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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.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #89

Chapter 13 Deteriorating Institutions

Eradicating Corruption

Corruption can never be completely eradicated, as greed and dishonesty are basic human traits. However, unless there is a strong commitment not to tolerate it, corruption will by default becomes acceptable, which is the same thing as encouraging it.

In combating corruption, it is crucial to send a strong signal from the very top. The remarkable success of Singapore in tackling corruption was precisely this. Its leaders took bold and highly visible steps early on; with that, the gravity of the message sunk through very quickly.

While closing down bad institutions would quickly send out a strong and effective message, it would penalize the few workers who are honest and diligent. This could be remedied by redeploying them, assuming you know who they are. As effective and radical as that method is, there is the added risk that powerful constituents and beneficiaries of those agencies would protest, as demonstrated by the Indonesian experience. If their supporters are strong or big enough, they could cripple or bring down the government, and you could end up with a worse situation.

Current efforts at reigning in abuses in the police force, so well documented in the Royal Commission Report, are stymied by the Force’s many supporters. UMNO Youth strenuously opposed the Commission’s recommendation for an independent complaints bureau.

The trick would be to pick the institutions that are so blatantly corrupt such that the public is totally disgusted with, or one that does not have a powerful constituency. The Road Department, Customs Agency, and the Land Office would be appropriate candidates. Shut them down and contract their services out. The public would applaud the ensuing crispness and efficiency in service. In addition to such decisive and dramatic actions (“shock and awe!”) at the macro level aimed at whole institutions, we need even stronger actions at the micro or personnel level by going after the “big fish.”

There are two possible avenues of actions: through executive decision and through the criminal justice system. The Prime Minister could take executive action by outright firing, demanding the resignation, or not appointing (or reappointing) ministers and other top appointees who have the slightest hint of impropriety. The threshold is necessarily low and arbitrary; whatever the Prime Minister decides. He sets the standards. Innocent till proven guilty is fine in a criminal court, but not in positions demanding high public trust and integrity.

The other is through aggressive criminal prosecution. Here the burden of proof is rightly high. There should not be malicious or politically motivated prosecutions, that would be worse. The temptations would be there in order to demonstrate one’s resolve.

Prosecutorial zeal and misconduct can come in many guises, most often in pursuit of fame, political ambition, or outright corruption itself. However, if a prosecutor were to leverage his successful litigation career into something political, that is his right.

Prosecutors should not be hamstrung by political considerations; this danger exists where the Anti Corruption Agency is not independent. Nor should the ACA wait for an ironclad case before proceeding. Sometimes just disclosing the evidence in open court even if that does not result in conviction would serve a wider useful public purpose.

The corrupt would not willingly part with their ill-gotten gains by hiring the best legal talent. That is their right, and should be zealously protected. There is no place for kangaroo courts; substituting one corrupt system for another is not the answer. Nor do I believe that corruption is a capital offense.

Abdullah had two rare opportunities early in his tenure to demonstrate his resolve in fighting corruption, and he squandered both. The first involved Kasitah Gaddam, a low-level cabinet minister charged with corruption; his trial is still pending. The second was Isa Samad, a senior figure in both UMNO and the cabinet who was found guilty of “money politics” by his party peers. Abdullah should have publicly demanded their resignations; instead he let them dangle in the breeze. They eventually resigned voluntarily, more in response to widespread public disgust. Abdullah missed a rare and splendid opportunity to send an important message. Worse, it appeared that he condoned such gross lapses of corrupt behaviors.

Next: Discouraging Corruption

Sunday, January 25, 2009

UMNO's Reform Must Begin With Najib Razak

It is not enough for Najib Razak and other UMNO leaders to lament the loss of their party’s “wow” factor, or for them to endlessly exhort the party faithful to “re-invent” or “re-brand” their organization. Reform is like sex; merely talking about it is not enough, for without the necessary accompanying actions it will only increase your frustration.

To regain voters’ confidence, the change in UMNO must begin with its top leaders, specifically Najib. He has to demonstrate it through his actions; anything less and he risks frustrating voters and replicating the electoral disasters of Permatang Pauh and Kuala Trengganu nationally.

First and foremost Najib must legitimize his rise to the party’s top position. Being “promoted” by Abdullah Badawi is no endorsement, being that he is a discredited leader. Likewise, being nominated unopposed is no ratification either, especially when the process is hopelessly riddled with “money politics,” otherwise known as corruption.

Second, Najib must display a sense of enlightened leadership. For example, expending his precious time and political capital by intensively campaigning in a by-election that in his own words “would not alter the nation’s political landscape” was neither necessary nor prudent. With the nation facing many critical crises, he should focus on more substantive matters.

Last, Najib must demonstrate that he has the personal qualities and moral integrity to lead the nation. Merely denying that he had nothing to do with Saiful Bukhari, that college dropout who alleged that he had been sodomized by the opposition leader, or that Najib knew nothing of the brutal murder of that Mongolian model Altantuya and the attendant involvement of his hitherto closest advisor Razak Baginda, is not enough. The public deserves better; we demand a more thorough accounting.

Until then, any utterance by Najib Razak about reforming UMNO will ring hollow; do not frustrate voters by unnecessarily raising their expectations. That is dangerous.

Legitimizing Najib’s Leadership

Najib’s only claim to his party’s leadership is that he is currently unopposed for that position. Where the process is open and transparent, being unopposed signifies unanimous approval. That is certainly any leader’s dream and rightful claim of legitimacy.

UMNO’s nominating process however, is deeply flawed, apart from being corrupt. The “unanimous” choice of Najib is anything but. The process is hollow and meaningless. With “money politics” rampant, Najib’s nomination “victory” is irredeemably tainted.

The current nominating process is designed specifically to discourage or more correctly, prevent challengers. It is not a genuine contest. Requiring candidates be nominated by at least 30 percent of the party’s 191 divisions effectively means that at most there can only be three nominees. That is an unnecessary barrier, meant not to get the best talent but to protect the incumbent.

This requirement was put in place only 20 years ago, following the bitter and divisive Mahathir-Tengku Razaleigh rivalry. Before that, and for the first 40 years of UMNO’s existence, its leaders including Bapak Merdeka Tunku Abdul Rahman and the much-revered Tun Razak (Najib’s father) were routinely challenged at the party’s leadership convention.

The party can do without this burdensome nomination “quota rule” as well the equally damaging no-challenge “tradition” for its two top positions. The party’s Supreme Council however, could override both. While many of its senior members are in favor of dumping this onerous rule, Najib remains “neutral.” That is not the mark of someone confident of his leadership ability.

If Najib were to introduce a motion at the next Supreme Council meeting to remove this “quota rule,” that would greatly enhance his legitimacy even if the Council were to vote against it. If the Council were to vote for it, then the party would benefit by opening up the process and the delegates getting to preview many more potential candidates.

Such an open process would also effectively blunt the current corrosive influence of “money politics” as there would be no need to bribe divisional leaders in order to secure your nomination. And at the party’s elections, with over 2,000 delegates, it would be difficult if not impossible to bribe them all. You could influence them only with your ideas and talent, as it should be.

Removing the quota would of course invite challengers to Najib. Tengku Razaleigh would definitely be one; there may be others. There would also be additional candidates for all the other positions.

If Najib were to survive a challenge from Tengku Razaleigh for example, Najib’s stature and legitimacy would be greatly enhanced. That would effectively shut up his many critics.

Of course Najib could lose, and with that, his political career. That may explain his reluctance to tamper with the current quota rules which work in his favor. While such a maneuver would secure his immediate political survival, he would critically jeopardize his party’s chance in the next national elections. Presently many, and not just those outside of UMNO and Barisan, question his ability and legitimacy. Najib would be sacrificing his party’s future just to ensure his short-term political survival.

Articulating His Vision

Even if Najib were to prevail in an open contest, he still needs to articulate his vision for the future of our nation. He has to convince us that he has “the right stuff.” He has to give us his personal manifesto, as it were. And he has to do that now before his party’s convention in March, for at that time he would be more concerned with rallying his troops.

The prevailing perception is that Najib owes his current position merely by being the son of a famous father. To non-Malays specifically, Najib has yet to erase the ugly image of the keris-taunting antics of his UMNO Youth’s days. Additionally his career, while long, is very narrow; he spent his entire adult life in government, getting his paycheck from taxpayers.

Like his immediate predecessor Abdullah Badawi, there is nothing substantial to Najib’s career in politics despite his overflowing resume. His tenure as Defense Minister was marked by the collapse of the Pularek Naval Base just before its official opening, the gross breach of security by the Al Muanah gang at the Grik Army base in Perak, and the now evolving scandal with the French submarine purchase. As for his legacy as Education Minister, good luck in discerning that.

Now as Finance Minister, he remains disturbingly quiet; he has nothing to offer on how to solve the grave economic challenges facing us except to issue bland, meaningless reassurances.

In contrast, Tengku Razaleigh bravely outlined his views of the current economic crisis and his bold strategies to deal with it. Compared to the towering leadership of the Tengku, Najib looks like a novice Boy Scout troop leader constantly looking to his manual on how to lead.

Demonstrating His Integrity

Lastly, Najib must clarify the many sordid allegations and rumors implicating him. Bland denials alone are not enough.

The most damaging, and which requires the most detailed explanation, is his role in (if any) or knowledge of the murder of the Mongolian model and the involvement of his confidant Razak Baginda. That Razak Baginda was acquitted does not clear the matter.

The accusations leveled at Najib are too specific and detailed (including specific SMS texts and cell phone numbers) that they demand a more complete explanation from him. Hiding behind client-attorney privilege as Najib did in trying to dismiss the many SMS between him and Shafie Abdullah, the attorney who was at the time representing Razak Baginda, is inappropriate. For one, Najib was not Shafie’s client, then or now. Indeed at that time Shafie was representing Razak Baginda, until he (Razak) dismissed Shafie. For another, such a “cover” would not sell in the court of public opinion.

Those details of the Altantuya murder, as well as the sordid mess of the Saiful Bukhari sodomy allegation, will eventually be revealed bit by bit in their respective criminal trials. A full disclosure now by Najib would help preempt the inevitable excruciating and embarrassing details.

Najib Razak may become the leader of UMNO and thus Malaysia’s next Prime Minister come this March without bothering to address these three issues. However, the next General Elections will be less than 48 months away after he becomes Prime Minister. If not addressed frontally and openly now, these questions about his ability, integrity and legitimacy would only get worse. Yes, Najib may get his wish, but he could also end up being the nation’s shortest-serving leader, for come the next national election, Najib and UMNO will be buried.

That would be quite a legacy for the son of a great patriot. Perversely then, Najib’s political demise would of necessity trigger and be instrumental in UMNO’s reform. By that time it may be too late to alter UMNO’s fate, but at least you would have fun knowing that you are doing something productive.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #88

Chapter 13: Deteriorating Institutions

Enhancing Public Institutions

Those ministers who keep exhorting, “Be efficient!” “Be trustworthy!” “Be honest!” simply do not comprehend the magnitude of the difficulties in changing institutions. There is only one certainty: It is easy to destroy good institutions, much more difficult to strengthen them or restore the bad ones.

The corrupt and the incompetent are good at one thing: sidestepping “reforms.” They have seen many similar moves in the past and will treat any new attempt with contempt. The otherwise incompetent personnel are adept in ensuring their survival.

One effective step would be to shut down the worse institutions. They are not doing their job anyway, and no one would miss them except of course their corrupt employees and their equally corrupt clients. They—institutions and employees—are beyond redemption; might as well get rid of them and outsource their jobs.

Indonesia did this with its Customs Department in the 1980s. It was thoroughly corrupted and resisted all attempts at cleansing. In desperation the government contracted the service to a foreign company who brought in new workers who were not tainted.

The results were remarkable: revenues shot up and bottlenecks disappeared. Even more surprising, there were concomitant improvements in related agencies. Evidently the non-corrupt examples set by the new workers at the Customs Department rubbed off on personnel at other agencies, or that they were scared stiff that their jobs would be the next to be outsourced. Such a radical move would send seismic shock waves to other corrupt departments.

Unfortunately the Indonesian government did not pursue this; it succumbed to political pressure at the highest level and terminated the bold experiment. It did not take long for those workers who had performed well under foreign supervision to return to the corrupt ways of their predecessors.

American companies are fully aware of this great power of threat of closure in dealing with recalcitrant unions. The companies would simply close those inefficient plants with the most egregious featherbedding practices and transfer the work to Mexico. Workers at the other factories would soon get the brutal message, and suddenly their union leaders would become mellower and their members more productive.

At one time union leaders in the West were an intransigent lot. Their grip on power was unassailable; they held even the government at ransom, much as corrupt politicians and civil servants do in Malaysia.

It took the courage of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to break the unions’ stranglehold. The pivotal moment for Reagan occurred when he fired the entire Air Traffic Controllers for striking illegally. These controllers are crucial for the airline industry, and they cannot be trained overnight. So there was a calculated risk that the union would cripple the entire industry. Reagan succeeded because he was willing to face that risk. He wanted to send a strong message not only to the Controllers’ union but also others.4 He had the military take over, and although air traffic was disrupted for a while, in the end many of the members broke ranks and returned to work on seeing that Reagan was resolute.

More important was the impact of Reagan’s decision on other unions; it made them more compliant and reasonable. Today, American unionists are not of the same breed as their bullying predecessors who would not hesitate in calling a strike over minor issues. Today’s union leaders are as adept at reading financial statements and gauging market realities as they are in addressing workers’ grievances. Some even sit on the boards of their companies. The relationships between companies and their unions today are less adversarial and more cooperative, although not quiet at the level of coziness as seen in Japan.

If the Malaysian government were to shut down just one or two of these ineffective and corrupt institutions, fire the employees, and outsource their work, the message would reverberate very quickly. Workers elsewhere would become honest overnight knowing that their job security would be at stake. The public would not suffer much from such closures, as those institutions were ineffective anyway. More than likely the public would cheer such a radical move.

Next: Eradicating Corruption

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sharp Slap to UMNO Leaders

Sharp Slap to UMNO’s Leadership

M. Bakri Musa

The humiliation suffered by UMNO in the January 17, 2009 by-election in Kuala Trengganu, a seat previously held by one of its Deputy Ministers, is further proof that the party’s thumping in the March 2008 General Elections was the beginning of the end. Getting rid of its leader Abdullah Badawi will not alter UMNO’s fate; a future with Najib Razak will be no solution either.

The party is no longer salvageable; UMNO is now beyond redemption. Its leaders and members are incapable of appreciating and thus adapting to the profound changes now gripping the nation. As Tengku Razaleigh aptly put it when commenting on the results, “We are in uncharted waters with no one at the wheel.”

There are of course exceptions to the current lack of talent in UMNO’s leadership, but they are rare. Zaid Ibrahim had some sensible ideas on reforming the judiciary for example, but look what they did to him! Tengku Razaleigh’s speech at the recent ASLI economic conference was simply brilliant; he rightly pinpointed the major problems facing our nation and offered sensible strategies to approaching them. His was an insight and articulation Malaysians should expect of our leaders. There again however, he was essentially ignored by UMNO’s leadership hierarchy in his recent quest for the top slot.

In this by-election UMNO resorted to its old corrupt ways that had served it well in the past. There were the sudden announcements of generous public funds to key constituent groups as well as the usual co-opting of government agencies to do Barisan’s bidding. If those tricks were not enough, there was the literal stuffing of envelopes with cold cash for voters and reporters.

Judgement on Najib Razak’s Leadership

The victory by PAS candidate Wahid Endut is even more impressive considering that future (come this March) Prime Minister Najib Razak literally made his temporary home in Kuala Trengganu during the entire 11 days of campaigning, returning only briefly to the capital to take part in the Tahlil prayers on the anniversary of his father’s death.

Those voters viewed the upcoming transfer of power from Abdullah to Najib less a promise of better things and more a threat of the same tired corrupt and corrosive ways of the past. The political status quo would only further divide instead of bringing us together. Malaysians were rightly fed up with this.

Win or lose, this election would not alter the political reality; Barisan would still maintain its majority in Parliament. In perception however, this loss only reinforces my earlier “beginning of the end” and “beyond redemption” assertions of UMNO. Undoubtedly these were the reasons that compelled Najib to expend his political capital and risk his reputation by actively campaigning.

Ignored by voters, Najib tried to rationalize the outcome by dismissing it as a “minor setback” with “no impact on the national political landscape.” He was reduced to declaring that Barisan was “still relevant.” Pathetic!

I would have expected that as Finance Minister, Najib would be busy in Putrajaya dealing with the rapidly evolving global financial crisis now threatening our nation. Instead there he was in Kuala Trengganu acting like Santa Claus distributing candies to voters. They gleefully took the gifts, but being adults (and Muslims, at least most of them) they did not believe in Santa Claus, or Najib Razak.

These past few weeks reflect Najib Razak’s leadership priorities and sensibilities. Kuala Trengganu voters were rightly not impressed. Neither am I.

Greasing UMNO’s Slide

Come this March, Najib Razak will be the party’s (and thus country’s) leader. He will have as his deputy Ali Rustam, Muhyyiddin Yassin, or the Double Muhammad Taib, individuals with tainted pasts and less-than-impressive resumes. Sobering thought!

Barring divine or other intervention, this will also be the team that will lead UMNO and Barisan Nasional into the next General Elections scheduled no later than March 2013. UMNO has its leadership convention every three years; theoretically it could change its leadership before the next general elections. However, the party has a tradition of “no contest” for its top two positions and a past pattern whereby leaders would conveniently postpone the leadership convention till after the general elections.

That would be great news for Anwar Ibrahim-led Pakatan Rakyat, further enhancing its chance of assuming power. This may occur even sooner if Barisan Members of Parliament, sensing the political change, were to abandon their parties. The shift could also come earlier if, as expected, Sarawak were to call an earlier election. Then there is the volatile political situation in Sabah.

The objective of any political party is in assuming power. Anything less and you will be relegated to the status of a perpetual fringe party. While that may satisfy the purists in your party, you risk being permanently dismissed by voters. The country’s political graveyard is littered by the ghosts of many such parties.

Then there is the crucial difference of being voted into office because of the positive choice of voters rather than their rejecting your opponent. Anwar Ibrahim and his fellow leaders in Pakatan Rakyat are fully aware of this. It is not enough for Malaysians to be fed up with Barisan Nasional, we must be sold on the promise and potential of a Pakatan Rakyat administration.

As leader of the party that is the centre of the political, racial and other spectra of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, Anwar has adroitly handled the many competing interests within his coalition by focussing on their commonalities and less on their differences. Differences there are, and they are many and consequential; they could potentially fracture the coalition. If that were to happen, it would crush the hopes of Malaysians long yearning for a change.

Besides, there are enough commonalities of purpose among the component parties of PakatanRakyat, from eradicating corruption and strengthening our institutions to reducing poverty and fostering economic development, among others. Ameliorate them, and you would have the cheers and votes of those currently advocating for an Islamic State, “Malaysia for Malaysians,” or Ketuanan Melayu.

Tackling each of these problems (and all must be addressed at once) would challenge the ingenuity of even the most enlightened and committed leaders. There is no need to harp on their differences. All these could be done without getting entangled with such highly divisive and emotional issues as hudud or special privileges. Besides, those slogans as “Islamic State,” “Ketuanan Melayu” and “Malaysia for Malaysians” have now become meaningless, having been corrupted to being code words for those with more sinister motives.

The corruption and incompetence of the Barisan coalition should motivate Pakatan leaders to focus on solving the glaring and pressing problems of our nation. That would be the sure way to power, quite apart from greasing the downward slide of UMNO and its Barisan Nasional coalition.

Exposing Our Leaders to Competition

Exposing Our Leaders to Competition

M. Bakri Musa


The recent installation of Tunku Muhriz as the 11th Yang Di Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan (the equivalent of a sultan in the other states) illustrates one important point. When the top position is not automatically handed to the putative Number Two and instead you widen your choice, you are more likely to end up with a far superior candidate.

The consensus among the rakyat as well as the establishment is that Tunku Muhriz is a far superior candidate, and a better person to boot, than the other contenders, the three sons of Tuanku Jaafar.

It is too late for the three adult sons of Tuanku Jaafar to appreciate and benefit from the wisdom of my observation. It is hard to learn as an adult the lessons you should have learned as a youngster.

Tunku Naquiyuddin, Tuanku Jaafar’s oldest son, must have felt the sting the most. After all, his father had named him Regent, or acting Yam Tuan, during his recent extended overseas tour. As such Naquiyuddin must have felt that the throne would rightly be his. He had already begun acting as the Yam Tuan, as he did recently when he called for the restoration of the Sultans’ absolute royal immunity. At the personal level, he was already behaving only too well as a feudal king.

As for Tunku Muhriz, he had learned his lesson well, and early, way back in 1967 when the Undangs (Territorial Chiefs) instead bypassed him to pick his father’s half-brother Tuanku Jaafar as the 10th Yam Tuan to succeed Tunku Muhriz’s father. Sensing that the royal throne would not be his, he wisely prepared himself for life in the real world outside the palace. By all measures he has done well, having obtained a law degree and acquitting himself credibly in the private sector.

More importantly, he has also imparted those valuable lessons onto his children. They too have all done well academically and personally san their royal titles, making their achievements that much more credible and praiseworthy.

The Badawi Disaster

The wisdom of my observation is universal. Note the disaster when Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi automatically assumed the top slot upon the retirement of Dr. Mahathir. Had Mahathir been aware of the wisdom of my observation and widened the choice of candidates to succeed him, Malaysia would have been spared the incompetence of Abdullah Badawi.

This pattern of the number two automatically becoming number one is rampant if not standard practice in the civil service. Those senior civil servants behave like airplanes stacked at a busy airport, each patiently waiting his turn and not daring to upset the established pattern lest it would threaten his position and prospect.

I have seen this pattern broken only rarely, as in the early 1960s when Dr. Majid Ismail, then an orthopedic consultant, was tapped to be the Director-General of Health, bypassing many senior bureaucrats. He upset the entire hierarchy at the Ministry of Health; Majid later proved himself to be one of the most farsighted and enlightened health policymakers. Today that Ministry remains one of the few that do not hew to the strict “tunggu geleran” (waiting your turn) pattern of the civil service. It is thus not a surprise that it is one of the more professionally-run ministries.

Come this March with the current Number Two Najib Razak automatically assuming the Number One position with Abdullah’s leaving office, Malaysia risks repeating the same mistake. There will be no contest to select the best candidate for the top slot for in its wisdom UMNO has adopted rules and traditions that stymied competition especially for the top post.

Prior to his elevation to the throne, Tunku Muhriz had the title of Tuanku Besar. Though its literal translation (“Big King”) is misleading, nonetheless in Negri Sembilan the Raja Besar is equivalent to a Raja Muda, the Crown Prince or heir apparent in other states. That did not help him when his father Tunku Munawir died in 1967; the four Undangs in their wisdom bypassed Tunku Muhriz. Nor did that help him with the late Tuanku Jaafar for he named his son Tunku Naquiyuddin instead as Regent.

The public reason given back in 1967 for bypassing Tunku Muhriz was that he was too young – he was only 18 then – to be the Yang Di Pertuan Besar. Additionally, the political establishment then led by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman lobbied the Undangs hard for Tuanku Jaafar, believing that he (and his family) would be sympathetic to UMNO.

Whatever the reasons, the Undangs’ decision was well received, especially by the villagers. They wisely noted that Tunku Munawir died at the relatively young age of 47 from what we would term today as “lifestyle diseases.” They were concerned that the young Tunku Muhriz would follow in his father’s footsteps, in the village tradition of bapak burek, anak rentik (fig: Like father, like son).

As it turned out, Tunku Muhriz was anything but like his father, both in personality and accomplishments. Nevertheless like many, I do not fault the Undangs for their decision back in 1967. By any objective criterion, it was a wise pick, considering that Tuanku Jaafar was a British-trained diplomat while Tunku Muhriz was barely out of high school then.

Today’s Undangs are a far different breed from their predecessors of a mere generation ago. The position of Undang is also hereditary but not in a strict linear fashion, just like that of the Yam Tuan. The various clan chiefs would gather and pick from among the many entitled to be Undang, just as the Undangs would pick the Yam Tuan from among the many eligible princes. A primordial form of democracy and representative government, as it were.

Following my theory, the caliber of Undangs should improve because of the competition among the eligible contenders. Yet we have the perverse situation today where the present generation of Undangs being even more poorly educated and of lower caliber than their predecessors. While a generation ago we had a lawyer and a university graduate among the Undangs, today we have a former utility meter reader and a petai seller.

The erosion in the caliber of today’s Undangs is of course directly related to, like everything else in Malaysia, corruption. Yet despite that, today’s Undangs were able to collectively come to a wise decision. The erosion in quality and integrity of individual Undangs notwithstanding, the institution itself was able to deliver a wise decision. This demonstrates the vital role of institutions. Imagine how much good these Undangs would do for society if only they were more competent and less corrupt.

The aberration that is today’s Undangs remains the exception that proves my theory. Nonetheless what is relevant is that because we have the institution and process in place, the right decision was made, those deficiencies in personnel notwithstanding.

Najib’s Dangerous Mindset

The experience with the Negri Sembilan royal selection process illustrates the wisdom of exposing our leaders to continuous competition, and of having the right institutions and processes in place to ensure that. That is the best if not only way to hold these leaders accountable. The biggest mistake would be to make them “President for Life” or heap some such similar honors upon them. Such excessive accolades are what corrupted otherwise sensible leaders. Even once wise and patriotic leaders like Sukarno ultimately succumbed to and became a tyrant simply because he was not held accountable or subjected to rigorous checks and balances.

UMNO once had the fine tradition where its leaders were routinely subjected to regular challenges. Even such venerable leaders as Bapak Merdeka Tunku Abdul Rahman were not spared. Today we look askance at such once brave figures as Sulaiman Palestin who would not hesitate to challenge any leader regardless how popular that leader was at the time. In contrast, today’s UMNO leaders are given a free pass, all in the misguided quest for “party unity.”

However, only through such constant competitions could we “toughen up” our leaders. During the recent American Presidential primary season, many members of the Democratic Party were upset that Candidate Hilary Clinton would not give up her race earlier and let the leading candidate Barrack Obama be the nominee sooner. As it turned out, the long primary was beneficial to Obama as it toughened him up such that he could easily withstand the subsequent onslaughts from his Republican opponent.

UMNO is making a terrible mistake in letting Najib Razak take over the top slot without subjecting him to a tough campaign. Such grueling leadership competitions are necessary for “baptizing” a leader. It would help sharpen his leadership skills as well as let party members and voters preview his abilities.

Because he was not subjected to any competition, Najib Razak now feels that the country owes him the Prime Minister’s office by virtue of his being the son of the much-revered Tun Razak. That is a dangerous mindset for anyone, especially a leader, to have. Ultimately it is the citizens who would bear the burden of such hubris in our leaders.

The many effusive comments about Tunku Muhriz would not easily go this head. Having once been bypassed for the top slot, Tunku Muhriz is fully aware that he could only secure his position by doing an excellent job and by diligently attending to his royal duties. In contrast, Najib Razak has had an easy ride all along; he has yet to learn this important lesson.

Malaysiakini.com January 8, 2009