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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, July 18, 2010

Najib's Ill-Disciplined Leadership

Najib’s Ill-Disciplined Leadership
M. Bakri Musa

Prime Minister Najib continues his predecessor’s practice of monthly departmental assemblies where he addresses his staff in the manner of a headmaster to his school children. His latest session on Monday, July 5th had him exhorting them to create “an ecosystem [to] recognize top performers.”

You can tell much about a person by the way he behaves in familiar surroundings. Likewise, a leader reveals his true persona when he is in the comfortable presence of his followers. By that measure, Najib’s performance at his monthly departmental gatherings exposes his ill-disciplined leadership.

His delivery was hardly smooth. There were awkward pauses, inarticulate bellowing of his voice, and irritating gesturing with his hands, all to feign emphasis and profundity. While the occasion was flashy, grand and elaborately planned, his speech betrayed his lack of preparation.

There he was in his dark suit, this time outside under the morning but still blistering Malaysian sun, with his ministers and senior bureaucrats standing dutifully on stage in a neat straight row behind him. They too were similarly formally dressed in dark suits with flawlessly matched red ties and kerchiefs, seemingly in rapt attention. They looked more like pall bearers at a funeral, except for their red ties.

More typically these assemblies would be held in one of the maximally air-conditioned and minimally utilized auditoriums in Putrajaya. Then his ministers and senior bureaucrats would be seated comfortably in the front row. At least they would not be sweating in their thick suits, with their faces glistening as they were that Monday.

It is hard to discern the purpose of this monthly ritual. I presume it is an opportunity for Najib to announce major policy initiatives, but there was nothing new or substantive that Monday. For the civil servants however, it was an opportunity to ponteng, to be away from their desks. They were like schoolchildren excited to be away from class. No wonder those civil servants were singing and waving flags! How juvenile!

Najib however, fancies himself not as a headmaster rather a Steve Jobs addressing a grand media gathering. Some fantasy! Najib forgets that when Jobs has his, it is to introduce a new product; an ingenious and effective marketing strategy to create buzz.

Obviously Najib is unaware of the cost of his monthly assemblies. He thinks it is expense-free, as the government already owns the facility and those civil servants and ministers are not paid extra to be there. He could not be more wrong. Like his ministers and staff, Najib spends his entire career receiving a steady paycheck. He has never run a business and thus is blissfully unaware of what it would take to deliver regular paychecks. The concept of overhead or wasteful spending of time and resource is beyond him.

With the assembly held in the morning, those civil servants are unlikely to spend the time interval before and after to do any meaningful work. If you think that they would rush back to their offices after the assembly, then you do not understand the mentality and culture of our civil service. The afternoon too would be wasted in rehashing the morning event.

Functionally, the whole day was a washout as far as effective work was concerned. Those bureaucrats were essentially makan gaji buta (lit. eating a blind salary; fig, not earning their keep) on that day. So much for efficiency! I pity those who had any business to transact with the Prime Minister’s office that day.

With all the talk of “transforming” the government, I would have thought that Najib could think of other cheaper and more effective ways of communicating with his staff.

Pidgin English and Bazaar Malay

The only thing prime ministerial about Najib during the assembly was his attire. As for his speech, he could not utter a complete sentence in either comprehensible English or proper Malay. He would begin in Malay and then without any hint switch into English, and then back to Malay, or endless combinations thereof. Listeners had to switch mental gears frequently and without warning. Najib’s monotonous mumbling with his own peculiar brand of mangled “Manglish” made him sound like a third-rate Filipino politician.

Consider this: “Sistem kita ini mesti kita lihat the entire ecosystem ini, mesti recognize potential high performance, ….” Another, “Kalau kita recognize potential high performance, … kita recognize sumbangan yang luar biasa, those who are prepared to go the extra mile, ….” Such boring and repetitious mumbo jumbo defies translation!

Najib set a bad example especially for our students. How could we criticize them when our Prime Minister could not even string together a complete sentence in either Malay or English? Najib’s mangled “Manglish” was incongruous in such a formal setting. This manner of speaking is disrespectful of his audience. Thank God he did not degenerate into his usual colloquialism as with “Lu tolong gua, gua tolong lu” (You help me, I help you!) mode as he did in the recent Sibu by-election.

Only Zee Avi with her sultry voice could make the mixing of Malay and English sound cute and captivating. Those less talented should stick to one language only, and that includes Najib.

Najib’s favorite buzzword at this last assembly was “ecosystem.” He probably came across that in one of the “pop” business books or articles. I doubt very much whether he fully understands its meaning. An ecosystem is a functional unit where one participant influences and in turn being influenced by the other participants. Altering one could have unpredictable consequences on others as well as the whole.

What Najib meant was culture or environment. Either word would have been more accurate and readily understood, but to Najib they were too ordinary and not as sexy as “ecosystem.”

Another of his choice word is “transformation.” In biology the term refers to the phenomenon where the genetic material is altered, and the organism consequently transformed. It means change at the core (nucleus), and from there to the rest of the cell. The consequent change is thus permanent, profound, affects the whole system, and transmissible to the next generation. Socially, it means profound and irreversible change that begins with the leadership, and then spreads out.

To state it differently and more bluntly, it is Najib who has to change first before he could even dream of transforming Malaysia. For example, to streamline the government, Najib must begin with his own bloated department.

Another of Najib’s favorite buzz word is “quantum,” as in his declaration, “Civil servants would get bonuses, only the quantum is to be determined.” Again, he must have looked that word up and found its meaning to be “quantity” or “amount.” So he simply substituted the more sexy and scientific sounding “quantum.”

“Quantum” as in quantum physics refers to the discrete energy levels associated with electronic orbitals around the nucleus. Thus a quantum increase is a pre-defined or discrete and stepwise increase, and not just any amount. Non-scientists love these big words for their vicarious association with modern science. It only makes them sound stupid.

The Man Is His Performance

My purpose here is not to critique Najib’s vocabulary, syntax or delivery, rather that those reflect the man and his leadership. His fondness for flashy and impressive sounding words rather the more mundane but precise and readily understood is also reflected in his policies. His “1Malaysia” slogan is a ready example – high sounding and introduced with great fanfare. However when he had a chance to demonstrate its core meaning as with repudiating the racist theatrics of Perkasa and the likes of Ibrahim Ali, Najib backtracked. He was easily gertak (scared).

Najib’s mangled syntax with its rojak mingling of Malay and English betrays his lack of mental discipline. Again this is reflected in his leadership. He announced with great flourish the “transforming” of his economic policy, with his NEM supplanting his father’s NEP. At the first resistance, he retreated.

Najib’s gibberish sentences and gabbled delivery also reflect his lack of preparation. Again, that is disturbing. The assembly was planned, not an off-the-cuff press conference. As such I would have expected him to be better prepared. That he was not showed the low regards he had for his audience.

My reaction to Najib’s performance at these assemblies and elsewhere can best be summed up by singer-songwriter Zee Avi’s lilting refrain in “Kantoi:”

Sudah lah sayang, I don’t believe you
I've always known that your words were never true
Why am I with you? I pun tak tahu
No wonder lah my friends pun tak suka you!

The exception is that I do not sayang Najib nor am I with him.

Come to think of it, Najib had been up to quite a bit of mischief in his career. However, his position effectively protected him from kena kantoi (busted), at least thus far and in Malaysia. With the French authorities now stepping up their investigation on the scandal-ridden Scorpene submarine deal, this “protection” may soon break from overuse.

For Najib, getting rid of that monthly assembly ritual would be easy, but overcoming all those other deficiencies of his leadership would be far more challenging. Meanwhile we get to ‘enjoy’ his monthly and other spectacles, at least until he kena kantoi!


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