Archive for October, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #29

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Chapter 6: Great Nation, Great Leaders (Cont’d)

The Coaching Model

Today’s workers, especially in the developed world, have far superior skills in language, science, and mathematics. Many, especially in high-tech and biotech, are college graduates. They are officer material, not raw recruits. The drill sergeants would have to give way to the officer candidate school’s instructors, with different sets of skills and means of motivation. Enter the coaching style of leadership.

Coaches decide which players to keep, and when or if they can play. Coaches bring the best out of their players and ensure that they fit well with the rest of the team. Coaches do not train players in the manner that head mechanics train novice technicians. They do not train but sharpen and develop the talent and ability of their players.

Coaches are themselves former players; however, the best players do not necessarily make the best coaches. The two require different sets of skills and talent. Coaches lead the team, yet in terms of pay and public recognition, they often play second fiddle to their star players. Even the most celebrated coaches are best remembered for their marquee players.

When the players shine, there is a sense of reflected glory on the part of their coaches. This after all is what they are trying to achieve, consequently they do not envy or resent their players’ achievements.

The coaching leadership style attracts many personality types, including authoritarian ones. This leadership style is not exclusive to sports but is seen in not-for-profit organizations, academic and research institutions, and in firms of professionals (lawyers and accountants). In the corporate world, CEOs are increasingly acting more as coaches rather than as military leaders.

Unlike the rigid pyramidal command-and-control structure of the military, with few generals and admirals, few more colonels and majors, and a whole lot of captains and lieutenants, the coaching model has a flattened hierarchy, basically only two or three layers—coaches, assistant coaches, and players; a block with a gentle-sloped roof rather than a pyramid.

Like platoon commanders, coaches exert their control on their followers directly. They are there on the sideline during practice and at games. The communications are direct, and so are the feedbacks.

Bill Walsh, the winning coach of the San Francisco Forty-Niners professional football team, related that the most important part of his coaching job was to recruit new talent, and when he found one, to develop it. A crucial aspect to developing new talent was to ensure that he was not being overshadowed by existing players, the mighty oak stunting new saplings. Walsh had to let go many seasoned players well before their time because he felt that their presence inhibited the development of new talent.13 It would take an extremely confident coach to do this; it is counterintuitive. The usual tendency is to stick with your proven players rather than to try the new and untried.

Tun Razak increasingly assumed the coaching style of leadership after he settled the 1969 riot. He was unique in that he successfully made the smooth transition from being a military leader in the aftermath of the riot to the coach-like prime minister of a democracy. Many leaders cannot successfully make such transitions.

Tun Razak exhibited other unique qualities. He inherited a tired and less-than-talented cabinet from his predecessor, so he actively sought new talent. The political structure in UMNO then (like today) did not encourage the emergence of new talent, so he bypassed the system. He went outside of politics; from the civil service he recruited such seasoned leaders as Ghazali Shafie and Chong Hon Nam; from the private sector, Tengku Razaleigh. Under his tutelage, they scaled even greater heights. Abdullah Ahmad, Tun’s Special Assistant, went on to complete his studies at Cambridge and later became Mahathir’s Special Ambassador to the United Nations.

Tun Razak demonstrated his coaching style in other ways. When the tradition-bound civil service stymied his ambitious development plans, he did two things. First he hired an American management consultant (Milton Esman) to revamp the service.14 He could not possibly fire the entire civil service, so he decided to enhance its professionalism through extensive training. He sent young officers who had not quite yet acquired the bad habits of the civil service to graduate schools abroad. He initiated formal in-house training for fresh recruits instead of letting them loose to be trained haphazardly on the job. He realized that the civil service was incapable of executing his policies; yet needless criticism would simply undermine the organization.

His other bold strategy was to bypass completely the civil service. When bureaucrats stalled his policies, he created extra-governmental bodies to effectively bypass obscurantist civil servants. Thus was born the Government-linked companies (GLCs).

Like a good coach, Tun Razak first recruited fresh talent, and then groomed them to be developed fully and not be overshadowed by the old timers, the same strategy that Bill Walsh used so successfully a decade later with his San Francisco team.

Malaysians were ready for the Tun’s coaching style because they were becoming better educated and more confident. He was also sufficiently flexible to adapt to the changes he saw in his followers. In short, Tun Razak’s leadership style was flexible; it was equipped with the metaphorical adjustable flaps.

Next: The Orchestra Conductor

Another Promised Change!

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

In a recent meeting with media representatives, Chief Secretary to the Government (its topmost civil servant) Sidek Hassan assured the public that civil servants must now “perform or face the music.”  He also revealed the demotions of senior officers, including a few in the “super scale” grade and a Director-General.

            Sidek’s assurance was undoubtedly in response to the damning indictments in the recent Auditor General’s Report.  (What else is new?)  The Chief Secretary went on with promises of more actions.  Let us hope that his pledge is for real.  We have been through all these promised changes before, so citizens’ cynicism is understandable.

            The civil service cannot be improved merely through edicts from high above.  No less than Prime Minister Abdullah had made many similar pledges before.

            As the top civil servant, Sidek cannot effect meaningful changes until he knows the details of the various operations under him.  Not all of them; he needs study only two or three processes in some detail, identify the problems, and then solve them.  With that he could teach others and replicate the success elsewhere.

            All too often our top civil servants and ministers are content only with mere utterances:  “Be productive!” “Compete with the best!”  Unless they know the details of the operations of their departments, identify and eliminate the redundant processes, they could not hope to improve their services.  These senior officers should not expect their overworked line workers to come up with innovative solutions.  Besides, they lack the necessary knowledge or skills.

Leadership Through Ignorance

When I came home as a surgeon in 1975, the top honchos at the Ministry of Health and the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur took me around trying to impress me with their facility.  After an hour or so of this dog and pony show, I was fed up with the fluff thrown at me.

            We were standing overlooking the busy road in front of the hospital when an accident happened.  I asked the hospital director to imagine the driver sustaining a life-threatening ruptured spleen and thus needing my service.  How would I be contacted?

            From there I was able to find out about the ambulance service (haphazard), the quality of paramedics (untrained), and the Casualty Room capabilities (erratic system of contacting on-call specialists).  The two top officials were embarrassed because they could not answer my basic queries.

            I suggested to the two that on-call specialists be equipped with beepers so they could be readily contactable.  Sensible enough solution, except that neither the Director nor the ministry official could authorize such an expenditure!  They would have to submit that first to Treasury!  So calling surgeons remained a haphazard affair when I was there.  It would not surprise me if it still is, thirty years later.

            If the hospital director (or minister) had been familiar with details of the operation of the hospital, he would be less likely to criticize the doctors on call for not responding timely and instead supply them with beepers.

            A few years ago I was home to renew my ID card.  I was told that it would take months.  Fortunately I knew the department head, and between the two of us we had an exercise of going through every step of the process.  After that I told him how we could cut down the redundant steps, like having the forms available (and filled) online instead of lining up just to get the empty form.  We tried it with my application as a test, and I was able to get my new card within days.

            Then the department head told me why he could not do what I suggested.  It would mean laying off thousands of unneeded clerical staff; not politically acceptable.  Like it or not, our civil service is not for providing service, rather a massive public works program for those with liberal arts degrees who otherwise would not be employable.

            As head of a surgical unit at GHKL I was fed up with the large and unruly crowd at the beginning of my clinic day.  So I introduced staggered appointments, with follow-up patients (who are within our control as we made their appointments) to be seen at 3PM while patients referred from elsewhere and others (who are beyond our control) be seen at the clinic’s opening hour of 2PM.

            It worked wonderfully.  At least now we could reduce the crowd by half and thus be more manageable.  Our patients loved it.

            All went well for a few weeks, and then the crowd began coming back.  Puzzled, I decided to investigate.  It turned out that the front office clerk was telling everyone to come early and to ignore my advice about the scheduled appointments.  She had a very simple and remarkably effective rebuttal for my patients.  “Yes, I know the doctor asked you to come at 3, but better lah to come early.  The doctor is a busy man; it is better for us to wait for him instead of having him wait for us!”

            I could not help laughing at the clerk’s ingenuity in circumventing my orders.  To her it would be easier if all the patients were to come at the beginning, as that would mean going to the record room only once.

            Instead of getting angry with the poor overworked clerk, I gathered my staff and explained to them my rationale for the staggered appointments.  Something about respecting our patients by not having them wait.  I also made sure that the poor clerk had additional help in securing the charts.  After that I had no more problem.  Simple solution, but it required my active intervention as a department head to study the problem, implement the solution, and get my staff on board.

            My clinic was one of the few that was orderly.  One consequence to my successful arrangement was that people began whispering that I was not a “good” surgeon as my clinic was not crowded!  Luckily my patients, colleagues and staff were happy with our service, so that bit of rumor had no traction.

            My point is this:  Simply saying you must improve your service will not do it.  Sidek and the other top civil servants need to do more, like analyzing and re-engineering the various processes.  If the solution you prescribed does not work (or no longer does), examine the reasons why and try to overcome them.

Incompetence, Insularity, and Lack of Integrity

Our civil service is afflicted with the terrible triad of incompetence, insularity, and lack of integrity.  I am not referring to the rank and file union members, rather the managers and officers, those in the “superscale” category.  Each of these afflictions by itself is quite crippling; combined their destructive powers are amplified considerably.

            Ask a senior civil servant what management journals he subscribes to or reads regularly, and you would draw a blank.  The standard response is that these journals are expensive, but those officers have allowances.  The more valid reason is their lack of professionalism and sense of self-improvement.  Their low English proficiency is also a contributor.

            I would make it a condition for promotions for these officers to demonstrate their competency in English.  We did something similar in the 1960s when civil servants had to be proficient in the national language to be confirmed.

            As for competency, the government spends little in the development of its staff.  Ask a civil servant when was the last time he or she attended a formal continuing education session, and you would also draw a blank.

            A major contributor to the lack of integrity is of course pervasive corruption.  I need not write more except to note that instead of tackling it head on, the government establishes yet another bureaucracy, the National Integrity Institute.  A simple move that would not involve spending more money or hiring additional personnel would be to make the Anti Corruption Agency independent, answerable only to Parliament or the King.

            Lack of integrity is also tied to lack of professionalism.  How many times have you seen senior civil servants bring their work home?  They may be in upper management, but their mentality is still the clerical nine-to-five.  I have yet to see senior civil servants on extended overseas trips carry a laptop.  Meaning, when they are away, they are cut off from their offices.

            When asked why they do not have a laptop, these officers tell me that the government does not provide them with one, and they are too cheap to buy one on their own.  If they were to travel business class instead of first, the government would have more than enough funds to supply each member of their family with a super laptop.

            Query a Secretary- or Director-General, a ministry’s top civil servant, what innovations he or she had instituted within the past few years, or the challenges facing his agency and how he or she would solve them, and you will also get a bewildering look.

            The civil service is hampered by its insularity, with promotions strictly from within.  There is no infusion of fresh talent other than at the entry level.  To make matters worse, recruits are overwhelmingly local graduates in the liberal arts.  Apart from their abysmal English proficiency, they are also severely mathematically challenged.  There is also minimal specialization.  An officer may be posted in Sports Ministry one year and be in the Foreign Ministry the next.

            In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I suggested getting fresh talent at the mid and senior levels.  The next time a vacancy occurs at the Director-General level, open up the recruitment to applicants from academia and the private sector.  I also suggested having four or five broad areas of concentration with officers rotated only within one area so they could develop some specific skills and knowledge.  This was also the recommendation of Milton Esman, the American professor hired by Tun Razak in the 1970s to spruce up the civil service.

            Yes there will be the exceptional talent who could be an accomplished academic, an effective CEO the next time, and then capping his distinguished career as a seasoned statesman.  For most however, especially those in the mid level, they are better off staying and learning within a limited sphere.

            Sidek Hassan should go beyond simply warning his officers to “perform or face the music,” I would have been more assured had he asked them to subscribe to at least three professional journals, attend 25 hours of formal continuing professional education courses annually, pass an English competency test, and require them to have a laptop.

A Sign Of Things To Come

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Din Merican 

After reading Dato Seri Anwar’s press statement (October 25, 2007) concerning the Anti Corruption Agency’s (ACA) last minute cancellation of its meeting at his office today, you could tell that the Abdullah Badawi Government and the UMNO-led BN coalition – they are one and the same since the line between government and party has been blurred – is in a state of utter confusion and paralysis.

The bitter irony is that the problems they face are of their own making. After three days of boasting and saber rattling –remember Nazri? – that Anwar must concede or face possible arrest, the only sounds coming from the courtyard of his office in Petaling Jaya were the chants of “Reformasi! Reformasi! Reformasi” (reformation) and “Allah, Selamatkan Anwar!” (Allah Saves Anwar!”)

When Anwar stepped into the courtyard and into the embrace of a passionate audience and announced the apparent victory, there were cries of jubilation from the eagerly awaiting masses.

The special branch officers milling in the crowd and who had prevented students from the nearby Ninth College of the University of Malaya from crossing the street to join the rally (they most certainly wanted to partake in) have plenty to tell their masters when they get back to their offices. Some of them were still parked down the street blocked by the crowd.

Let us not lose our perspective. This is only one battle won, but the struggle for justice continues.

The economic outlook in Malaysia is still dismal. Corruption is indeed rampant, and worsening. The ACA is trying hard to flex its muscle, but unfortunately it can only claim victory in only a few small, inconsequential cases. The big fish are still roaming freely, swallowing up more largesse and ultimately shortchanging the Malaysian people.

The political climate is depressing and becoming increasingly myopic. Everyone is talking about an early election but the government remains silent as if trying to pull a fast one us, once again.

Meanwhile, constituencies are being rigged right before our very eyes as reported by Malaysiakini. The Elections Commission has demonstrated its effectiveness more as the reelection headquarters for the Barisan coalition than as an institution to promote and ensure free and fair elections, its reason for being.

Social tensions are boiling. One merely has to peel away the superficial thin veneer to see how fragile and stressed the relations between the various ethnic groups are, as if waiting to explode at the slightest provocation.

And to pour salt on this festering wound, we as a nation are actually entertaining the notion of giving Chief Justice Ahmed Fairuz an extension of his contract. What nation that professes to be modern and democratic and a “Hadhari” could insult its people with such an audacious and indefensible act. Shame on you, Abdullah Badawi! That Fairuz still receives a paycheck is beyond my powers of comprehension.

Given today’s victory what can we expect? Certainly the ghosts of 1998 will be resurrected and the attacks on the KeADILan-led opposition coalition, and the direct attacks on Dato Sri Anwar will begin and expected to intensify once the date of elections is revealed.

In the meantime it is not out of the realm of possibility that Dato Sri Anwar and his brave associates would be carted off to prison, their crime being merely their valiant attempts to bring to justice to those characters who have quite clearly tampered with the sanctity of our judicial system.

Of course we know that in doing so, the government virtually guarantees the success of a strong and dedicated opposition that cherishes principle over mere profit and the lust for power.

The international community is watching with apparent disgust at how our government is conducting its affairs in our name. This I gathered in my conversations with a number of senior diplomats who were guests at Dato Sri Anwar’s open house in Segambut, Kuala Lumpur last weekend.

The scathing critique of the judiciary by Dato Sri Anwar published in the Wall Street Journal this week assures us that millions around the world are now scrutinizing this government’s dirty laundry. Soon we would be on par with Myanmar in the quality, level and type of publicity that we would attract around the world.

So dear friends and countrymen and women, we must not bask in our glory for even more than a blink of an eye. Our work in communicating to the people our core message of reform and renewal must go on. In fact it must accelerate.

At the same time those who would prefer to sweep all this muck under the rug and carry on with business as usual are planning and plotting their next move. Though as we can see from the events of this week, they have not been very effective given all the money and assets they have at their disposal.

We are counting on the blogosphere and journalists of conscience, as well as our fellow citizens who recognize the stakes in this most serious matter, to help us in this effort.

There is no doubt in our minda that today’s events are a categorical victory for all Malaysians. Dato Sri Anwar is taking a firm stand. He is fully aware that he is exposing himself to great personal risk. However he believes strongly that this issue affects the very core and foundation of our nation.

I also saw with my own eyes and felt in my heart in ways that I have not experienced in my many years on this earth that one man can indeed make a huge difference. We must be unified and join Dato Anwar in the pursuit of justice.

Din Merican is Program Director of KeADILan. E-mail:

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #28

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

Chapter 6:  Great Nation, Great Leaders  (Cont’d)

The Military Model in Industry

The military model was widely adopted in industry until recently. The impetus was the insight of the industrial psychologist, Frederick Taylor. He analyzed the details of manufacturing, and suggested that by having workers do the same repetitive component work, they could consistently deliver quality and increase output. Instead of the group collectively producing a car, as craftsmen had been doing for ages, we now have one bending the sheet metal, another welding, and a third fastening the parts. Thus was born the assembly line, and with it the phenomenal leap in productivity.10

It enabled Henry Ford to produce cars affordable even to his workers. Workers could be easily trained and monitored by their managers. Their output too could be readily measured; workers could no longer slack off. Even simpletons could now do complex manufacturing jobs as they were divided into a series of simple, reproducible motions.

The underlying assumption of this management theory is that workers must be treated like military recruits. They have no particular joy in doing the mind-numbing work; they must be regimented and continuously monitored, and their jobs reduced to endless repetition such that the quality is consistent and reliable. Their managers too act like military officers, ensuring that the mission is accomplished. This model served American businesses well until the 1980s. Through it, America was able to turn illiterate immigrants and freed slaves into productive factory workers. Today this model is still operative in factories of multinationals in the Third World. These workers can do sophisticated factory work despite their lack of education.

Come the 1980s, Japan clobbered America by putting out quality products at lower prices. “Made in Japan” no longer meant shoddy products or a ready one-liner for standup comics, rather a symbol of quality and value.

American managers were forced to study Japanese management to see what those Orientals were doing right. What the Americans found surprised them. They had this image of the Japanese being a regimented and militaristic society, the residue of World War II images. Instead, the Japanese factory floor was remarkably democratic and unregimented. There was no obvious distinction between workers and supervisors; they all worked collaboratively. They even ate in the same cafeteria. And the wonder of wonders, there was no adversarial relationship between workers and managers.


While American factories face periodic strikes and other labor disputes, Japanese factories were spared such turmoil. The Japanese actually enjoyed their work! Up until the 1980s the prevailing model of management in America had been the military one:  the Theory X model.(11) Managers treated their workers as someone unreliable and uninterested in their work. They had to be regimented and monitored at all times lest they goofed off. They were not to be trusted. The assembly line was meant to keep them on their prescribed pattern. This numbing routine of the assembly line is well chronicled in Alex Hailey’s novel, Wheels.(12)

The Japanese subscribe to Theory Y management. Workers are treated with respect and assumed to have pride in their work. They have as much to contribute to the quality of the final product as the managers and designers. While American managers subscribe to the military model of leadership, the Japanese were into the coaching or even symphony conductor style.

Today it is easy to scorn the American authoritarian style. It is well to remember that the model served the nation well for nearly a century. It was responsible for the mass production and thus affordability of much of today’s consumer goods. It brought into the middle class a generation of hitherto low-skilled and lowly educated citizens. That ought to count for something.

With American workers so much more educated today, that old model is no longer effective or productive.

Next;  The Coaching Model

His Hollowness The Imam of Islam Hadhari

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

You can tell much about a creed by its practices, in particular that of its leader.  By this measure, Islam Hadhari is a cruel hoax perpetrated by Abdullah Badawi on the citizens.  This recently concluded Ramadan was Abdullah’s fifth as Prime Minister.  On none of those occasions did he see fit to live or demonstrate the spirit of generosity and forgiveness that is the hallmark of Ramadan.

            During the tenure of Mahathir, as well as others before him, it was traditional for the King on the advice of his Prime Minister to pardon prisoners during the last days of Ramadan, in time for them to join their families for Eid celebrations.  We had the writer and philosopher Kassim Ahmad as well as the scholar Syed Hussin Ali, prisoners of conscience under the ISA, thus released.  My classmate, once a fast rising star in UMNO and a former cabinet minister, was also pardoned of his murder conviction and released.

            Abdullah has had five Ramadans to demonstrate the generosity or magnanimity of his Islam Hadhari.  He missed them all.  Equally significant, during the recent 50th Merdeka Anniversary, Abdullah did not see fit to have any amnesty program for prisoners.  Nor did he have one on assuming power.

            In his typically sermonizing Hari Raya message he exhorted Muslims to be generous and gracious.  That was as far as he went; nothing beyond dispensing homilies.

            On closer scrutiny, there was nothing in the ten stated principles of his Islam Hadhari about generosity or charity.  How foolish of me to assume that the “Islam” of Islam Hadhari would at least have some redeeming qualities like charity, a pillar of our great faith!

            Abdullah’s idea of generosity during this last Hari Raya was to host a multi-million ringgit “Open House” at the Putra World Trade Center.  Rest assured that the funding of this mega bash would come out of the public treasury.  It is easy to spend or give away money when it is not yours.

            During this past Ramadan, Abdullah hosted an iftar, (communal breaking of the fast) and then proceeded to lead his guests in the obligatory Maghreeb as well as the optional Taraweekh prayers.  A more gracious (and modest) host would have had some other ulama or ustaz from among the guests to do the honors.  Not Abdullah, he hogs it all, in the name of piety and humility (or his public demonstrations thereof).  His version, that is.

            On another occasion, this time with members of the media (only those with demonstrated sycophantic sentiments), he had the writer and political observer Syed Hussein Alattas (Pak Habib) partake in a simple meal of ubi rebus (soup of tuber roots), a cheap staple made infamous during the hard days of the Japanese occupation.  The normally perceptive and critical Pak Habib was so taken up by Abdullah’s “humble “ gesture that Pak Habib gushed at the “humility” of the Prime Minister.

            This was nothing more than a crude and ineffective attempt at “slumming” for the benefit of the members of the media to see and thus report.  You can bet that no such soup would be served on board the newly acquired luxurious RM200 million corporate jet reserved for Abdullah’s use.

            The normally “not-easily-bought” Pak Habib, a political commentator I admire greatly, went so far as to have his picture taken with the “humble” Prime Minister clad in his peasant-style sarong and modest baju Melayu.  The snap shots of the duo affectionately embracing each other were of course emblazoned on his website.  The independently wealthy and fiercely unconventional Pak Habib could not be had with flattery or money, but a simple ubi rebus did it!



He Did Not See as Head of OIC


Thanks to the efforts and international stature of his predecessor, Abdullah assumed the leadership of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) on becoming Prime Minister.  While Mahathir was forceful in pursuing the interests of Islam and of Islamic nations in foreign forums, Abdullah has been busy maintaining his so-called “elegant silence” abroad.

            His presence at the recently concluded UN General Assembly was hardly noticed, except of course by the Malaysian media.  Consequently and by default, the world now increasingly views Islam and Muslims as represented by such crackpots as Iran’s Ahmadnejad.

            As head of OIC, he is silent over the two continuing major tragedies occurring in the Muslim world – the American occupation of Iraq, and the horrifying human sufferings in Darfur.  His silence reflects indifference.  It is a measure of his callousness to human sufferings, just as he is indifferent to the fate of the many prisoners of conscience in his own country.  That again reflects his understanding of Islam, and the guiding principles of his Islam Hadhari.

            Closer to home, Abdullah is equally oblivious of the atrocities perpetrated by Myanmar’s thuggish military junta.  As the self-proclaimed Imam of Islam Hadhari, I would have expected him to have some modicum of sympathy for the brutal oppression of those fellow leaders of faith, the monks.  Alas, there was none.

            In secular America, President Bush and other senior leaders have to declare publicly their income tax returns.  From such disclosures the public gets to know how much these leaders have contributed to charity.  It turned out that both Bush and others had contributed generously.  God bless them!

            Zakat (charity) is a major pillar of Islam.  Although not specifically stated in its ten major principles, I would expect that Islam Hadhari too would emphasize charity.  If Abdullah could afford to vacation regularly in Turkey and Australia, as well as host a multimillion ringgit Hari Raya bash, I wonder how much this Imam has donated for his zakat this year?

            Abdullah and others have been busy proclaiming Malaysia to be an Islamic State.  Let’s begin with that basic prerequisite of Islam:  making all Muslims give their fair share of zakat.  Once we have achieved that, we can then consider implementing the other rules of the Syaria.

            Islam Hadhari notwithstanding, one thing is certain under Abdullah’s leadership.  The rats that are his cronies and family members have been busy nibbling away at the state’s precious assets.  With time all that would be left is a state treasury that resembles Swiss cheese, full of holes with only a thin crust to hold its shape.  This is what happens when we have as chief executive a kaki tidor (sleepy head), or to pursue my metaphor, a cheese head (kepala kosong – empty head).

            No toast to His Hollowness The Imam of Islam Hadhari.  Instead, let him be toast.

Living Under The Shadow of the “Kerajaan”

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

(Note: This article first appeared on in March 2000)

We are often told that the Malay word for government is kerajaan. This, for those who are aware of the subtle semantic shifts and differences that are constantly at work in the Malay language, is of course a bad translation.

            Kerajaan literally means “to be in a state of having a Raja”. The concept kerajaan harks back to the feudal era where Malay politics was very much centered in and around the court (istana or palace) and where power was concentrated in the office of the Raja himself.

            During the feudal era, “politics” as we know it did not, in fact, exist. For there to be politics, there has to be what contemporary political theorists refer to as the moment of the “political” (ie the process of contesting, engagement and negotiation that is characteristic of the political process itself).

            “Politics” only comes into being when we have introduced a system of institutions, norms and practices that facilitate and make possible the distribution, negotiation and exercise of power in a society. These institutions did not exist in the feudal setting.

            The Raja was, in effect, the executive, legislature and judiciary, all rolled into one. While there was some delegation of power and authority to other actors and agents, no one was deluded enough to believe that power-sharing took place during the feudal era.

            Even when the Raja delegated duties and responsibilities to others, it was clear that he was the one who was in charge. Thus when the Sultan of Melaka allowed the building of the great mosque in the city, he made sure that the imam of the mosque was one of his relatives. This was to ensure that there would be no alternative sites of political and discursive activity that would exist unchecked and outside the parameters of his control.

            One may wonder what all this has to do with the present state of affairs in Malaysia. The answer is simple, depending on how we frame the question.

            For years, many political analysts, journalists and civil society activists have been asking questions about the Malaysian political system. There have been many attempts to label the political system in Malaysia according to a specific category. Is it an authoritarian democracy? A liberal-capitalist dictatorship? A centralized federation?

            The answer is quite straightforward. Malaysia, like many other developing countries in the South today, is a hybrid entity that shares both modern and pre-modern features.

            In terms of its institutions and services, it is a highly developed (and some would say over-developed) country where the latest in hi-tech systems and technologies are used to govern the state and carry out the daily task of management. Malaysia’s success in the race for development is beyond doubt. It is one of the most developed and well-managed countries in the region.

            But Malaysia is also a state that suffers from the social malaise of uneven development, and nowhere is this more evident than in its political culture that remains rooted in the pre-modern feudal past.

            Malaysia therefore has the latest technology that it utilizes in the process of government and management of the state and its economy. But the authorities in the country also use this technology for decidedly un-modern or even anti-modern purposes.

            Witness the way that the self-appointed “morality police” have used hi-tech surveillance technology to spy on young couples holding hands in the streets, meeting together in private, etc.

            The state media also used the latest hi-tech facilities to spread its message to the national audience, thereby creating a “virtual nation” that is hooked up to a single mainstream culture that exists on television, radio and the Internet.

            But the state media has also used this modern technology to build up a personality cult where the rulers of the country have been elevated to the status of modern-day icons, reminiscent of the feudal era where leaders were objects of veneration and worship.

            The contradictions, however, do not stop there. The root of the problem lies in the feudal mindset and values that reside among the elite of the most dominant and powerful political party in the country, UMNO.

            UMNO was, from the very beginning, a conservative-traditionalist party that was run and governed according to the values and worldview of the feudal era. The leaders of UMNO, from the Tunku onwards, have treated the office of government as if it was a tool for them to use at will.

            Successive UMNO leaders have used the office of state and the bureaucracy to further their own political agendas, even when it came to settling scores between themselves in their own race for power within the party.

            Attempts have been made to address and reverse this feudalist trend among the UMNO leadership itself, but to no avail. (Ironically, the most stringent and vocal critic of the feudal values and culture of Umno was the present Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself, who condemned the style of leadership of the party in his book “The Malay Dilemma” in 1970).

            This tendency to see the bureaucratic machinery of the state as an appendage of UMNO and a tool of politics would be completely incomprehensible in the context of a modern liberal-democracy. But then again, a liberal-democracy is precisely what Malaysia is not.

            Despite the trappings of modernity that dot the Malaysian landscape – from the tallest building in the world to the biggest dam – the country remains a modern neo-feudal state governed by elites whose values date back to the feudal era of 200 years ago.

            This would also explain the developments we have witnessed in the country over the past two years. In the wake of the sacking of the ex-DPM Anwar Ibrahim and the protests that followed, many asked why the state had over-reacted to such an extent.

            Was it necessary to arrest so many people? Was it necessary to use such force when dispersing protesters? Again the answer is a simple one if we know what kind of political system we are dealing with.

            The devastating campaign to wipe out the supporters of Anwar and the reformasi movement might seem a tad over the top in a modern liberal-democracy, but not so in the context of the neo-feudal politics of UMNO. After all, Malay history is full of examples of palace coups and rebellions against unpopular Rajas.

            In all these cases, the reaction has been the same: The ruler has responded to the challenge by wiping out all his opponents and challengers. Mercy has little space or room to flourish in the feudal environment, and the feudal era saw few prisoners being taken by the victors in the internecine struggles that tore apart the Malay world.

            When UMNO used all the resources at its disposal to wipe out the challengers from within in 1987 and 1998, it was perfectly normal political behavior from a party whose values are rooted in the feudalist logic of zero-sum confrontation.

            This neo-feudal drama has been played out again and again, and among the latest developments include the relatively light sentence meted out to the ex-Inspector General of Police, Rahim Noor and the statement by the Chief Minister of Melaka Ali Rustam who said that in future all doctors, lawyers, architects and professionals who are known to be supporters of the opposition will no longer be favored. He also warned government servants not to support the opposition.

            Human rights activists, union members and proponents of civil society may lament these developments as further proof of the erosion of civil society and civil liberties in the country. But few have cared to recognize the simple fact that such a civil society has never really taken root in Malaysia anyway.

            The relatively light sentence given to the ex-IGP and the blatant show of favoritism and partisanship on the part of the Melaka Chief Minister are all in keeping with how a feudal form of rule operates, where those who are on the winning side are allowed to benefit while those who oppose the status quo will feel the weight of the ruler’s power as it comes crashing down on them.

            There is no consideration whatsoever given to ethics or propriety, as the whole purpose of the kerajaan system was to accumulate power and to maintain possession of it. Power, understood in the sense of the right to force and coerce, was in turn expressed publicly and with little reservation. After all, power would be useless and meaningless if the Raja did not use it in the most extravagant manner.

            We are therefore back to where we started. Those who continue to wonder aloud about the state of the nation and who ask “what is this country coming to?” may themselves have been deluded all along.

            From the day Malaysia became independent in 1957, the country has been living under the rule of a closed circle of political elites whose values and worldview remain firmly rooted in the feudal mentality of the past. It is therefore fitting that the Malay word for government remains kerajaan, for kerajaan is precisely what we have in Malaysia today.

            Those who wish to struggle for a different kind of social and political order would do well by understanding what kind of order we have around us in the first place. The mistake of the opposition is that it has tried to introduce radical changes to a society which may not even be ready, able or willing to undertake such changes.

            The enduring cult of personality and leadership, the highly personal and idiosyncratic form of government, the conflation of party and government, politicians and the bureaucracy: these are all symptoms of a state of confused and uneven development where material progress has shot ahead of intellectual, social and cultural development and maturation.

            In the year 2000, we still live in the shadow of the feudal kerajaan of the past. We ignore this reality at our peril.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #27

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Chapter 6:  Great Nation, Great Leaders  (Cont’d)

The Military Model

Watch old war movies and we would be impressed by the way the military operates. Even away from the sanitized version, as in a real war, the military does things efficiently. It feeds, houses, and moves thousands of troops smoothly, while a comparable civilian operation would inevitably result in traffic jams, bewilderment, and outright chaos. Witness the rescue operations during the Katrina Hurricane.

The rigid hierarchical and central control-and-command structure of the military is very efficient under such circumstances. Everyone knows his or her place in the organization, and the chain of command is clear: top-down and rarely sideways. Information and resources are controlled at headquarters, and then dispersed to the troops at the frontlines. The platoon commander is responsible for the troops under him, and he in turn is answerable to his superior officers. This pyramidal command structure is the most efficient, especially where there is a clear mission that is agreed upon, as in wars or national emergencies. Military commanders often exhibit an authoritarian streak, and the physical bearing that goes with it, including the swagger a la Patton, at least in the movie version as played by George C. Scott.

This is also the leadership needed to mobilize massive rescue operations as after an earthquake. It is the leadership best suited to restore law and order after a civil turmoil. Tun Razak used it effectively in the aftermath of the 1969 riots; he restored peace very quickly.

Military leadership may be defined as “the art of direct and indirect influence, and the skill of creating the conditions for organizational success to accomplish missions effectively.” (Hawkins)7 In the military, junior leaders like platoon commanders exert their influence directly through their intimate contacts with those under their command. Often this bonding occurs in the most trying of circumstances, as in a foxhole during battle. Such experiences make for strong and enduring personal bonds; they depend on each other literally for their lives.

Senior officers exert their influence for the most part indirectly, through the orders they give down the chain of command. Many still value the direct personal influence, hence the sight of commanding generals visiting the troops on the front line. Such “showing of the flag” visits are more for morale boosting rather than for any strategic or command value. It is unlikely for the commanding general to get any fresh intelligence or insight that he does not already have before

the visit.

There is also a comparable difference between managers and leaders in the military model, that is, between staff (or headquarters) officers and front line commanders. “Staff” people are responsible for ensuring that the frontline troops are fed and have adequate armaments and supplies. Wars have been lost for lack of fuel, food and bullets, that is, failures of staff operations. To win wars however, you depend on the troops at the frontlines, not the staff personnel at headquarters. There is no mistaking that.

Tun Razak’s military-style National Operations Council in the aftermath of the 1969 riots was very effective. Less well appreciated is his similar very successful approach to rural development before the riots. Tun Razak patterned his rural development efforts after General Gerald Templer’s war against the communist insurgency, complete with its district “Operations Room.”8

In the early days of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew emulated the military style of leadership, in part to instill discipline in his cadres. They even sported collarless stiff white shirts, saluted each other (albeit with limp wrists), and marched about endlessly (though not in straight lines). After decades of slumming and pretending to be lowly comrades, Lee and his ministers now revert to their fondness for their London-tailored suites. Their military façade was just that.

Nonetheless with his regimented style, Lee successfully whipped unruly Singapore into a model modern state. Before Lee, Singapore was like any other Asian city: dirty, corrupt, disorderly, and where nothing worked. With his military style, he even succeeded in making Singapore Chinese to quit spitting, chewing gum, and hanging their laundry out of their apartment windows. Heck, he even made the young sport crew cuts, just like real army recruits! Those were remarkable achievements.

Many claimed he was too successful. He expunged the soul from the citizens, reducing them to robots. They may be highly educated, but robots nonetheless. Singaporeans meekly put up with the most inane intrusive rules without so much as a squeak of protest. Of course their leaders interpret that to be the hallmark of discipline.

Lee may have had all the traits of a military dictator nonetheless he was duly elected. Not so with South Korea’s General Pak Chung Hee. He simply grabbed power. As leader he treated his countrymen as a drill sergeant would an ill-disciplined bunch of peasant recruits. He was banking that after rigorous book camp, these youngsters with their new spit-and-polished look would forever be grateful to their drillmaster. Pak was fully aware that he did not have political legitimacy, but he was banking that with economic success, he would win the hearts and minds of his people.9 He was right, up to a point.

His rural development and industrialization policies were very effective. He used his military bearing to mobilize the peasants. Overnight the countryside was transformed; roads were straightened, thatched roofs replaced with more modern metal ones, and rural electrification expanded. He pushed for industrialization, unabashedly emulating the successful Japanese. Pak and his team were diligent students of the Japanese despite the Koreans’ natural antipathy towards the Japanese, a consequence of being colonized by them.

Pak single-mindedly focused on economic development, he tolerated no opposition. Like a true military leader, he controlled everything, from the giving out of import and export permits to the allocation of credits. He was so successful that within a decade the South Koreans markedly improved their social and living standards to the point that they forgot their recent privations. Their horizons expanded; they now had higher aspirations. Those earlier assaults on their civil rights and personal liberties were tolerated, if not grudgingly, in exchange for enjoying the fruits of economic development.

These developments transformed the Koreans, but it did not catch on with Pak. The Koreans now had the metaphorical powerful jet engine and modern fuselage, but their wings were still the old biplane variety. Something had to give; it did. Pak was eventually assassinated; his own CIA chief did it.

Had Pak withdrawn earlier and let other leaders take the Koreans to their next level of development, Korean history would be very different. Not to mention that he might have lived long enough to see the fruits of his daring initiatives.

The difference between Pak and Singapore’s Lee was that Lee took twice as long to accomplish his goals. For another, Pak transformed a country with a huge hinterland with its large poor rural dwellers, while Singapore is an urban diminutive island with a much smaller population. Lee however, bettered Pak in one crucial point; Lee knew when to quit, or at least withdraw a little.

The military model when used in civilian settings for productive purposes, as Lee and Pak did, can be amazingly effective. That same efficiency however could be abused for less-than-benign purposes. For a dramatic contrast, consider Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. Both quickly drove their country to the ground.

Next:  The Military Model in Industry

Practical Policies, Not Party Politics

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

[In a recent private e-mail to me, a reader chastised me for being “NATO” (No Action, Talk Only). He intimated that if I really loved Malaysia, I should come home and contest the elections. As many readers share his sentiment of me, I post my reply to him here. His original letter, in the usual rojak style of Malay liberally interspersed with English, follows.]


Dear Johan:

Thank you for taking your valuable time in sharing your thoughts with me.

My retort to your “NATO” (No Action, Talk Only) accusation is simply this: Been there, done that! However, such a tart response would not do justice to a diligent reader like you who has, by your own admission, bought all my books!

As for my returning home, I served Malaysia on my own accord (no scholarship or other contractual bonds) for nearly three years way back when. It was at a time when my presence (at least initially) doubled the number of Malay surgeons in the country! Although I was proud of my achievements during my brief tenure there, I soon discovered that I would have fewer headaches if I were to stop banging my head against the bureaucratic wall. So I left.

I have returned many times since. On each trip, instead of bringing trinkets for my nieces and nephews, I brought boxes of books to donate to my village school library. On one occasion, the principal proudly displayed to me the mound of books that I had donated over the years. She proudly drew my attention to the fact it was significantly bigger than a similar gift from the World Bank!

On another occasion, I discussed with the biology teacher of a residential school about donating a video microscope. He was ecstatic as his school had been requesting that for over four years and had been denied by the ministry. No funds! – the chronic lament, or more correctly, excuse from our civil servants! Out of interest I inquired about the cost and was flabbergasted to discover that it was ten times more expensive than what I could have bought it! I suggested that the school use me as a purchasing agent to buy directly in America and thus effect considerable savings. Not possible, as the ministry’s policy is that all procurements must be through a particular company. Needless to say, this company was owned by a member of the royal family active in UMNO. That confirmed what I had long suspected: the massive Ministry of Education exists not for the children’s education but as a source of lucrative contracts for UMNO cronies.

Since Abdullah Badawi came into power, I had been warned from the highest level of the police force not to return. The warning came not as a threat but simply a message conveyed by someone from within the force concerned about my personal safety. Just to add substance to that threat, my friends in Malaysia have told me that the Special Branch had interviewed them! Fortunately thus far, it has just been an interview.

I have told them that I would not forgive myself if their friendship or association with me were to bring grief to them. Consequently I advised them to say whatever they want of me if that would get the authorities to back off.

I have been called many names, but stupid is not one of them. Nor would I take stupid risks.

As you may have found out from my earlier books and essays, I was equally severe in my criticisms of Abdullah’s predecessor. Yet at no time was I concerned about my personal safety even during the height of the 1997 economic crisis when Mahathir faced his most daunting challenges. It is indeed ironic (and reflects the insecurity and the hoax of piety of an Imam of Islam Hadhari) that Abdullah feels threatened by my commentaries. He and his sycophants have nothing to worry from me if, to paraphrase you, I were only a village champion out for glory.

My writing is the only way I know for me to continue my effort or jihad, if you would like to put it that way. As long as Malaysians and others like you are reading what I write, I will continue doing so. If nothing else I would have done my part in increasing the Malay contributions to the published world. That would be a satisfying enough accomplishment for me, and certainly more than what many could claim.

As an aside, I do have a day (and on many occasions, night time too!) job here that is both personally and professionally very rewarding. As such I can afford to contribute my royalties to a Malaysian charity.

As for my joining UMNO or any political party and contesting the elections as you suggested, we Malays must disabuse ourselves of the silly notion that the only way to contribute is through politics. I do not blame you for suggesting that, for some of our brightest Malays feel the same way as you do. And they end up wasting their precious talent.

One of my classmates in secondary school once headed a thriving and (at the time) the biggest medical clinic in Malaysia. I was so excited at his prospects that I thought of giving up my practice here in America to join him. He had the potential of creating a Malaysian Mayo Clinic. Alas, my friend, anticipating your advice, caught the political bug. He ended up nowhere politically. He did however reach the state “Exco” level and get his Datukship. To some, those are achievements enough. As for his once promising clinic, it is now a shamble.

I now look askance at another young Malay, a brilliant entrepreneurial lawyer who successfully created the largest law firm in Malaysia, all before his 50th birthday! That is a solid accomplishment by any standard! However, he too got caught up politically. The last time I read about him, he was found guilty by UMNO on some trumped-up charges of “money politics!” At least he could be comforted that it was not some framed-up sordid sex scandal!

Nonetheless he fought hard to reclaim his good name, but to no avail. Knowing the caliber, character and reputation of its senior operators, to be ostracized by UMNO would be a singular badge of honor. When criminals become judges, virtuous deeds get criminalized. Remember, even former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir could not get voted in as a lowly UMNO delegate. That was a blemish not on him but on UMNO.

Creating the largest medical clinic or legal firm would have been a singular achievement. Imagine the reflected racial glory! Such an endeavor would take smart work, extraordinary diligence, and more than just good luck. I am therefore not surprised that many Malays opted for the easy path out, like wildly brandishing their krises or endlessly exhorting “Ketuanan Melayu!”

I am interested in policies that work, not in party politics for personal glory. Under the present circumstances, my returning to Malaysia would only risk my personal safety, and I have no desire to be a martyr. Perhaps you could pay a visit to Kamunting Camp some day to see what I mean. If you do, especially during this time of Ramadan, please bring something for those poor souls incarcerated without trial.

Please note that as many of my readers share your sentiments of me, I have taken the liberty of “Bcc’ing” my response to you as well as your e-mail among my Internet chat groups, as well as posting it on my blog.

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M. Bakri Musa

Johan’s original e-mail (with my translation):

NO ACTION TALK ONLY. Syabas Encik Bakri, saya mendapati banyak tulisan awak sangat bernas and menyegarkan [Congratulations, Mr. Bakri! I found your writings spirited and refreshing]. I even bought all your books.

Tetapi lama kelamaan, saya mendapati awak menulis hanya semata-mata untuk menunjukkan yang awak ni pandai atau mungkin semata-mata mencari glamour. Kalau betul-betul awak ni sangat cintakan Malaysia mengapa awak tidak balik saja dan bertanding dalam pilihanraya. Awak ni macam hero kampong, berkokok seluruh kampong tapi tidak ada hasil. [On further reflection, I believe that you write merely to show off how clever you are, or perhaps you are seeking glory. If you really love Malaysia, why not return and contest the elections? You are like a village hero, crowing loudly put producing nothing.]

Ya, awak mesti fikir saya ni orang suruhan UMNO kan. [Yes, you may think I am an UMNO hack.] But sorry to disappoint you, I’m not even a Malaysian.

Sekurang-kurangnya Pak Lah dengan segala kekurangan dia cuma untok melakukan sesuatu untok Malaysia. [At least Pak Lah with all his deficiencies is doing something for Malaysia.] But you, berkokoklah kuat-kuat [continue with your loud crowing]. But remember to clap your wings even harder.

Burma’s Monks: Ethics Not Confined To Books and Temples Only

Friday, October 12th, 2007

Selamat Hari Raya ‘Idilfitri!

May the blessings of Ramadan continue to shower upon you as we celebrate its ending!

May this joyous day find you and yours in good health, at peace, and with bountiful happiness. Selamat Hari Raya ‘Idilfitri! Maaf Zahir dan Batin!

M. Bakri Musa

Burma’s Monks: Ethics is not confined to Books and Temples

By Farish A Noor

By now the international community is fully aware of the recent developments in Burma, a country that has been under military rule and isolated from the rest of the globe since 1963. The images of Burmese Buddhist monks taking to the streets and defying the armed might of the Burmese junta and its security apparatus reminds us of familiar scenes dating back to the 1980s, and echo the democratic revolutions we have seen elsewhere in Asia, including China, since then.

While the fate of Burma and her people hangs in the balance, the protest of the monks – many of whom happen to come from ordinary Burmese families with scant political protection themselves – teaches us a vital lesson, and is a model for many progressive theologians and religious activists to follow. It is sometimes said that in the post-Enlightenment age we live in there is little concern for religion and that religion has no place in society. Worst still, the political instrumentalization of religion for clearly divisive and sectarian ends has further added skepticism for many who believe that religion is best kept out of politics and the public domain, where it has often been abused. (A view many would concur.) Unfortunately today any talk of religious ethics is often met with images of Bible-thumping evangelists talking of holy wars and moral crusades, angry bearded fanatics burning books, and nosey neighbors spying on what the people next door are doing. Are religion and ethics destined to remain forever trapped in the nonsensical and pointless debate over who is holier and who wears his or her religion on the sleeves? Has religion nothing to say on pressing issues of the day such as fundamental political rights and liberties, democracy and the rule of law?

The problem faced by many progressive theologians today is having to translate ethics and morality into modern public life without falling into the numerous pitfalls that lie before it. More often than not when morality makes an appearance in the public political domain it is at the behest of right-wing conservatives who merely wish to use ethics and morality as yet another means of domesticating society and controlling the masses. Then there are the political elites who have turned religious ethics into a mere ideology, fit only for vote-winning and the demonization of other communities deemed ‘deviant’, ‘infidels’ and ‘Others’. What is needed now is a new vocabulary of religious ethics that takes ethics into the public domain of the present, addressing issues of today and speaking the language of ordinary people living in the 21st century.

Religion, if it is to be real and relevant, cannot be trapped in the myth of some pristine golden age of the past. The morality of religion is not to be found in temples, mosques or churches; or in books and tomes that have been left to rot in libraries of monasteries. One does not find God’s ethics in outdated rituals and empty religious praxis, any more than in the length of beards, the size of turbans, and the cut of one’s holy robes.

As the South African theologian Prof. Farid Esack once wrote, the real mission of religion and faith today is to be a living, dynamic force of social change and transformation, with the capacity of making the world a better, safer and more equal place for all. This is what he refers to as the ‘Prophetic mission’ of all divine ideas, and it has to be remembered that Prophets were seldom Kings or Presidents, but themselves marginal figures who stood on the margins to represent the downtrodden, disempowered and voiceless. Religious ethics, Prof Esack argues, does not and should not be an appendage to power, but must rather speak up to power and its abuses. By speaking up for the people of Burma who have suffered so much under military rule for so long, the monks of Burma are doing precisely that: living up to the Prophetic mission of Buddhism and showing that ethics and morals are out there in the streets and in demonstrations.

For all who profess to be progressive theologians, the events in Burma are of common concern and importance. What is happening in Burma right now is not just important for the country, but it is also important for Buddhism, and all other religions by extension. It proves that religion can have a meaningful impact when its ethics are translated into a real-life context and ethics is something acted out in the public domain, rather than discussed in an abstract manner. One is not good simply because one thinks so, but to be good, to be moral and ethical, requires moral and ethical action as well. The monks of Burma are not prepared to kill for anything or anyone, but they seem willing to die at least for a cause that resonates with the people of the country as a whole. The simple gesture of taking to the streets and standing their ground before the bayonets and tanks of the military junta sends out a clear message to the regime installed in Burma today: Namely that while the army has the guns and tanks it is the people who now command the moral high ground.

With little save the threat of violence to stand on, the army in Burma must realize that it has lost all credibility not only in the eyes of the world but more crucially, their own people as well. And by taking the stand that they have and keeping to it, the monks of Burma have shown us that religion can also be a living dynamic force that has relevance in the here-and-now, and that ethics is not something to be confined to books and locked in the sacred precinct of temples.

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Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #26

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

Chapter 6:  Great Nation, Great Leaders (Cont’d)

Evolution and Patterns of Leadership

Leadership to an organization is like wings to a plane. Without wings planes cannot fly; likewise there cannot be an organization without a leader. Wings also define and limit the performance of the plane, likewise leaders to their organization.

Early biplanes had twin-deck wings that effectively doubled the lift. With stronger engines and planes flying faster, that design creates too much drag for the lift. It became the limiting factor, and the design gave way to the single pair of wings fitted with adjustable flaps at the leading and trailing edges so the curvature could be adjusted to effect maximal lift at low speed and then flattened out to reduce drag while cruising.

With more powerful jet engines and even faster speed that design too proved inadequate. Thus emerged the backswept wings, but still with adjustable flaps, as seen with modern jets. With supersonic planes, we have delta wings that could be retracted. With the extreme speed of rockets and missiles, only winglets are needed.

So it is with leadership. Just as the optimal wing design is related to the rest of the plane, the optimal leader must relate to his followers (people), culture, and geography. Enlightened followers choose enlightened leaders; bad followers choose and follow toxic leaders. “Leadership,” wrote Jean Lipman-Blumen in her book The Allure of Toxic Leaders, “is the interaction between leaders and their followers.”1

When a society is undeveloped and citizens unsophisticated (the societal equivalent of the early biplane), it needs a leader who is a strict disciplinarian and could command instant respect. Personal charisma is the major ingredient. This style of leadership is exemplified by the drill sergeant major who could whip out a bunch of rag-tag village bums into spic-and-span recruits after only a few months of boot camp. This was the style of dictators like Indonesia’s Sukarno and South Korea’s Pak. They brooked no questions from their followers; that would be viewed as insubordination or worse, sedition, and treated as such. Sukarno destroyed and imprisoned many Indonesian intellects and luminaries who dared disagree with him.

Once those recruits become officers, a different style of leadership is needed. The yelling drillmaster would definitely be out of place at the officers’ candidate school.

I discern at least three patterns of leadership: the military model, the coaching style, and that of an orchestra conductor. These models do not necessarily evolve in stepwise fashion from one to the other, or that one is superior to the other. A newly emerging nation may benefit most from a military style leader; this style is also best suited when the nation is faced with a sudden challenge or crisis, as in war or civil turmoil. India at the time of its independence would have benefited from a military leader instead of the symphony conductor style of Mahatma Gandhi. That would have spared the subcontinent its horrendous tragedy.

These three models attract varying personality traits; even within a model we have variations. To every imperious and charismatic general like Douglas Mac Arthur and George Patton, there are others more cerebral and equally winning. Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman, the man credited with the final and decisive push to rid remnants of the Malaysian communist insurgency in the late 1970s, posed a professorial profile.2 He could have been just as comfortable on a university campus leading graduate seminars as leading his troops in the jungle. Mahmud Sulaiman was a military leader simply because he was commanding soldiers, but his style and demeanor was more of the symphony conductor.

The two Third World leaders—Indonesia’s Sukarno and India’s Mahatma Gandhi—could not be more different, yet both successfully led their nations to independence using very different techniques. Sukarno, with his charisma and oratorical skills, mobilized his countrymen in armed insurrection against the Dutch. Gandhi, using the very opposite technique of non-violence, shamed the British for not living up to their ideals. The end results too were radically different. Sukarno successfully unified the polyglot islands of the East Indies; Gandhi was in charge when that subcontinent fractured violently along sectarian lines. Gandhi was successful because he was dealing with the British, with their fine and civilized sense of justice. Had he been dealing with Stalin, history would never have heard of Gandhi, again illustrating the importance of the dynamics of the relationships rather than individual personalities.

Warren Bennis in his studies on leadership found more diversities than commonalities among effective leaders: left-brain and right-brain thinkers, articulate as well as taciturn ones, immaculate dressers versus casual Dockers types, and the John Waynes as well as the Jimmy Stewarts.3

Bennis found that effective leaders demonstrate competencies in four key areas. One, they are able to draw others to their cause. President Kennedy demonstrated this best; he attracted the best and brightest from academia, business, and the professions to his administration. Such leaders effectively communicate the essence of their cause. Reagan was also in this class. He was rightly called the Great Communicator for his skills in bringing his ideas, goals and dreams to the people. They all wanted to follow him to the shining city on the hill; they believed him when he declared that it was “a new morning in America.” He used concrete examples and colorful metaphors when delivering his messages. Reagan was able to communicate effectively because he knew who he was, what he believed in, and where he wanted to go.

This is the leadership style of great prophets. The hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) are full of allegories, parables, and similes. They help concretize his message.

Doris Kearns in her book on Abraham Lincoln, A Team of Rivals, elucidated yet another unique characteristic of a great leader: the ability to co-opt the best talent to your team even if they were initially your rivals, as Lincoln did.4 This is the ultimate mark of self-confidence. Had Mahathir retained Tengku Razaleigh in his cabinet after their closely contested UMNO presidential elections of 1987, Mahathir would not only have gained a considerable talent but also spared fracturing UMNO. It would have also served as an important model for healthy competition. Because that crucial lesson was not learned then, there is still a problem today with contesting top positions in UMNO.

This ability to attract the talented to your cause is most crucial. Leadership is never a one-man show. Islam successfully spread beyond Arabia after the prophet’s death because he was able to recruit able lieutenants in the persons of the Rightly Guided Companions, later to be Caliphs.

Business leaders are acutely aware of this. The Chief Executive could suddenly die, and unless he or she has a capable team in place, the business could be jeopardized. If nothing else, the ensuing power struggle could be distracting. The same applies to political leadership; unless there is a clear system of selecting the second in command ready to take over, the resulting uncertainty could be destabilizing. This is the fate of many Third World countries where leaders overstay their welcome.

On his regular visits to the company’s various units, Jack Welch, GE’s longtime CEO, insisted on seeing the three or four promising “direct report” executives under the divisional heads. He wanted those divisional heads to sharpen their talent searching skills, and also to see whether he agreed with their assessments.

Welch would inquire what they were doing to nurture the promising talent under them. To encourage this culture of recognizing and nurturing talent, Welch made sure that whenever a promising executive was promoted or “fast tracked,” his or her immediate superior was also duly recognized and rewarded.5 That would prevent the all too prevalent practice in the Malaysian civil service where superiors would banish their promising subordinates to obscure postings to eliminate potential rivals.

Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman used to agonize when evaluating his subordinate officers. He was fully aware that the lives of his troops depended on the officers leading them, thus he considered the evaluation exercises (which many treated perfunctorily or considered a nuisance) his most important duty.2

Great leaders are confident of their abilities and more importantly, limitations. They do not hesitate co-opting others more capable. Kennedy invited his formidable competitor, Lyndon Johnson, to be his Vice-Presidential nominee. Kennedy knew he did not command wide respect in Congress and the South, so he tapped Johnson who excelled in both areas.

The last quality is trust, and with that, reliability. These leaders are, to use the colloquial, straight shooters. They do not deliver different messages to different groups. The Machiavellian scheming may have worked in Medieval Europe, but in the modern world, such intrigues would be exposed eventually.

This is the unnerving trait of Anwar Ibrahim, hitherto Mahathir’s anointed successor. His speeches delivered to young Muslims in Malaysia were very different from those he gave at Western universities. One cannot be quite sure who was the real Anwar. The one constant with Mahathir is that his comments are similar whether delivered in Washington, DC, or his home state of Kedah. You know exactly where he stands.

Thus far as Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi is reduced to mouthing slogans and pithy phrases: “Work with me, not for me!” He has yet to communicate his vision of Malaysia; he is simply managing, not leading.

There is a world of difference between the two. Quoting Bennis, “Leaders conquer the context—the volatile, turbulent, ambiguous surroundings that sometimes seem to conspire against us and will surely suffocate us if we let them—while managers surrender to it.” Managers administer, leaders innovate; managers accept the status quo, leaders challenge it; managers eye the bottom line, leaders the horizon. Most importantly, a manager “does things right, a leader does the right thing.”

I do not mean to suggest that managers are unimportant. No organization would succeed if not for the cadre of competent managers to execute its mission. The failure of many potentially great leaders is their lack of execution.6 They may have great ideas and great people around them, but they fail miserably in the execution because of poor follow through and staff work. Mahathir had great visions of leading Malays into the world of science and technology, but he failed miserably in the execution; he neglected to train the necessary teachers and build the required laboratories. He cajoled Malays to be brave and entrepreneurial, but rewarded those closest to him and who sang his praises, in short, those least enterprising. He encouraged the very opposite behaviors, and then wondered why he did not achieve his goals.

Nor was Mahathir astute in picking talent. He was not prudent in selecting his successor, Abdullah Badawi. He unnecessarily restricted his choice only to sitting UMNO Vice-Presidents, in deference to party tradition. This from a leader who endlessly exhorted Malays to break free from our hide-bound customs! When he finally picked Abdullah, the announcement was greeted with an eerie absence of rousing endorsements.

Barely three years later, Mahathir could hardly contain his contempt for his successor, accusing him, among other misdeeds, of selling out the nation’s sovereignty. That particular hostile outburst came about after Abdullah cancelled the half bridge project over the causeway, one dear to Mahathir.

It is instructive that when Mahathir announced Abdullah to be Deputy Prime Minister, the latter considered that merely as a “promotion,” just another rung up the civil service ladder. This more than anything reflects Abdullah’s perception of the top job. He viewed it not as a rare and privileged opportunity to chart the nation’s future but as a personal advancement.

There is no foolproof way of picking winners among leaders. In the business and academic world, leaders have to prove their way to the top, and then be selected by their board or peers. National leaders get elected in a democracy; elsewhere they may simply grab power as in a military coup. These methods produce their share of winners and losers.

The bulk of the literature on leadership deals with the business world. They certainly have relevance for the political arena, but there are crucial differences. In business, the bottom line is well defined; not so with politics. In business, a non-profitable or poorly performing unit could be sold off or liquidated. When a segment of the population is marginalized or not contributing, they cannot be simply lopped off. The rest of society will have to carry the burden. Worse, those marginalized could easily turn against the state with devastating destructiveness, as seen with the Catholics in Northern Ireland and the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Business leaders are answerable to their board of directors, employees and other stakeholders; political leaders are answerable to and derive their authority from the people.

These differences aside, there are still valuable insights to be gained by studying leadership in the business world. The rest of this chapter will trace the evolution of the three patterns of leadership, and will end by looking at the Malaysian political leadership.

Next:  The Military Model