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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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 11, 2010

The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyyiddin (Third of Four Parts)

The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin
M. Bakri Musa

(Third of Four Parts)

The Ugly and Dysfunctional Mahathir-Anwar Pair

As leader, Mahathir is essentially a one-man team, a loner. He exhibits the typical alpha-male monkey mode. An alpha monkey could tolerate other males in the colony only if they were to submit to him, or be seen doing so. Any hint of a non-deferring behavior or “dissing” would be dealt with quickly until the challenger is either driven out or fatally finished off. Such leaders have little use for a deputy, partner, or a team. Instead he needs a sidekick, in the manner of a Jim McMahon to Johnny Carson; someone to make the leader looks good and be the butt of his jokes.

Consider Mahathir’s relationship with his first deputy, Musa Hitam. It went well so long as Musa deferred to Mahathir, that is, by being submissive. In the beginning, Musa was exactly that. The moment he began to assert himself or received more attention than Mahathir, it marked the beginning of the end for Musa.

The same dynamics governed Mahathir’s relationship with his third deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. Like Musa, Anwar was only too willing to be Mahathir’s sidekick and to humor him, at least initially. And why not; Anwar was handsomely rewarded, as seen by his rapid ascent in the party and government. Mahathir never viewed Anwar as a threat seeing that he was very much younger and thus could patiently bide his time. That scenario would have successfully played out to the end had Anwar not succumb to the impatient goading of his many impatient and greedy supporters.

Mahathir’s alpha male traits were never more in display following UMNO’s highly contentious leadership convention of 1987 which saw Tengku Razaleigh nearly toppling Mahathir. In the aftermath, Mahathir had to do what every alpha monkey male would, that is, get rid of its challenger.

It did not surprise me that the deputies Mahathir was most comfortable with were Ghaffar Baba and Abdullah Badawi. Both played the role of the sidekick only too well, especially Abdullah Badawi. Unfortunately they, specifically Abdullah, only played the role, as Mahathir found out too late and much to his regret.

Ghaffar Baba also played the second fiddle role exceptionally well, leading many to underestimate him. His inability to speak English merely reinforced the public perception of his shortcomings; many also doubted his intellect. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had a formidable intellect; however being a kampong boy with no family connections, the best that he could aspire to was the Sultan Idris Training College.

Not only was Ghaffar well endowed with innate intelligence, he was also “street smart,” but he skillfully hid both under his characteristic and very Malay humility. Make no mistake, the late Ghaffar Baba could read the Malay psyche very well, a skill that Mahathir usefully tapped. In that respect he contributed considerably to the partnership with Mahathir. Ghaffar was no mere sidekick, as many saw him.

With his vast understanding of the nuances of Malay culture, Ghaffar could have successfully fended off Anwar’s challenge, but Ghaffar knew that his party was in desperate need of new blood. At the same time he did not wish to see the party that he loved so dearly be fractured by an intense rivalry at the top. It was those noble considerations that made him gave way to Anwar, and not, as many believed, his fear of defeat. Ghaffar exhibited class as well as courage in bowing out early in that tussle with Anwar; he put his party’s interest ahead of his own. That is a rarity among today’s politicians.

As for Abdullah, when a previously non-alpha male monkey takes over, it first instinct is to kill all the babies of the previous alpha male in an attempt to eliminate his predecessor’s genes in the colony. This was what Abdullah did by ‘killing’ off Mahathir’s many ‘babies,’ his pet mega projects.

Abdullah’s mistake was not realizing that Mahathir had not been ‘killed’ or banished from the colony. That alpha monkey was still in the same jungle, imperiously perched high up on another tree, the Petronas Twin Towers. He was still very much alive and influential. Abdullah never knew what hit him when Mahathir unleashed his fury.

Because he was essentially a one-man show, Mahathir’s legacy would be at considerable risk once he is gone. We saw that already when Abdullah took over, only that he was so clumsy and inept. Had Mahathir cultivated younger leaders a la Tun Razak to Tunku, or even a not-so-young but a capable one a la Razak to Dr. Ismail, Mahathir would have greatly enhanced the caliber of his leadership as well ensure that his legacy would endure.

I predict that once Mahathir is gone, his long tenure would merit only an asterisk in our modern history, as Mao Zedong is to China’s. Mao ruled for over a quarter of a century. It would be a gross understatement to say that he had the greatest (though not necessarily positive) impact on China and the Chinese. Yet today, if one were to ask the throngs of shoppers at Beijing’s many modern shopping malls who Mao was, the likely response would be, “Mao, who?” Not too long ago they even threw his wife into jail. Some legacy!

Sizing Up Najib and Muhyiddin

Najib is an aristocrat, the son of a former prime minister. He comes from a modern nuclear family: father, mother and the five sons, Najib being the oldest. He had a privileged upbringing, including boarding school and university abroad. Najib and his brothers had plenty of parental love, what with their stay-at-home traditional mother. Even though the late Tun was a busy man, rest assured that with only five sons, he would remember and celebrate their birthdays.

Muhyiddin is one of over four dozen children of a village alim with multiple wives. It would be unlikely for his father to even remember Muhyiddin’s name, much less his birthday. In dynamics, young Muhyiddin had essentially a fatherless childhood. He attended the village school and later a small town high school, before proceeding to the local university.

The wives they have chosen too are very different. Najib’s current wife, his second, is the poster girl for extravagance and vulgarity, a Malaysian Imelda Marcos, except that Imelda had a weakness only for shoes. Muhyiddin’s wife is the typical kampong girl; she views her job as being to be by his side; to be seen but never heard.

It is easy to imagine Rosmah being actively engaged in her husband’s business. I cannot even contemplate Muhyiddin seriously engaging his wife in serious matters. He is the typical alpha kampong male; he knows what is best and his word rules.

Their seven-year age difference means that Muhyiddin could not possibly succeed Najib in the usual transition process. Muhyiddin is the older, so by the time Najib retires, Muhyiddin would be too old to take over. The only conceivable way for him to get the top slot would be if Najib’s tenure were to be prematurely cut short, by unexpected death or sordid scandals. Both are not remote possibilities. Najib’s father died in his early 50s from leukemia, and that malady remains lethal even today. As a timely reminder, many a Third World leader had succumbed to fatal “accidents.”

Scandals would be the more likely career killer for Najib. He certainly has some nasty ones hanging over him, from the brutal murder of the Mongolian model to his admitted conversations with Anwar Ibrahim’s alleged sodomy victim. Then there are the steady streams of squalid incompetence during his tenure as Defense Minister, from stolen jet engines to newly-acquired submarines that would not dive.

It does not escape everyone’s notice that far from defending Najib, Muhyiddin seems to relish his superior’s travails. Worse, he does not even bother to hide his delight.

In Malaysian politics, followers could sniff right away rivalries at the top. They would then quickly realign their positions and shift their loyalties in the hope of latching onto the winning team. The game would quickly degenerate into a sport of running down the opposing camps, with temporary alliances forged, broken, and then re-constituted to meet the quickly evolving dynamics. Thus expect even more ugly revelations from all sides.

This is already happening. Many are shocked at the utter corruption and rottenness of the party and its leaders. While such exposés would be bad for the party, they would be good for the country, especially considering that the next general election will only be a few years away.

Many would conclude that the inevitable collapse of UMNO under Najib to be the fulfillment of the RAHMAN prophecy, the “N” of the acronym representing Najib. I argue otherwise. There is no alignment of the stars that would preordain such an outcome. Rather what we have here reflects nothing more than Najib’s lack of leadership and the dearth of talent within UMNO. Had Mahathir chosen Najib instead of Abdullah as his (Mahathir’s) successor, Najib’s and thus UMNO’s political demise would have come sooner.

Were that to happen, my only regret would be to see the inglorious end to what was once an illustrious Malay institution – UMNO. Tun Razak was one of the key personalities in setting it up. It took only a generation to destroy what he had worked very hard to create and build. It would the supreme irony that it would be his son who would be responsible for destroying UMNO.

That would be quite a legacy.

Next: Salvaging Najib


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