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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, April 27, 2008

Apportioning The Blame

It is tempting – and comforting – to blame everyone for the failure of Prime Minister Abdullah’s leadership, or to take the other extreme and heap the blame entirely on the hapless man.

Both approaches would be inadequate if not wrong. The corollary to “everyone is at fault” is that no one is. That would be a collective “cop out,” an abrogation of personal responsibility. Even if it were that rare instance where everyone is indeed responsible, there would still be the different degrees of culpability that would have to be acknowledged.

Blaming Abdullah entirely would also be inadequate. If nothing else, that would reveal the glaring inadequacies of the system, like its lack of checks and balances.

When a Turkish Airline jet crashed over Paris in 1974 because its cargo door blew out, the blame was not put entirely on the sloppy mechanic – although his negligence was clearly the triggering event – rather on the design flaws that would not indicate when doors were not properly secured. Firing the poor mechanic (though that was done) would not prevent future similar accidents, but improving the design with better indicator lights did.

An insight of modern “failure analysis” is that catastrophes are often not the result of a single major error, rather the cumulative effects of a series of minor mistakes each compounding the other until a critical stress point is reached when the whole thing would blow up. We are all familiar with the story of losing the war for the want of a nut.

Triggering Event

We could usefully use these approaches to analyze Abdullah’s failure. The triggering event (the sloppy mechanic as it were) was Mahathir’s selection of Abdullah back in 1998. Had Mahathir not done this, we would have been spared this disaster.

Malaysia however cannot be at the mercy of the mistake of any one person. Besides, blaming Mahathir alone would also not pass the philosophical test on the meaning of causation. We might as well blame Abdullah’s mother if we were to pursue this line of logic, for had she not given birth to him, we would have been spared this debacle. We could go even earlier and blame Abdullah’s father for the conception. There would be no end to the line of blame.

Certainly Mahathir should have been more prudent and sought wider counsel in selecting his deputy. He should have had the courage to break party tradition and go beyond the sitting vice presidents in selecting his successor.

While Mahathir was clearly the triggering factor, I would apportion only 10 percent of the blame on him.

The Man Himself

When Abdullah was selected to assume the highest office in the land, he should have taken that responsibility seriously. This was not, as in the tradition of the civil service from which he came, “just another promotion.” Granted, the man lacks introspective instinct, nonetheless he should have at least contemplated his abilities and limitations.

When the distinguished editor Howard Raines was appointed to head the influential New York Times, he knew that he lacked executive experience. Consequently he enrolled in a brief graduate business program. When Tengku Razaleigh was approached by then Prime Minister Hussein Onn to be his deputy, the Tengku politely declined. He felt he could contribute more by being other than a Deputy Prime Minister. Mark of wisdom and self confidence!

When Hussein Onn felt that leading the country was way over his head, he did the honorable thing: He resigned. Wise man!

Abdullah clearly lacks executive talent and economic nous; he owes it to himself and the nation to remedy those deficits. He could have had the services of the best minds, if only he had been prudent in selecting his advisors.

For these reasons I would apportion a greater blame – 20 percent – to Abdullah.

Editors, Pundits, Abdullah’s Advisors as Culprits

Just as Abdullah has a duty to select competent advisors, they too owe a duty to him and the nation in properly advising him. They are advisors and counselors, not courtiers and cheerleaders. Abdullah has his wife and family members to do that for him. My admonition also goes to Abdullah’s other official advisors like his ministers and UMNO Supreme Council members.

This duty to advise extends beyond those with appropriately designated titles. Editors and journalists as well as intellectuals and pundits, whom society has implicitly imposed a similar obligation, also have a sacred duty and a greater obligation to the public in serving as checks and balances on the leadership.

Veteran news anchor Walter Cronkite’s critical comments on the Vietnam War were instrumental in President Johnson not seeking a second term. Had Malaysian editors and journalists acted less like lap dogs, Abdullah would not have dared stray far.

It is hilarious to see these editors of the mainstream media now clumsily trying to correct themselves. They are finding that ingrained habits are hard to break, especially bad ones.

If our editors had a fraction of the fearlessness of Raja Petra, and intellectuals an iota of the integrity of Azmi Sharom, we are more likely to get honest competent leaders, and keep them that way once they are in power.

Academics like Shamsul AB who are on the public payroll and pundits like Johan Jaafar who earn fat public pensions have a public duty not to debase themselves to be the administration’s sycophants. They have to remain true to their vocation.

These folks as well as those boys on the infamous “fourth floor” must therefore shoulder their responsibility for Abdullah’s failings. I would apportion 30 percent of the blame to them.

We Deserve Our Leaders

Abdullah would not be the leader he is without his followers – us – acquiescing to or permitting it. Had Malaysians not given Abdullah that overwhelming mandate in 2004 and instead adopted a more skeptical “Show me first!” attitude, his ego would not have been so inflated. He would have a more realistic assessment of his capabilities; it also would have chastened his advisors.

Malaysians had plenty of opportunities to remind Abdullah of his shortcomings prior to the recent general election. The last was the Ijok state by-election. The excesses of UMNO operatives during this last general election grew out of voters’ tolerance of earlier shenanigans.

We are responsible for the leaders we get. We must scrutinize our leaders’ promises; we must hold these leaders accountable. If we fail to do that, then we have only ourselves to blame for their straying. For these reasons I would apportion 40 percent of the blame on Malaysian voters.

While Mahathir’s culpability is a miniscule 10 percent, nonetheless he has freely admitted to it. More importantly, he is trying his best to rectify it. Malaysians too are becoming more circumspect and taking their voting responsibilities seriously, as demonstrated by this recent election results.

As for Abdullah, he has accepted responsibility alright, but that is all he has done. He continues blaming others – party saboteurs, Anwar, Mahathir – everybody but himself. As for his advisors, pundits, editors and intellectuals, they have remained uncharacteristically silent. They have yet to acknowledge much less rectify their mistakes.

The foregoing is not an accounting exercise rather a suggestion on how we should treat our leaders in future. The burden is particularly high for voters who are also commentators, editors, and intellectuals.


Blogger Bung Karno said...

Sdr Dr Bakri,

However we try to tell him he is not chief executive and decision making type Paklah still considers himself the perfect PM. It is becoming worse now that he prefers dancing to the opposition's tune,to make himself look good and popular.
His circle of advisers!

More people should read your blog. If in B.Malaysia the new daily, SINAR HARIAN could pick it up.

Or e mail your thoughts to ...NST ?

10:28 PM  

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