(function() { (function(){function b(g){this.t={};this.tick=function(h,m,f){var n=void 0!=f?f:(new Date).getTime();this.t[h]=[n,m];if(void 0==f)try{window.console.timeStamp("CSI/"+h)}catch(q){}};this.getStartTickTime=function(){return this.t.start[0]};this.tick("start",null,g)}var a;if(window.performance)var e=(a=window.performance.timing)&&a.responseStart;var p=0=c&&(window.jstiming.srt=e-c)}if(a){var d=window.jstiming.load; 0=c&&(d.tick("_wtsrt",void 0,c),d.tick("wtsrt_","_wtsrt",e),d.tick("tbsd_","wtsrt_"))}try{a=null,window.chrome&&window.chrome.csi&&(a=Math.floor(window.chrome.csi().pageT),d&&0=b&&window.jstiming.load.tick("aft")};var k=!1;function l(){k||(k=!0,window.jstiming.load.tick("firstScrollTime"))}window.addEventListener?window.addEventListener("scroll",l,!1):window.attachEvent("onscroll",l); })();

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, March 04, 2009

Calling For A New Breed of Politicians

Calling For A New Breed of Politicians
M. Bakri Musa

Book review: Saifuddin Abdullah: Politik Baru: Mematangkan Demokrasi Malaysia. English version: New Politics: Towards A Mature Malaysian Democracy. Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, 2008. 88 Pages, RM 30.00 (Sabah & Sarawak: RM35).

It is now de rigeur for ambitious politicians to pen their autobiographies, or put in print their political thoughts. Barack Obama did both, presumably just to be sure, first with his autobiographical Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, and then his The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. That strategy obviously worked!

I am not privy to Deputy Minister for Entrepreneur and Cooperative Development Saifuddin Abdullah’s political aspirations, but he has written Politik Baru: Mematangkan Demokrasi Malaysia, and its English translation, New Politics: Towards A Mature Malaysian Democracy. Both versions are included under this one cover.

Saifuddin has written three other books. Impressive! He is way ahead of another leader both in literary as well as political milestones. At a comparable stage in his life, Dr. Mahathir had yet to write a book or hold any ministerial appointment.

Clearly what we have in Saifuddin is a new breed of politician, a committed as well as a reflective one.

Straightforward Thesis

In Politik Baru Saifuddin puts forth a straightforward the thesis that Malaysian politics desperately needs players who are wise, knowledgeable, and with integrity. And to launch Malaysia into its next trajectory of development the government specifically and the political process generally must meaningfully engage the private sector and civil society.

He may be young but in framing the issues thus Saifuddin has demonstrated early his superior political skills. The politically tone deaf like me would have and had indeed stated the problems differently and more frontally. To me our current politicians are a bunch of opportunists who are also corrupt and incompetent, while our government acts in a highhanded fashion and ignoring the needs of the private sector as well as the sensitivities of civil society.

Had Saifuddin presented the problems as I did, it would be unlikely for a government-linked corporation to publish his book, much less have Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak launch it.

Saifuddin may also be demonstrating the halus (subtle) ways of our culture. Sometimes that may prove to be much more effective; the operative word there being “sometimes.” Mahathir catapulted his political career by writing his brutally direct if not frankly insulting The Malay Dilemma.

In his book Saifuddin frequently uses catchy if not poetic phrases, as in, “Politik ilmu dan bukannya politik ampu; politik hikmah dan bukannya politik fitnah; serta politik bakti dan bukannya politik undi.” (“Knowledge politics instead of ingratiate politics; wisdom politics instead of defamatory politics; and service politics instead of vote politics.”) Another, “UMNO perlu diisi dengan ahli politik yang ‘berjuang’ dan bukannya yang ‘berwang.’” (“UMNO must be filled with politicians who ‘struggle’ and not politicians who are ‘wealthy.’”)

As is obvious, the English version is not as cute; it lacks the alliterative or rhyming ring, but more on the translation later.

Participatory Democracy in Perspective

It is not surprising that Saifuddin calls for the greater participation of civil society as he was once active in the Youth movement. True to his word, soon after being elected to Parliament for the first time in 2008, he set up a community liaison committee that would have included the PAS state assemblyman in his constituency. However, subsequent directives from above precluded him from having that state politician. I hope Saifuddin would not be discouraged and that he would still meet regularly in an unofficial basis with that opposition politician, as well as others.

Saifuddin does not explore why politics has degenerated in our country, or why our current politicians do not share their earlier compatriots’ deep sense of duty and service to the community. My own theory is this. Unlike earlier leaders who were inspired by the struggle for merdeka; today’s politicians lack such transcendental ideals; hence they are easily corrupted by material gains.

Further unlike the past, today’s best and brightest today have other much more rewarding avenues for their talent. If they have not already succumbed to the seduction of the First World, there is the lucrative private sector at home.

Attracting talent is a major challenge. Generous compensation is not entirely the answer. America does not pay its leaders on the same scale as the private sector, yet there is no shortage of capable and willing candidates. Paying them poorly however, would definitely attract only the corrupt and the less-than-talented, a destructive combination.

Then there is the matter of choosing the best candidate. Clearly this is one of UMNO’s major systemic weaknesses. I agree with Saifuddin that having the candidates debate each other openly is one of the better ways of assessing them. Although he does not specifically say so, UMNO’s “no contest” tradition is one it can do without.

Saifuddin would prefer our political leaders be knowledgeable (“berilmu”). He digresses somewhat with his philosophical deliberations on the meaning of knowledge, and ends up declaring his preference for intellectuals and scholars as leaders. Unfortunately such individuals, in Malaysia as well as elsewhere, rarely prove to be good leaders or executives, quite apart from their being politically inept.

While we should strive for competent, dedicated and incorruptible leaders, we should nevertheless be realistic and deal with the cards we have. To prioritize, I would put competence first. The public would readily overlook if not forgive an otherwise competent leader’s other inadequacies. Witness America’s continuing admiration for Jack Kennedy despite his unsavory personal morality. Malaysians tolerated the corruption of the Mahathir era because his was a competent administration, and the level of sleaze was at least manageable.

In contrast there is Kelantan’s Nik Aziz, a pious and honorable leader, berintegriti as Saifuddin would put it, but totally lacking in management competence. I would not tolerate him leading the nation, despite his admirable piety, honesty, and humility.

The worst would be a leader who is incompetent and corrupt. Unfortunately that is what we have with the Abdullah Administration; thus it is not a surprise that he is being booted out early.

In engaging the private sector and civil society, Saifuddin advocates a more participatory form of democracy, going beyond the rituals of regular elections. While I am fully supportive of that, we have to be careful not to buy in too much into it.

India and the Philippines have participatory democracy on a scale a quantum leap higher that what they have in Singapore and South Korea, but no Singaporean or South Korean would trade places with the Indians and Filipinos. The reason is obvious: Singaporean and South Korean leaders are competent despite their being repressive (Singapore) or corrupt (South Korea). Their competence enabled them to grant their citizens their most basic and greatest freedom, the freedom from hunger and privation.

It is for this reason that I am not enamored with Saifuddin’s idea of electing town councilors. In theory that would be the essence of grassroots participatory democracy, in practice however, it would merely bring the current political gridlock down to the local level. Witness the ongoing paralysis in Perak and elsewhere where the party in power is different from the one nationally. Now imagine the local, state and federal governments all under different political parties! To reemphasize, I would put competence ahead of everything else, including ideology. Town dwellers just want their potholes filled and drains unclogged!

To enhance citizens’ participation Saifuddin calls for their empowerment. The World Bank defines that as “the process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices, and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.” Saifuddin searched hard to find the right Malay word for this before settling on his penghakupayaan.

I have a simpler and more accurate concept that is readily understood by the masses. We would empower them if we grant them their personal merdeka to make their own decisions. Repealing the Universities and Colleges Act for example, would grant our students their personal merdeka.

As with a nation, we must properly prepare our citizens for their merdeka lest they corrupt that precious gift as a license for anarchy. Meaning, we must make the relevant information readily available to them and they must be capable of thinking critically. Thus we must have freedom of the press and a decent education system.

In many ways the issue of press freedom is now mute. The Internet has democratized access to information and no government, not even the most repressive, has a monopoly on information nowadays. The deficiencies of our education system however is not so readily overcome or bypassed. It remains the biggest obstacle to effectively empowering our citizens.

Saifuddin is silent on the Internal Security Act (and other intrusive laws) and affirmative action. These issues are dear to all Malaysians and must be faced directly. Leaders with higher aspirations cannot pussyfoot around these defining matters. The ISA and other oppressive laws are the antithesis of empowering our people.

Perhaps Saifuddin may have internalized the clear but unspoken boundaries set by his party. If so, my advice would be this. An important aspect of leadership, and also a measure of courage, is one’s ability to push back those boundaries.

Calling for the private sector and civil society be “partners in development” would require an appreciation of their proper roles. This is problematic in Malaysia as the government is heavily involved in business and civil society. The views of those in Petronas and Khazanah may not accurately reflect the aspirations of the genuine private sector. While the UMNO government would readily work with civil society groups that it sponsors or are sympathetic to its cause, there is much less sympathy for others.

Another wrinkle is that with few notable exceptions, civil society in Malaysia is race based. Thus the government has to mediate the conflicting demands of GAPENA, the Malay writers association, and Suqui, the champions of Chinese education.

I am surprised by the omission of credit to the translator of this volume. Translation is an art and the translator’s work must be fully acknowledged. Perhaps the translator does not wish to be recognized here, and for good reasons. The translation is too literal. The imagery that would have been appropriate in Malay is totally meaningless in English. Siafuddin’s likening politics to a taman (garden) that has to be carefully tended is appropriate in Malay but not when translated into English. The better word would simply be ‘landscape.’

The average Malay reader would have considerable difficulty understanding Saifuddin’s original version because of his profuse use of bastardized English words like “integriti,” “adversarial,” “manipulatif,” or even the simple “debat.” All these words have ready and more accurate Malay counterparts. Try “amanah” for integrity.

Another distraction, again endemic with Malay writings, is the lack of consistent stylistic and editorial standards. In the English version he refers to the Malaysian Integrity Institute and then went ahead to use its Malay initials “IIM” that bear no relation to its English name. Malaysians editors and writers must agree on a common stylistic standard so readers would not be distracted.

As a politician Saifuddin faces the twin challenges of first changing UMNO along the lines suggested in his book, and second of ensuring that he is not changed in the process. Both are formidable undertakings. His writing this volume is an excellent beginning.

Saifuddin however cannot do it alone. Even as talented and intelligent a leader as Obama had plenty of help. His party elders recognized his talent and helped paved the way for him. John Kerry, the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee in 2004 picked Obama to deliver the keynote address at the party’s convention that catapulted him onto the national scene.

Senior UMNO leaders likewise need to help nurture and gracefully make way for promising talent like Saifuddin. Malaysia and UMNO need a new breed of politicians in the mold of Saifuddin Abdullah, someone with fresh ideas and who can express them cogently, and then engage citizens intelligently as he has done with his Politik Baru.

First posted on Malaysiakini.com March 5, 2009.


Post a Comment

<< Home