their sultans. With no hangers-on and dutiful subjects to fawn on them, these sultans quickly behaved like ordinary peasants in having to eke out a living.

If Malaysians were intent on trimming the excesses of their sultans, a good place to begin would be to stop treating them so royally. Mahathir had difficulties reining in the sultans in the 1980s and 90s because he and the citizens were sending out conflicting signals. On one hand they wanted to curb the sultans’ powers, on the other, the citizens continued to grovel before the sultans, kissing their hands and generally sucking up to get their Datukship and other royal honors. Mahathir would have sent a far stronger and more effective message had he declined the various royal awards heaped upon him and at the same time cut down on the number of royal awards.

This illustrates the other pairing of my diamond of development, the equally crucial leader-culture dynamics. Mahathir may want to emasculate the sultans, but the cultural milieu of revering the royalty remains. He would have had a better chance of success had he also changed the cultural environment of blind obedience to the sultans. Apart from trimming the royal honor lists (that would also save money and resources), he should have prohibited ministers and others from accepting royal titles while they are in office, and restrict the use of royal titles and honors only on ceremonial occasions. Titles like Datuk and Tan Sri should not be on official documents like passports or loan applications. After a few years of such incremental changes, Malaysians would soon treat their sultans as the Mindanao Filipinos do their Sultan of Sulu.

One dramatic move would have been not to bail out these sultans whenever they incurred massive gambling debts abroad. Imagine one of these sultans being handcuffed and led to a Las Vegas jail for not honoring his gambling debt! Such actions would have a powerful impact on the collective Malay psyche, driving home the important concept that these sultans are mere mortals. Or to put it in the earthy language of my kampong folks, their (royal) fart still stinks.

Instead, Mahathir resorted to unleashing his hound dogs in the media to expose the shenanigans (real and imagined) of the royal families. As usual, the media types went overboard, and with their already stretched credibility, the whole exercise backfired, with the citizens sympathizing with their sultans instead.

This leader-culture dynamics is well displayed in many Arab countries. The Arab culture, in particular its belief in predestination and excessive adherence to tradition, feeds Saddam’s egomaniacal tendencies and the belief that he had been divinely destined to rule. Saddam in turn feeds on the Arab culture of tribalism by favoring his relatives and tribesmen in dishing out his country’s bounty. Likewise with the leader-geography dynamics; for without Iraq’s oil wealth Saddam would not have been able to afford those expensive and powerful armaments with which to threaten his people and neighbors, as well as feed his massive ego.

Of the three, the leader-follower dynamics is most pivotal, followed by the leader-culture, and leader-geography. A sophisticated and educated citizenry would not likely elect incompetent rabble-rousers as leaders. In America, Saddam would not have a chance being elected dogcatcher. Responsible citizens provide effective checks and balances on the powers and behaviors of their leaders. Likewise enlightened leaders will bring out the best among their followers, striving them to greater heights.

The bulk of the literature on leadership focuses on leaders, but as indicated, it is equally important to understand the other half, the followers, as well as dynamics of the interactions between the two. The Quran clearly defines this relationship. Followers are to follow their leaders, but only if those leaders follow the commands of God, meaning, they are just. If they are not, followers are obligated to change their leaders.

Next: Evolution and Patterns of Leadership


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