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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, June 12, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #69

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership


Leadership to a society is what wings are to planes. Without wings planes will not fly, and without leaders there will be no society. Wings also define the limits on the performances of the plane. Early planes had double stacked wings, the biplanes, which effectively doubled the lift at low speed. But with stronger engines and thus greater speed, that design became very limiting as the drag factor increases rapidly at higher speed. Thus new models are introduced with a single pair of wings but fitted with adjustable curved flaps at the leading and trailing edges that could be extended at low speed (as at takeoff and landing) to effect maximum lift, and then retracted at high speed to reduce drag. This flexibility in shape enables the wings to function efficiently at both low and high speed. With the development of jet engines and even faster planes, even this design has limitations, and soon gave way to the backswept wings (still with flaps) that gave even better lift/drag ratio. With supersonic jets, the design is further improved with the delta wings that could be retracted to further reduce drag at super mach cruising speed. With the extreme speeds of rockets and missiles, wings are essentially irrelevant, reduced to tiny flaps at the tail end.

So it is with leadership. In the beginning when society is undeveloped and its citizenry unsophisticated and uneducated, you need a leader who is a strict disciplinarian and could command instant respect by his charisma. This type of leader is best exemplified by the drill sergeant major who could whip out a bunch of ragtag village bums into spick and span recruits within a few months. But as those recruits become officers or if one is training an officers’ corps, then one needs a different type of leader. The yelling drillmaster would definitely be out of place. Similarly if one is leading a group of intelligent people, one needs a different style of leader. If a university president starts barking orders like a military commander, he would not last long. His claim to leadership would be through his scholarly example and intellect, and by sharing his vision with the rest of the academic community. An orchestra conductor calls for another style of leadership. His claim to the podium is his own talent and contribution, and his ability to bring out the best out of his musicians. And if the orchestra fails, chances are it is the conductor who would be blamed, not the musicians. In an orchestra, there is no such thing as a leadership challenge to the conductor. The first violinist does not aspire to be the conductor, nor is she scheming to take over the job. She (or he) is satisfied with being a superb musician in her (or his) own right.

South Korea’s General Park was the right man at the right time for his nation. His military bearing and no nonsense approach was what his unruly, ill-disciplined, and backward people needed. He ruthlessly and quickly whipped his ragged nation into a cohesive productive unit, using nationalism as his rallying cry. Unfortunately a decade later, as a result of the very success of his program, his style became a significant liability. After a decade of spectacular economic development, with his people increasingly becoming highly educated, Park still had the old biplane style of leadership, totally unsuitable for a nation that was now taking off at jet speed. His successors were no better; they were all military men stuck in the same biplane mode of leadership. Fortunately South Korea today is being led by a civilian with a flexible style, akin to wings with retractable flaps that could be adjusted accordingly.

The track record of the leadership of many newly independent countries is a sorry one. One of the reasons is that these leaders overstay or do not recognize their limitations. Often a leader who is good at leading the nation at war is the worse kind for a nation at peace. The British knew something of this when they kicked out Churchill soon after he successfully prosecuted World War II. That may seem to be the height of ingratitude, but often that is the best course for the nation. Had Churchill stayed on he would have plunged Britain and the world into another war against the Soviets with his Cold War rhetoric.

Unfortunately many Third World leaders who successfully led their countries in their war of independence hung on for too long even though they had proven themselves to be incompetent peacetime leaders. Sukarno may be brilliant at outsmarting the Dutch and using world opinion to his side in securing his nation’s independence, but those were very different skills needed in the day-to-day mundane details of running a new nation. As result Indonesia was driven to the ground under Sukarno, and never recovered.

Similarly in the Indian subcontinent, Gandhi may have successfully shamed Britain into granting India its independence by his nonviolence movement, but that same strategy was impotent in dealing with the animal hatred Hindus and Muslims there have for one another. Newly-independent India needed a Park, not a Ghandi.

When Malaysia became independent in 1957, expectations were necessarily low: just keep the status quo and not muck things up. Malaysians were satisfied with what the colonialists left them, just maintain that; do not rock the boat. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country’s first prime minister, was ideally suited for this role. A committed anglophile, he was more than happy to oblige. With his happy-go-lucky attitude and less-than-gifted intellect, he need not come up with any innovative ideas or programs. Indeed none were expected. His good nature and affable ways were enough to smooth the differences that surfaced. In the immediate post-independent Malaysia, success was measured not by the number of brilliant innovations and imaginative policies, rather in maintaining the status quo.

After a decade of independence however, Malaysians had become increasingly confident. Their horizon had expanded. The status quo, no matter how admirable it seemed in the beginning, did not solve the pressing problems facing the nation. Unfortunately, the Tunku did not notice the changes. The nation was like a plane that now had a more powerful engine, but its wings were still the biplane type. The inevitable result was a crash; the old wings were too much of a drag. Tunku became a liability, and he discovered that only too late to prevent the devastating May 1969 race riot.

Tunku was replaced by his long-time deputy, Tun Razak, a man his polar opposite. Where Tunku was all smiles and affable, Razak had a constant dour demeanor and a perennial scowling look; where Tunku was intellectually shallow, his Cambridge degree notwithstanding, Tun Razak was brilliant and innovative, confident of his own considerable intellect, and unafraid to pursue his own policies without having to await the approval or adoration of his followers.

Tun Razak’s first order of business following the devastating riot of 1969 was to suspend parliamentary democracy. That precipitated howling protests from within as well abroad. But Tun Razak was sure of his bearing and ignored those do-gooders. He had an important obligation to bring peace and restore order. He ran the country as a military dictator would; indeed he spoke admiringly of and modeled himself after the general who successfully prosecuted Malaysia’s campaign against the communist terrorists, General Templer. Where Templer was fighting the communists, Razak was fighting rural poverty and interracial inequities. He emulated Templer by establishing in each district a local “operations” room to monitor his war on poverty. He was no staff general; he frequented the frontlines and ground troops. To overcome the gross and increasingly dangerous interracial inequities, he promulgated a daring and innovative social engineering program in the form of the New Economic Policy (NEP). He was remarkably effective. Nothing attests to the enduring quality of his contributions better than that the NEP and its successor policies have essentially remained unchanged to this very day. The remarkable aspect of Razak’s leadership was that, having established law and order, he restored parliamentary democracy. Tun Razak was one of the few leaders who shined in leading his nation both in times of crisis as well as during peacetime.

Sadly Tun Razak died in the prime of his life, just as the citizenry was beginning to feel the tangible benefits of his farsighted and brilliant initiatives. The nation rightly mourned a great loss.

Tun Razak was replaced by his chosen successor, Hussein Onn. Hussein’s tenure was brief because of ill health. His leadership was a forgettable one; he was more administrator than leader. His greatest contribution was his selection of Mahathir as his deputy and later, prime minister. But even this sole credit was marred when a decade later during the UMNO leadership crisis, he declared that his greatest mistake was in appointing Mahathir! I am certain that had Tun Razak survived his cancer, Malaysia would have continued on its steep trajectory of success. The hypothetical question is, with Malaysians thus changed, would Tun Razak have been flexible enough to adjust to the new Malaysia? I believe he would.

Mahathir took the country by a storm in 1981. The changes he brought were both symbolic and real. Symbolically he made a big deal of signing in and out of his office and to wearing a nametag. To status conscious Malaysia, for the prime minister to wear an identification tag is highly significant, symbolizing equality and humility. And to chronically tardy Malaysians, signing in every morning is a very visible manifestation of discipline.

On a practical level he took the country on a path of economic development undreamed of at the time. He firmly committed the nation to foreign investments and trade, and confidently rode the recession of the mid 1980s to lead the nation to greater heights. The world spared no superlatives in describing his and the country’s economic progress. Had Mahathir resigned in the mid 1990s, his star would have forever remained undiminished.

Alas all that changed quickly as he completed his second decade of leadership. In short, the country took off but Mahathir’s model of leadership could not adjust to the new realities. The fuselage (country) is now equipped with a faster jet engine and cruising at high speed, but it is still stuck with the old perpendicular wings which no longer give much lift but instead, are now a major drag. Mahathir failed to see the remarkable transformation of his people, a consequence of the dramatic success of his very policies. He was unable to adapt to those changes. His speech to the UMNO General Assembly in 2001 was a rehash of what he wrote in his first book The Malay Dilemma in 1970, where he lambasted Malays for our lackadaisical ways. With nauseating frequency he exhorted Malays to change, meanwhile failing to realize that it was he who needed to change the most. The rigid disciplinarian drill sergeant could not transform himself into a captain. Thus the sad spectacle of Mahathir humiliated in the twilight of his leadership by the very people, Malays, who benefited immensely from his policies.

Sadly his legacy is destined to tarnish even more with his selection of an unimaginative and uninspiring successor, Abdullah Badawi, his fourth deputy.

Why such a fate for a nation that has so much talent? The reasons are many and I will review some.

Next: Lack of Checks and Balances in Malaysian Leadership


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