Archive for November, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #33

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Chapter 6: Great Nations Great Leaders (Cont’d)

Concept of Co-Leader

Early in his tenure while he was still contemplating selecting his deputy, I suggested that Abdullah Badawi ignore tradition and go beyond the then existing UMNO Vice presidents and choose someone whose skills and experience would complement his. My choice was Tengku Razaleigh. He would bring his vast experience in business and finance, precisely the areas Abdullah is sorely lacking. Abdullah should do what George Bush, Jr., did in picking Richard Cheney as his running mate. By doing so Bush acknowledged his limitations. The experienced Cheney, by reasons of age and health, could not possibly succeed or challenge Bush. Similarly, Razaleigh, by virtue of his age, would unlikely challenge or succeed Abdullah.

I suggested that Tengku Razaleigh not be treated as the traditional deputy, meaning, someone always deferring to the boss and patiently awaiting his turn. Rather he should be considered as an associate or co-Prime Minster, fully using his talent and experience for the good of the nation.

This is a tricky proposition, for the ship of state can have but one skipper. Poorly handled and with the wrong personal chemistry mix, it could result in continuous conflict. Malaysia had been through the disastrous Mahathir-Anwar rivalry. Skillfully managed however, the nation would benefit from the complement of talent and experience of its two most seasoned leaders.

Such co-leadership is common in my profession. Modern surgery is increasingly complex, requiring the skills and contributions from various specialists. Take breast cancer. Often patients want the curative cancer surgery combined with reconstructive procedures to minimize the psychological trauma. This requires the combined and complementary skills of both the general and plastic surgeons. Such instances of co-surgeons operating on the same patient simultaneously are becoming increasingly common. Yes, differences of opinions do arise, but they are resolved through discussions and compromises, always keeping uppermost the patient’s best interest. There is no place in today’s highly complex operating suites for prima donnas strutting imperiously and expecting everyone to kow tow to them.

We see similar co-leadership arrangements in big corporations. Microsoft has Bill Gates as its Chairman, and Steve Ballmer, the chief executive. You do not see them scheming to topple one another or jostling to grab the limelight. They are both confident of their own considerable abilities. Besides, they have enough on their own plate without having to bother the other.

As William Bennis observed, “Co-Leadership is not a fuzzy-minded buzzword designed to make non-CEOs feel better about themselves and their workplaces. Rather it is a tough-minded strategy that will unleash the hidden talent in any enterprise. Above all co-leadership is inclusive, not exclusive.”3

If nothing else, having a co-leader would take care of the immediate succession issue. Yes, it would take an exceptional individual to be willing to play the acknowledged second fiddle, just as it would take an equally exceptional leader to accept someone as equally capable as he is to share the podium. The personal and professional chemistry of both individuals must be right and compatible.

Bennis identifies three groups of individuals who would fit the co-leader role. First would be the “fast trackers,” talented subordinates fast on their way up, as Tun Razak was to Tunku. Second would be “backtrackers,” former chiefs who have willingly downshifted. The classic example of this was Chou En-Lai giving up the leadership of the Chinese Red Army to a gifted junior officer, Mao Zedong. Third would be the “on-trackers,” individuals who are just not interested in the top slot. They are content with their present position. Tengku Razaleigh would have been a good example, had Abdullah chosen him.

Had Abdullah picked Tengku Razaleigh, Abdullah would have strengthened his leadership team. With their combined strength and integrity, they could have revamped the cabinet and together groomed the next generation of leaders. At the very least, with Razaleigh at his side, Abdullah would not look overwhelmed with all the problems. One sure way for a leader to lose his or her effectiveness is to appear beleaguered.

As events later proved (in particular Mahathir’s relentless criticisms of Abdullah’s leadership that came out in the open in late 2006), Abdullah was then under considerable pressure from Mahathir to name Najib Razak as Deputy Prime Minister. Unfortunately both Abdullah and Najib have no love or much respect for each other. More importantly, each does not bring any complementary quality to the top leadership team. By late 2006, both looked pathetic in the face of criticisms from Mahathir and others.

Next: Malaysian Leadership

Citizens’ Low Expectations of Our Government

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

It is a sad reflection of the citizens’ low expectations of their government and public institutions that the recent collapse of the Perak State Park Corporation’s building in Tasik Banding, Gerik, no longer provokes an outrage. The general reaction seems to be, “What’s new?” At this rate, soon only the buildings that stand would make the headlines!

Yes, Works Minister Samy Vellu feigned shock and anger, while Mentri Besar Tajol Roslin promised a “full investigation” of this latest disaster. We have heard those promises and reassurances too often before. Yet these new buildings keep collapsing or leaking, and half-baked projects like the crooked bridge to replace the causeway have to be scrapped.

From yet another perspective, or to “spin” it differently, it was indeed a blessing that such government facilities as the new Kuching Prison were not completed. With such shoddy constructions, it would have been a massive and tragic human trap, not a prison.

Only a few years ago there was a serious breach of security at the nearby Grik Army Base. The heist was perpetrated not by a gang of superbly trained infiltrators rather a rag tag bunch of sarong-clad village bums. Then too there was the promise by Defense Minister Najib Razak of a White Paper to get to “the bottom of the issue.” There was only one problem: It was only a promise.

About the only redeeming feature is that thus far these collapsed buildings involved no casualties. One view is that these structures are so poorly built that they collapse literally after the last nail was hammered and before they could be occupied. I wished these buildings would last just a wee bit longer, at least until the official opening ceremony when they could take down with them some important personalities, like the Prime Minister. It would that kind of tragedy to knock some sense into those in charge.

When such disasters happen, whether it is a flyway collapsing or a building tumbling down, I yearn for someone in authority to take full charge and do something sensible like what I suggest below.

He should order all those responsible, including the officers involved in awarding the tender, the building inspectors who certified the various stages of the construction, the contractors and main sub-contractors, architects, and engineers to come to his office to hear their side of the story and to ask them some tough questions.

At the end of that private meeting and preferably at an open press conference, he should declare that an independent investigation would be initiated, and pending the outcome of that inquiry he would:

· Put all public officials responsible with the project on immediate administrative leave without pay;

· Freeze all current and withdraw all awarded but not started public projects involving any of the contractors, consultants, and professionals;

· Send an immediate team of engineers to inspect the structural integrity of all government projects in which these principals were involved during the past ten years;

· Publicly announce the names of the public officials suspended as well as all the contractors, consultants and professionals involved so members of the public would be appropriately apprised of potential problems.

At the same time he would set up an independent investigative committee of experts to analyze the failures. The committee should meet in the open and its reports released to the public upon its submission to the government.

Alternatively contract out the forensic investigations to an outside expert consulting firms that specialize in these “failure analyses.” Caution is needed however. These forensic experts are used to being paid for by their clients, usually insurance companies or defense lawyers. Thus their forte often is less with finding the truth and more with shifting liabilities away from their clients.

As most of the failed structures are public properties, the government would inevitably be a party to any subsequent dispute or lawsuit. At the same time the government would be funding these investigative firms. The only way to ensure the independence and integrity of the investigation and forestall any charges of conflict of interest would be to have the committee work in the open and thus subject to public scrutiny during their hearings.

Anything less, and we have seen too many of those, and our officials and leaders would be derelict in their duties to the public. So far we have seen only the red faces of these officials.; the next time it could be their dead bodies in the rubbles. November 12, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

[Please note that I will have erratic Internet access for the next two weeks.   There may be some delays or missed postings as a result.]

To my readers in America,

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving holiday is a uniquely North American tradition. It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November in America and the second Monday of October in Canada, to mark the end of the (hopefully) successful harvest season and to give thanks to a generous Almighty.

Today with farming being the pursuit of an increasingly fewer number of Americans (and also Canadians), Thanksgiving is a fast becoming a secular holiday celebrated by all.

I used to think that the Canadians were particularly smart or pragmatic in having their holiday on a Monday, thus effectively extending their weekend. Now I think the Americans are more so, as many take the Friday following Thanksgiving as a holiday too.

I remember my first fall season in Canada decades ago and spending Thanksgiving dinner in a Canadian home. The hostess asked me whether there was a similar tradition in my culture. Without a moment of hesitation I replied, “Yes,” referring to our own Eidul Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice.

Thanksgiving celebrates the tradition of the pilgrims of early 17th century when they shared their bountiful harvests among themselves and with the surrounding natives. This of course was during the days when such concepts as alien registration were, well, alien. Today’s pilgrims would more likely erect fences or walls, all in the name of “security!”

Likewise, with Eidul Adha we celebrate with those pilgrims in Mecca for their successful completion of their Hajj. We join them as they, and we, re-enact Abraham’s ultimate sacrifice. The theme is the same, to express our gratitude to an Almighty and to share our bounty with others. With Thanksgiving it is the turkey that is traditionally being sacrificed, with Eidul Adha, the lamb.

It is a tradition with my family to have guests, usually students from the nearby college, to share Thanksgiving dinner with us, reciprocating my earlier experience as a student. I have been blessed with meeting many fine young men and women thus, and we treasure those many precious memories.

On such occasions it is also a tradition with us, after the usual prayers before dinner, to have each of us cite what it is that we are most grateful for in the preceding year. There were times when such a simple exercise in reflection would demand the greatest thought, nonetheless there was always something that each of us could be grateful for.

Today I am grateful that my family and I are all in good health and active contributors to the community in our various capacities. Except for my youngest son Azlan, my children and grandchildren are spread literally all over the globe. That too we take is as a special blessing from Allah. And we are grateful.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I wish my readers too would have something special to be grateful for during the past year.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #32

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

Chapter 6 Great Nation,  Great Leaders  (Con’td)

Leadership Qualities of Prophet Muhammad (bpuh)

On rare occasions humanity is blessed with a “complete” leader, flexible enough to assume and excel in multiple roles at different times. One such individual was Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He demonstrated his leadership qualities long before Allah chose him to be His Last Messenger.19 Once when the Arabs were rebuilding the Ka’aba after it was damaged from an earlier flood, there was much rivalry among the participants as to who would have the honor of putting the finishing touch. As usual, the disagreement quickly escalated. Finally, they agreed to ask young Muhammad (before he was anointed prophet) to arbitrate. He immediately sensed the gravity of the situation, fully aware of the disastrous consequences should he make a mistake. He quickly devised a brilliant and equitable scheme for sharing the honor. He asked them to spread out a carpet, and then placed the black stone, the central object of veneration, in the center. He then had a representative from each tribe raised the edge of the carpet to carry the stone to its final spot. Everyone was satisfied; they had all participated in the solemn rite, with no one tribe hogging the honor. They were even more pleased that they had successfully converted a potentially divisive and explosive rivalry into an amicable and cooperative endeavor.

            Muhammad intuitively knew the wisdom that honor is never diluted when shared; on the contrary, it is enhanced. Similarly, rivalry can, with ingenuity, be converted to meaningful teamwork, and destructive competition to fruitful cooperation.

            His leadership style early in his prophethood was more coach-like. He continued this pattern at Medina after the hijra (migration). His Charter of Medina was significant in that for the first time it clearly defined the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, and the attendant responsibilities of each party to the other. Followers had an obligation to follow leaders, and leaders had an obligation to follow the dictates of Allah (be just). Equally important, the Medina Compact was the model of governance for a plural society. Zealots of our faith today conveniently forget this point when they insist that a truly Islamic state has no place for those outside the faith.

            Despite his esteemed reputation, the prophet still encountered obstacles—some monumental—in spreading the word of Allah. His divine message of belief in a Supreme Being, equality of humans, and social justice threatened the existing order. He understood the vast implications of his mission and was fully aware of the intense opposition. His forcing the message would only divide his people. He had no intention of destroying his community in order to save it, to borrow a Vietnam-era military maxim. Thus even though he was carrying Allah’s message, he preached initially in secret, and only to his family and closest friends.

            Lesser mortals with even smaller mandates from much lower authorities would unhesitatingly and arrogantly trumpet their self-righteousness and charge right ahead, oblivious of the damages and consequences they would wreck.

            As the faith spread and the prophet encountered organized armed resistance, we saw another aspect of his leadership—the military commander. The two most celebrated battles he led were the Battle of Badr, in which the Muslims won despite overwhelming odds, and the Battle of Uhud, in which the well prepared but over confident Muslims were nearly routed, with the prophet himself being injured. These exploits attained legendary proportions to instill in Muslims the lesson that victory is not always assured simply because of the justness of the cause, and of the dangers of overconfidence.

            To me, the genius of the prophet’s military leadership lies not in the heroic battles he won, rather in the conflicts he avoided. The peace treaty he signed at Al-Hudaibiyah with the pagan Meccans is instructive.

            It was the sixth year of the Hijrah, and the prophet had declared his intention to lead his followers on their first pilgrimage to Mecca. He publicly demonstrated his peaceful intent by forbidding them from carrying arms except for their sheathed swords, the traditional accoutrement of desert travelers. To the Meccans, the pilgrimage was a frontal challenge to their authority as custodians of the Ka’aba.

            A brutal confrontation was avoided only after a series of negotiations culminating in a peace treaty. Unfortunately it heavily favored the Meccans. Yes, the Muslims avoided war but the price was stiff. They had to delay their pilgrimage to the following year and to stop spreading the faith. Delaying their pilgrimage was a tough sell as the Muslims were already in a heightened state of religious fervor. To be disrupted in one’s pilgrimage is an event of singular significance to Muslims, then and now.

            The next year when the prophet gathered his followers for their deferred pilgrimage, the crowd was even larger. More significantly, the Meccans were so impressed with the Muslims’ peaceful mission and tolerant gesture the year earlier that many joined the new faith. Thus what had previously been perceived as a defeat for Muslims and victory for the Meccans, turned out to be just the opposite!

            It may be counterintuitive, but the power of peace can often overwhelm the might of the military. Mahatma Gandhi humbled the great British Empire not through the show of force—he had none—but through his peaceful gestures. Likewise, Martin Luther King prevailed by shaming America for failing to live up to its stated ideals. Today, far too many, within as well as outside our faith, fail to appreciate what our beloved prophet dramatically demonstrated over 14 centuries ago.

            After Islam was firmly established, the prophet again modified his leadership style. With a cadre of committed companions, he was now more the orchestra conductor, nurturing and bringing out the best among his many disciples. When he died there was no shortage of talent to carry the faith forward. The four Rightly Guided Caliphs—Abu Bakar, Omar, Uthman, and Ali—led Islam to even greater heights. Today over a billion people embrace the faith. There can be no greater legacy to the prophet’s leadership.

            In James McGregor Burns’ terminology, leaders like Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) are transforming. They induced metamorphic changes in their followers and society.20 The prophet literally lifted the veil of darkness from the Arabs. They rightly labeled the era before the prophet as the Age of Jahiliyah (Ignorance). He transformed the way the Arabs, and later other Muslims, look at each other and at the cosmos.

            Transforming leaders effect quantitative as well as qualitative changes. This is contrasted to what Burns refers to as transactional leaders, those who perform the important practical but routine functions. I would refer to them as administrative and managerial staff. I do not belittle their contributions. Transitional leaders may not necessarily lead a nation or organization to greatness, but at least they ensure that whatever gains had been made would not be eroded.

Next:   Concept of Co-Leader

You Have been Challenged, Abdullah Badawi!

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

Saya pantang dicabar!” (lit:  “I am allergic to challenges;” fig. “Don’t challenge me!”) declared Prime Minister Abdullah in an uncharacteristically bold assertion to the media on the eve of BERSIH’s massive street demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday, November 10, 2007.

            You have now been challenged, Mr. Prime Minister, openly and publicly by your own citizens, and you have emerged impotent!  That huge street rally may be illegal to you, but the King had consented to receiving its leaders and their petition.  In effect, the King too has challenged you, Abdullah!  In case you did not get the message, you had just been served a very public royal rebuff.

I too, challenge you, Abdullah!  Instead of arresting those ordinary citizen demonstrators, I dare you to arrest their leaders, Anwar Ibrahim, Hadi Awang, Lim Kit Siang, and Raja Petra Kamarudin.  Those ordinary folks were merely exercising their basic rights as citizens of a democracy:  the right to free assembly and to petition the authorities.

            As per the refrain of the Ghostbusters theme song, “Who are you gonna call now!” Mr. Prime Minister?  Your fabulous Fourth Floor boys?  Your son-in-law who is using you as his “protection?”  Imagine being considered as such by your son-in-law!

            Khairy Jamaluddin obviously had not heard of your “demonstrations are not part of our Malay culture” bit.  Either that or Khairy had blissfully ignored it as when he led that pathetic street demonstration against your official guest, US State Secretary Rice.

            In a speech earlier in the week, Khairy demanded that the authorities “come down hard” on the BERSIH demonstrators.  While there were some water cannons and tear gas canisters unloaded, the demonstrations went ahead smoothly and successfully to the palace.  The police even released most of those arrested.  Your son-in-law challenged you to be tough on the demonstrators, and you came out lembik (limp).


Dim Wit Understanding of Democracy

In denying the BERSIH demonstrators their police permit, Abdullah demonstrated only a dim wit understanding of democracy, akin to that held by Saddam Hussein and Pervez Musharraf.  Both were voted in with over 98 percent of the votes, and they took that to mean they could ride roughshod over their country and citizens.  Never mind that their elections were anything but fair and free.

            Democracy means rule of the people, but it does not mean mob rule legitimized through the ballot box.  Electoral victory is not a license for tyranny of the majority.  As Fareed Zakaria wrote so eloquently in his book, The Future of Freedom, democracy is more than just elections.  Even if elections were fair and free (far from the reality in Malaysia, hence the demonstrations!), obsession with or sole reliance on them would threaten the other far more important aspects like the rule of law, private property rights, separation of powers, and the right to free speech and to assemble freely.

            Elections regular or otherwise, honest or rigged, do not guarantee these; only independent and impartial judges could.  An independent judiciary is thus the hallmark as well as the guarantor of democracy and freedom, certainly much more than universal adult suffrage.

            As for the state of the Malaysian judiciary, the Lingam tapes painfully showed what a sorry mess it is in.  Even if BERSIH were completely successful with its petition and the Elections Commission completely overhauled, there is still the monumental task of cleaning up the judiciary and restoring its long lost integrity.

            These points are elementary and obvious to all, save the dim witted.


Time to Deliver The Next Lesson

There is another feature of the dim witted; they are slow learners.  It is unlikely for them to have learned a lesson from Bersih’s successful rally, or if they did it may not have stuck.

            Since the only lesson that would register on their thick skulls is election returns, my friend Din Merican had started a campaign to register voters.  The next step would be to ensure that they will vote against the Barisan coalition.

            It would encourage voters to do that if there were to be substantial and effective co-ordination among the opposition parties to ensure that there would only be a one-on-one battle with the Barisan in every constituency.  The objective here is rather modest, to inflict enough damage to the Barisan coalition such that it would precipitate internal squabbling especially within UMNO to trigger its implosion.

            Selecting the best candidate, meaning one who would most likely defeat the Barisan’s nominee, involves studying the demographics of the constituency as well as the Barisan’s candidate.  Since race is never far from voters’ considerations, the best avenue to neutralize this crucial factor would be to field candidates of the same race as the Barisan’s nominees.  This was the clear lesson from the recent Ijok by-elections.  Thus the opposition must be ready to change candidates on nomination day depending on who would represent Barisan.

            For example, if Barisan were to re-nominate the current MCA candidate but at the last minute the seat were to go to UMNO, then the opposition must be ready to substitute a Malay candidate.  If that party (like DAP for instance) cannot come up with a Malay nominee, then it should be willing to give the slot to a Malay from one of the other parties.

            BERSIH’s victory should embolden the citizens to impart to the Barisan government the other equally important lesson:  cleaning out the rot in the judiciary.  No less than a full Royal Commission with full powers to subpoena witnesses and grant them immunity should be the objective.  As Fareed Zakaria noted, an impartial and independent judiciary is the best guarantor of our freedoms and democracy.  We must keep drumming these lessons lest they forget easily.

            We must keep mencabar (challenging) Abdullah until he comes to his senses and realizes the obvious:  the job of being a Prime Minister of our great nation is way above his head.  If he does not, others either within or outside his party should be emboldened enough to tell him so., November 12, 2007

Rehabilitation For Whom?

Friday, November 16th, 2007

By Farish A. Noor

He’s trying to make me go to rehab;

I said no, no, no.

I ain’t got the time

And if my daddy thinks I’m fine…

He’s trying to make me go to rehab;

I said no, no,no.

– Amy Winehouse, ‘Rehab’ (2007)

So now its ‘political rehabilitation’, is it? As a corrective measure for kids who go to demonstrations and who have been ‘bad’ in the eyes of the government? That Malaysia’s leaders can even suggest such a thing speaks volumes about the extent to which the space of alienation between the state and the nation has grown over the years, and points to the lack of contact, communication and understanding between the powers-that-be and the real Malaysian nation made up of the rest of us.(1)

But are we surprised? After all this is the same country whose geography is now cluttered with a smattering of ‘faith rehabilitation centers’ that have been set up under the auspices of an Islamist project said to promote some skewered vision of a modern, pluralist, democratic Islam that is benevolent and accommodative: So accommodative in fact that it can accommodate dozens, if not hundreds, of Malaysian citizens deemed ‘immoral’, ‘deviant’, ‘apostate’ and out of the ordinary according to the norms set by an invisible and unaccountable cabal of Islamic experts in the pay of the state. We already have rehabilitation centers whose job it is to ‘turn over’ these alleged deviants and misfits and force them to conform to the normative praxis of Islam that is deemed correct by the state, so should we be surprised if the leaders of UMNO and the government can go one step further and call for the rehabilitation of children as well?

From the viewpoint of an academic who studies the development of modern postcolonial states, Malaysia seems to be a textbook example of postcolonial development turned awry. What began as a country with so much promise – its plural racial and ethnic composition, blessed with plentiful resources that was also strategically located at the cross-roads between East and West – has been squandered for the sake of one ruling party that seems to cater primarily to the needs and demands of one specific ethnic-religious constituency.

That Malaysia’s leaders still cannot understand and appreciate the extent of dissatisfaction, frustration and cynicism among the Malaysian public points to a state that has concentrated all power – including educational and mediatic – in the hands of an alienated ruling elite. Since the 1980s practically every institution of the state has undergone a serious compromise thanks to the dominance of the Executive at the expense of all other arms of the state apparatus: The emasculation of the judiciary, the tighter and tighter controls on the press, the depoliticization of the universities (and the educational system in general), the promotion of a sectarian divisive politics based on race and religious communitarianism, the politicization of institutions like the police, etc. have all created an increasingly small and narrow political arena that has come to be dominated by a small clique of power-hungry politicians and ruling families.

Worst still is the fact that the ruling elite of the country – made up as it is by a handful of key families of the UMNO fraternity – has come to believe its own rhetoric and the story they have spun for themselves: that they are the protectors of the Malay community and identity, that they and they alone are responsible for the fate and future of the Malaysian nation. Their continued reliance on the state-controlled media to disseminate this inbred propaganda they have invented for themselves fails to note the fact that the very same Malay community they purport to represent is now fragmented, hybrid and plural, and that the younger generation of Malay youth, like their other Malaysian counterparts, no longer buy the stale and insipid narrative of a cohesive united nation led by a handful of Malay ruling families.

Dismissive accounts of demonstrations as being ‘un-Malay’ and ‘un-Malaysian’ have clearly fallen on deaf ears, as the younger generation of Malaysians could not care less about courtly protocol, the symbolism of UMNO and its nationalist rhetoric, the appeals to racial superiority and unity, etc. Despite the now tiresome brandishing of the keris and frothy speeches about Malay unity at the recent UMNO assembly, many of the thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur last weekend happened to be Malay: the very same community that is no longer beholden to UMNO and immune to its fanciful appeals to racial cohesion and unity.

So what does the future hold for Malaysian society and where will the events of 10th November lead us? It is clear that the Bersih demonstration had managed to do the one thing that the leaders of the Barisan Nasional dread above all: to bring together Malaysians from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds on one neutral issue that unites rather than divides their interests. The fact that the Islamists of PAS and the secular leftists of DAP could come together along with the activists of PKR and the NGOs suggests that the civic spirit of Malaysians is not quite dead, despite all attempts to squash any attempt at multi-racial and cross-communal political activism in the country.

Unable and unwilling to accept the new realities on the ground the political elite of Malaysia has resorted to the same worn out clichés and the call to rehabilitate the younger Malaysians who were present at the demonstration reveals the extent to which this ruling elite is so thoroughly bankrupt of ideas. No, it is not the younger Malaysians who are in need of rehabilitation. In fact the activist in me would say that activism and civic responsibility should begin from our school days and that every young citizen should be made aware of her and his rights and responsibilities as early as possible, as a rite of civic membership.

If anyone is in need of rehabilitation, it is the politicians and ruling elite of Malaysia themselves, who should learn that this diverse and plural society of ours happens to be a complex nation undergoing a slow democratic transformation and that the future of Malaysian politics should reflect this multicultural diversity. So I strongly suggest that the right-wing communitarian leaders of Malaysia sign up for their own rehab courses as soon as possible, for their and our own good, and learn the following:

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  • That Malaysian citizenship, and not race or religious identity, should serve as the basis of political participation and political rights;
  • That the language of racial superiority and racial exclusivism is not only morally repugnant, racist and dangerous but outdated and has no resonance with the Malaysian public today;
  • That the fundamental duty of all citizens is to demand that the state serves the interests of the nation as a whole and not just a coterie of landed elites living in their comfortable and alienated paradise of select privileges and luxury;
  • And that the right to speak one’s mind and to demand that the state carries out its fundamental democratic functions are among the basic rights of all citizens, and not some outrageous demand by anarchists, mobsters and unruly nihilists.

And while taking these basic lessons in democracy, do leave the kids alone. At least they don’t go on the stage brandishing weapons and screeching about racial superiority… They are too matured to do such stupid things!


Note: (1): ‘Detained Children to be ‘Rehabilitated’- NST, 14 Nov 2007.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; and one of the founders of the research site.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #31

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

Chapter 6  Great Nations, Great People (Cont’d)

The Holistic Leader

It would take a unique or fortuitous combination of leader, followers, and circumstances for the leader and his or her organization (or nation) to excel:  the mood, aspirations, and temperament of the followers; the gifts, skills, and personality of the leader; and the particular circumstances or challenges. Then there is the role of culture, as exemplified by Mahathir when he did not venture beyond his party in search of a successor, and geography that may present the leader with an opportunity to be capitalized upon.

The effective leader reads his followers well, connects with them, and is aware of their challenges. The leader then mobilizes them to reach greater heights. When they reach there, it matters not whether they were being led or pushed, the results were as if they had achieved it themselves. Or by the wisdom of Lao-Tze, the best leaders are those, when their task is accomplished, the people would all remark, “We have done it ourselves!”

For this to occur, the leader must establish an emotional bond with his followers. Lee Kuan Yew was a brilliant leader of his little and overwhelmingly Chinese republic, but when Singapore was part of Malaysia in the early 1960s, he failed miserably to expand his reach beyond his race. He could not connect with Malays in the rest of Malaysia. He made the elementary mistake of assuming that Malaysian Malays were of the same variety as those on his tiny island.

Daniel Goldman, the Harvard psychologist with his concept of Emotional Intelligence, believes that this emotional aspect of a leader is primal, first in importance. When leaders have it, there is resonance; absent, dissonance.18

He describes at least six leadership styles. One, the commanding style, would correspond to my military model; the second, coaching style. The next three—affiliative, visionary, and pacesetting—describe my orchestra conductor model. His last—democratic—refers to leaders who lead more through consensus and persuasion. They encourage their followers to commit to the same goals, and once committed they would carry forth on their own. Elements of these are seen especially in the conductor model, and to some extent, the coaching one.

For a particular time and circumstance, a military-like leader may be what is needed; for another, a coach-like leader; and yet another, the orchestra conductor type. Successful leaders are aware of when circumstances have changed sufficiently for them to withdraw, or at least play a less leading role, as Singapore’s Lee did. Others who are otherwise effective leaders would be rudely reminded that their style is no longer welcomed or appropriate.

Winston Churchill was a brilliant wartime leader; he successfully rallied his nation against the Nazis. After the war, the Brits wisely decided that he was not the best person to lead them during peacetime. Knowing Churchill’s subsequent Cold War rhetoric, they were right. He would have plunged Britain and the world into yet another cataclysmic war, this time against the Soviets.

Tunku Abdul Rahman was the perfect coach-like leader for Malaysia at the time of independence. He had the right style and personality, together with the right expectations from the citizenry. Malaysians then saw the terrible fate awaiting many newly independent nations. They therefore had a necessarily low expectation of their leaders: Just do not screw up what the British had left. No new initiatives were expected or even welcomed. Stay the course was the objective, and Tunku fitted that role perfectly. He once proclaimed himself to be the world’s “Happiest Prime Minister!” He loved maintaining the status quo.

That lasted for over a decade. As Malaysians gained more confidence, they aspired to greater heights. Staying the course was no longer acceptable; pressing problems could no longer be ignored. The Tunku was oblivious of these changing undercurrents; he ignored them until they blew up in his and the nation’s collective face.

Tun Razak was the rare leader who excelled in more than one leadership role. He was in effect a military commander following the 1969 riots, and then a visionary coach of a democratic nation. Franklin Roosevelt was another, with the transition in the opposite direction. He gave hope to his countrymen immediately following the depression, and then went on to be a brilliant wartime leader during World War II.

Next:  Leadership Qualities of Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w.

Even UMNO’s Morons Are Teachable

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

(, November 8, 2007)

.Editorial lead:  If enough voters were to teach these Umno operatives a lesson, they might just learn to behave themselves for the better permanently.

Hishammuddin’s decidedly subdued speech to UMNO Youth at the party’s recent General Assembly was in mark contrast to his racist histrionics of last year.  This showed one thing:  even these morons in UMNO are teachable after all.

            Last year we witnessed the revolting spectacle of Hishammuddin repeatedly stabbing the sterile chilled air of the PWTC Conference Hall.  The only thing missing was the foam frothing from his wide, open mouth to make that silly scene really complete as a sandiwara (shadow play).

            Hishammuddin of course received a rousing response in that hall for his piece of titillating theatrics.  That prompted me to write then that we should expect his deputy Khairy Jamaluddin to outdo Hishammuddin at this year’s gathering.  Meaning, Khairy would probably attempt a silat with his keris instead of merely jabbing an imagined enemy in the air.  I also wrote that the only way to end such silly stunts would be to have the klutz Khairy accidentally stab himself.  Only through such divine interventions would these latter day Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat pretenders be taught a memorable lesson.

            Fortunately, thanks to the outrage expressed by ordinary Malaysians to last year’s crudities, we were thankfully spared similar stupid spectacles this year.  The good lord need not have to intervene after all to stop these childish charades.

To be sure, such outrages were expressed only in cyberspace in the various web blogs and Internet portals like and  Our intellectuals and pussy footing pundits remained curiously silent.  I interpreted that to mean that they must have approved of the stunts and the accompanying venomous messages spewed by these characters.

In contrast to the furor in the Malaysian blogosphere, there were apologias galore in the mainstream media.  One sycophantic columnist excused the whole ugly episode as nothing more than “party politics as usual.”  She duly noted, with approval undoubtedly, that Najib Razak had many years earlier dripped his keris with tomato ketchup to emphasize a particularly racist point when he was UMNO Youth leader addressing a similar crowd.

Seeing that Najib is now UMNO’s Deputy President and thus the nation’s Deputy Prime Minister, a mark of success by any measure, Hishammuddin must have taken his cue from his beres (brother-in-law by marriage).  Thus it was not far fetched of me to predict last year that Khairy would, in a “monkey see, monkey do” style, ape Hishammuddin.

The Greater Lesson

            There is a greater lesson here.  That is, despite the government’s (UMNO specifically) repeated attempts at ignoring and dismissing the role of bloggers and the Internet generally, we who use cyberspace to spread our message are making an impact, whether the establishment acknowledges it or not.

If the likes of Hishammuddin truly believe in their own message that cyberspace is irrelevant or that it is the limited only to the fringes of Malaysian society, they would have continued behaving like the mischievous monkeys that they were last year.  Nor for that matter would UMNO establish its halfwit “cyber troopers” to try and shut down some of the highly influential websites like Malaysia-Today.

To commentators in the Barisan-controlled media, the current mellowness of UMNO leaders is not the consequence of the severe criticisms in cyberspace rather to their being pragmatic and wanting to appear “moderate” and “rational” ahead of a soon-to-be-expected general election.  That is the mainstream media’s spin, their way of ingratiating themselves to the establishment, their paymaster.

Never mind that such a portrayal merely exposes the cynicism and scheming nature of these UMNO operatives.  Such a characterization means that they have not really changed, merely put on a cosmetic cover over their ugly racist stripes, mascara as it were, to make themselves presentable to voters.

If that were so, it would be even more important for voters to disabuse these UMNO operatives of their collective delusion.  Even if they were to be minimally successful in the elections, that would only embolden them to be even more cynical the next time.  They would then think that they could hoodwink and manipulate voters at will, like just before an election.  Their contempt for citizens would only be reinforced.

That being the case it is all the more crucial that we should teach them a more memorable lesson, one that would stick with them forever. We know that morons are slow learners, but then as we have seen even UMNO morons are teachable.  We just have to repeat the lessons more often, and increasing the punishment more severe each time they regress or forget their earlier lessons.

If enough voters were to teach these UMNO operatives a lesson, they might just learn to behave themselves for the better permanently.  That would be good for them and for us, as well as for the nation.


Power of the Blogosphere

Meanwhile until that election comes, we in blogosphere must continue teaching them their much-needed lessons.  That is our obligation, especially now that those whose traditional job is to keep those in power in check and the public informed – the journalists, reporters, and others in the fourth estate – have betrayed themselves and their profession.

            Ours is not a hopeless cause.  We have seen Chief Justice Ahmad Feiruz unceremoniously rebuffed for extension of his tenure.  Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has done more to cleanse the rot that is the Malaysian judiciary with his release of that explosive tape (showing a senior lawyer attempting to fix a judicial appointment) than when he was in power!

The mainstream media may have ignored Anwar and that tape, but thanks to bloggers and citizen journalists of the ‘Net, Ahmad Feiruz is now out.  He joins former director of the Anti Corruption Agency, Zulkipli Mat Noor, another deserved casualty of cyberspace journalism.  Our job is to make sure that this gallery of rogues keeps expanding.

            Earlier, Raja Petra exposed the profligate spending of our “humble” and “pious” Prime Minister Abdullah in acquiring a RM200 million corporate jet for his use, financed of course by taxpayers’ money.  Thanks to Raja Petra’s diligent work and pungent expose, Abdullah had to backtrack his earlier denial by clarifying that the government did not acquire the aircraft, rather a government-owned “private” entity did.  Such semantic gymnastics and nuances of language!

            As for the mainstream commentators, editors and journalists, they are busy transcribing ministers’ press releases.  Such flagrant abuses of power by the powerful do not interest these journalists.

            Already through the power of the Internet, BERSIH, a coalition of NGOs, will be organizing this Saturday, November 10th a massive display of civic dissatisfaction with the government.  Specifically their petition will address a longstanding problem:  fair and honest conduct of elections, that basic prerequisite of democracy.  While I will not be able to physically take part in this worthy rally, I will be there in spirit.  Already the Istana has berkenan (consented) to receive the citizens’ petition!

            Meanwhile UMNO Youth Deputy Leader Khairy has stated his opposition to the proposed rally.  He has asked the government to “come down hard” on the citizens.  Presumably his model is Pakistan’s Musharraf.  Someone ought to remind Khairy that it is the basic freedom of citizens in a democracy to petition their government.  We are also free to associate.  One wonders what did he learn at Oxford?

            My objective as a committed cyberspace commentator is to make that rouge gallery bigger.  I will not be satisfied, nor will I stop, until that gallery has the country’s biggest rogue included in its rooster.

BERSIH Campaign

Sunday, November 11th, 2007


Din Merican

On November 10, 2007, an estimated 60,000 Malaysians from all walks of life, young and old, and of all races converged at Istana Negara to deliver a petition to our beloved Duli Yang Maha Mulia Seri Yang Di-Pertuan Agong (His Majesty The King) seeking “free and fair elections.” The massive rally was organized by BERSIH, a movement of some 60 civil society organizations. It was led by KeADilan’s charismatic de facto chief Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and PAS’s Al-Fadil Hadi Awang, and DAP’s leader Lim Kit Siang.

It was also an outpouring of mass public disenchantment with the incompetent and corrupt Abdullah Badawi Administration. Kuala Lumpur had not seen such a spectacle since the 1998 reformasi rally at Masjid Negara that saw then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim unceremoniously removed from UMNO. He was later incarcerated in Sungai Buloh by the Mahathir government after a sham trial of some trumped up charges.

While the mood in 1998 was one of bitter frustration and public outrage, the BERSIH campaign on this historic day of November 2007 was a classic demonstration of the power and resolve of the Malaysian people. When they are awakened by an ennobling cause and mission, there is no one except Allah, the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate, who can prevent them from accomplishing their goals even if meant putting themselves in harm’s way.

They were motivated by nothing more than a simple cause: free and fair elections. Sixty thousand Malaysians showed in no uncertain terms that they are not prepared any longer to tolerate a biased Elections Commission, massive numbers of phantom voters and other electoral frauds, and the gerrymandering of constituencies carefully and cynically calibrated to favor the ruling coalition. People are fed up with the rampant corruption and abuse of power of the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional government of Prime Minister Abdullah in cahoots with his unelected son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin and his cabal of opportunists.

The demonstrations were spontaneous, peaceful, and orderly, reflective of the civic consciousness of average Malaysians. We all can be justifiably proud off of this.

We created history on this November 10, 2007. We have broken the climate of fear and intimidation as well as overcome our public apathy. A new dawn has arrived. Democracy was again at work, and nothing will ever be the same again on our country. It was without doubt an impressive display of the maturity and solidarity by Malaysians.

Despite the massive police roadblocks preventing access into Kuala Lumpur, thousands of Malaysians from far away as Perlis, Sabah and Sarawak came. Apart from the FRU reinforcements and interference at Dataran Merdeka and the minor incident at Majid Jamek, Malaysians marched from five locations (Majid Jamek, Jalan Raja Laut, Sogo(Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman), Central Market and Masjid Negara) in unison and solidarity towards the palace. It was a touching display of love and respect of the institution of monarchy as well as for our cherished freedom and democracy. Even the rain did not dampen the enthusiasm. It was an awe inspiring display, with voices in harmony chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great), “Daulat Tuanku,” “There is no God but God” and the glorification of the Holy Prophet as they converged at Istana Negara. Waves of people in yellow could be seen marching peacefully in well-orchestrated manner on all the major roads leading to the Palace grounds. There were even two helicopters hovering above their rain soaked heads.

Once they reached the palace grounds, they sat down on the roads and listened to speeches by BERSIH leaders like Azmin Ali and Tian Chua, as well as Johari Abdul (KeADILan), Mat Sabu (PAS), Ronnie Liu (DAP), and others. After handing over the petition to the King, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Al Fadil Hadi and Lim Kit Siang addressed the crowd. Their speeches were brief; they calmed the crowd. They dispersed peacefully afterwards.

I had difficulty hearing them because of the hovering helicopters. It was poignant to note that when Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim was about to speak, the two helicopters flew low in formation to drown his voice over the hand held speakers!

Massive rallies of this sort are not possible without the support and cooperation of all concerned, including the officers and men of the Royal Malaysian Police and the battle ready Federal Reserve Units. They were generally helpful and patient as they truly showed that they were well disciplined and sympathetic to the BERSIH movement. In fact, they managed the crowd well and showed great restraint. To them we say, “Terima kasih” (Thank you!).

Sadly we cannot say the same of their Inspector General of Police, Tan Sri Musa Hassan and his colleagues who planned this unnecessarily intimidating show of force which could have easily gone out of control at the slightest provocation.

We pay tribute to the thousands of men, women, teenagers, and children who braved the rain and exposed them to the risk of physical harm. Likewise we appreciate the contributions of the PAS Badan Amal and the KeADILan marshals who kept the crowd orderly, and the patience and forbearance of motorists and other road users. We also thank members of the international media for their fair and balanced reporting. Sadly we are unable to say the same thing of our local mainstream media who followed only too well the orders of their political masters in not reporting such a significant event.

Prime Minister Abdullah and his sycophantic Cabinet colleagues in particular Dato Zainuddin Maidin and Nazri Aziz, as well as those in UMNO should heed the voices of 60,000 Malaysians as well as those are silent throughout the country. We want clean and fair elections. We resoundingly reject the status quo of incompetence, mediocrity, and rampant corruption and abuses of powers.

On November 10, 2007 Malaysians without hesitation resoundingly challenged Prime Minister Abdullah’s “saya pantang dicabar” (lit:  I am allergic to challenges;” fig: “Don’t challenge me!”) gauntlet. Now, we are now waiting for his response. The mainstream media were muted in reporting the BERSIH campaign. They are still waiting for instruction from the Fourth Floor of the Prime Minister’s office.

Meanwhile we get to cherish the occasion and acknowledge this moral victory which we dedicate to all Malaysians who cherish democracy, freedom, and justice.

Din Merican

KeADILan Program Director.

Malaysia: Normalizing the Unacceptable

Friday, November 9th, 2007

By Farish A. Noor

The dangerous thing about sectarian politics is how it becomes normalized so easily and quickly. Taking a leaf from the book of Speer and Goebels, the old Fascist maxim proves itself true time and again: Once the public is made to realize that they are impotent and unable to affect change, the ruling elite can hoist almost anything upon them. One affront leads to another, and the common tactic is to follow-up a public outrage with yet another that is even more outrageous. Hence when politicians issue their sexist slurs and the media reacts to them, the tactic often favored by some is to reply with a racist slur even more unpalatable to most right-minded adults.

            We have seen this strategy employed so often by now: The rise of the extreme Hindu right in India was a case of leapfrogging from one insulting comment against Muslims, Christians, and other minorities to the next. Likewise the shift to the right that is seen in Europe today was occasioned by extreme right-wing politicians vying for media attention and out-doing themselves by playing to the gallery.

            Malaysia of course is no exception to the rule and during the past five decades the tone and tenor of Malaysian politics has been set by the standards of racialized communitarian politics that is divisive to the country. Again and again we have seen Malaysian politicians come to power by playing the race – and now increasingly religion – card above all else pandering to their own communities at the expense of the rest. And over the past three years in particular the country has witnessed the rising of its political temperature thanks to the amateurish pyrotechnics of loud politicians standing on the soapbox to play to the communitarians in their midst. The precedent was set three years ago when the leader of the Youth Wing of the ruling UMNO party – Hishamuddin Onn – brandished a keris – the traditional Malay dagger – in a symbolic act of defiance that many regarded as frothy bravado and little else. In the context of multi-racial Malaysia where racial sensitivities run deep, such gestures can have the effect of antagonizing the non-Malay and non-Muslim communities further and deepening the racial divide that already splits the country in many ways.

            At this year’s General Assembly of UMNO, leaders of the UMNO Youth Wing were once again seen playing with their toys in public, claiming that their gesture was intended to symbolize UMNO’s fighting spirit (odd to say the least, considering that UMNO did not engage in armed struggle against the colonial powers of the past but rather opted for a more docile form of negotiation instead) and commitment to the country. Needless to say the expected reaction has ensued, with many members of the non-Malay and non-Muslim communities worried about the growing assertion of Malay-Muslim dominance in the country.

            Ironically, the spin-doctors of UMNO have been hard at work to justify the symbolic unsheathing of the keris and the hysterical screaming and yelling of slogans that often follows. Cognizant of the fact that the juvenile antics of the party’s leaders are under scrutiny, at this years UMNO Assembly the leaders of the party went to great lengths to explain how and why the keris was unsheathed and brandished in public on stage. The UMNO party’s deputy leader Najib Razak went as far as claiming that the waving of the keris should not be interpreted by the non-Malays as a declaration of war, but rather as the party’s defense of the Malay race. Where, pray tell, is the difference?

            No matter how hard the spin-doctors of UMNO try to pass off this episode as another harmless escapade in the party’s sorry history, the fact remains that racial and communal tensions are high in the country at the moment.

            While the ethno-nationalist Malay communitarians of UMNO claim that their party is merely there to defend the Malay race, the fact remains that this defense of “Malayness” is couched in terms of a rhetoric and discourse of Malay supremacy. Furthermore the non-Malays of Malaysia are left with the stark reality that while UMNO caters primarily to Malay demands, dozens of Hindu temples have been demolished all over the country and the non-Muslim NGOs of Malaysia are increasingly vocal in their defense of the rights of non-Muslim citizens.

            But UMNO’s hotheads have been caught in a trap of their own making. During a previous assembly the very same leader of UMNO Youth was challenged by an UMNO delegate who asked him:  “Now that you have unsheathed the keris, when will you use it?” This is the real context against which such puerile and shameless theatrics are being enacted: of a party that is becoming increasingly insecure, defensive and unsure of its future, edged and goaded by irresponsible politicians who have let the genie of communitarianism out of the bottle and are now unable to put it back in. One is reminded of the likewise violent symbolism of the extreme right wing BJP and RSS in India, whose leaders brandished Indian swords – tulwars and shamsirs – before their supporters and potential voters, and who later claimed that they were not responsible for unleashing the racial and religious terror that swept across states like Gujarat.

            Malaysia’s politicians would do better to grow up and behave like mature adults who can deal with real issues such as corruption, abuse of power and the crisis of confidence in the judiciary rather than playing with knives on the stage. The growing income disparity in Malaysia, the low ranking of Malaysia in the press freedom index, the brain drain which is leading to the loss of thousands of intelligent and educated professionals; are all real problems that need real solutions put forward by sincere politicians with real intelligence. Leave the knife in the kitchen, and try to manage the country instead: That would be sage advice to Youth leaders who should have grown up long ago.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Political Historian based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta and Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University of Jogjakrata. He is also one of the founders of the research site.