Letter To A Young Malay Professional
Co-written with Din Merican
(First posted on Malaysia-Today.net on August 13, 2007)
We are touched that you feel comfortable asking us for advice, considering that we have not met you except virtually through this wonderful medium of the Internet. Yes, modern technology is bringing the world together, reducing distance to irrelevance.
We congratulate you on your MBA. It is undoubtedly a major milestone in your life journey, besides being your entry into the world of business. The analytical and other skills you have learned are applicable beyond the field of management. Management after all is concerned with getting things done through people, and about leadership.
You are also now well prepared to benefit from your future experiences. Experience is a great teacher, but only to those well prepared, otherwise you risk drawing the wrong lessons. As that great surgeon William Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame observed, some surgeons repeat the same mistake a hundred times and call that experience. Ask their patients what they think of that!
We applaud you for another reason. You had the humility and wisdom to recognize early that your bachelor’s degree was just the beginning and not the end of your intellectual journey. Far too many feel otherwise; they presume to know everything upon getting that parchment paper. They stop learning. A presumptuous few even feel that they could lead a billion-dollar corporation or advise the prime minister just because they received their first degree from a prestigious university. Then there is preening graduate who mistook his in-laws’ adoration as an endorsement to lead the nation!
Our culture contributes much to these inflated expectations. We generously refer to a leader with only a first degree as an “Islamic scholar.” Never mind that he has nothing original to his credit. Another with a general degree from a provincial university is proudly touted as a “British-trained economist.” There is not even a trace of embarrassment with that extravagant assertion. Our culture is generous to a fault!
It may surprise you that one measure of quality for American universities is the percentage of their graduates who go on to graduate and professional schools. Your professors have imbued in you the right values by your furthering your studies. You are ahead of many of your compatriots, even those from august institutions who somehow missed being educated during their undergraduate years.
Awesome Responsibility of Advising
We are uncomfortable with dispensing personal advice; the burden of responsibility weighs heavily on us. Once when one of us was advising his nieces and nephews, his mother gently admonished them, “Do not listen too much to your uncle, you may end up marrying a foreigner and leaving the country!”
While we may be shy in giving you personal advice, we are not at all hesitant in recollecting our experiences, the paths we had chosen, and the choices we have made in the hope that they might be useful to you. Both of us have similar aspirations and perspectives for our people and country. We are comfortable with where we are. We may not have nor do we aspire for the trappings of success normally associated with our culture. In relating our experiences, that is our caveat for you.
Both of us are of the same generation and gone through similar experiences growing up. Our paths diverged dramatically only in adulthood. Din hails from rural Yan, Kedah, and lived for many years in Alor Setar before proceeding to Penang Free School. His detractors refer to him derisively as a mamak. Bakri is still at heart the kampong boy from the royal town of Sri Menanti, Negri Sembilan, base of the matrimonial adat perpateh society. That gives special meaning to the term “kampong.” It is less a geographic description, more a state of mind, as in “plebian.” Thus in addressing members of the royalty, we refer to ourselves as “Patek hamba!” (Slaves).
Din attended the University of Malaya in the early 1960s. It was a reflection of the caliber of that institution at the time that when he went for his MBA in Washington, DC, he excelled. He returned and worked for such outstanding personalities as Tun Ghazalie Shafie at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tun Ismail Ali at Bank Negara and later, Sime Darby, the eminent economist Agoes Salim of Bank Pertanian, Tun Mahathir when he was at FIMA, Tun Tan Siew Sin (Sime Darby), and Indonesia’s dynamic entrepreneur Aburizal Bakrie and his top manager Tanri Abeng.
Bakri went to Canada and became a surgeon. After a stint in private practice there, he yearned for something more than having a dog, station wagon, and a house in the suburb, and decided to return. However, after nearly three years in the service of the Malaysian government, he discovered that he had fewer headaches when he stopped banging his head against the bureaucratic wall. So he left.
That brief description does not do justice to Bakri’s tenure in Malaysia. It was his most satisfying experience professionally, in part for the privilege of having participated in training some of the nation’s future eminent doctors and surgeons. Bakri also remembers fondly Tan Sri Majid Ismail, the pioneering orthopedic surgeon and later, legendary Director-General. Unfortunately, Tan Sri retired soon after Bakri came aboard. Earlier while Bakri was still in Canada, the late Ungku Omar who was then Dean of Medicine at UKM, encouraged Bakri to pursue research. Sadly Ungku Omar died before Bakri returned. His career might have taken a different path had he came back sooner. However, we do not speculate on paths not pursued.
Our commonality is our outstanding mentors early in our careers. They set the bar high, and quickly shaped our personal values and work culture. Luck played a role, but we also chose to be under such exemplary individuals.
We chose carefully for another reason. We did not feel that we could influence much less change the surroundings so early in our careers. We never underestimated the inertia of the status quo. Once we had some solid experiences, only then did we become assertive. Where we could not change, or if we felt we were compromising ourselves too much by staying, we did not hesitate to leave.
Be prudent in your early career choice. Join a multinational corporation, and your talent and hard work would be nurtured and well rewarded. Pick the civil service, and you would quickly acquire the bodek culture, the obnoxious habit of “sucking up” to your superiors. Be active in UMNO Youth, and soon you would be adept at racial taunting and obscenely brandishing your keris.
We see too many bright and idealistic young Malays who are intent on changing UMNO only to be changed by it instead. To us, that is a tragedy; to them, an advancement.
We look in dismay at many young Malay professionals rushing to climb the administrative ladder at the expense of their professional development. When Bakri taught young surgeons he insisted that they first concentrated on polishing their surgical skills and publishing a few papers before being distracted by rapid administrative promotions. Once they took on administrative chores they would be literally consumed by the bureaucracy.
Politics is another great seducer of young Malay talent. We look askance at one neurosurgeon, still a rarity for our community, readily giving up his hard-earned career for opposition politics!
It is praiseworthy that our brightest and talented aspire to lead the nation. However, before they contemplate that, they should first prove themselves by excelling in their chosen profession or enterprise. Anything less and they would be disrespecting their fellow citizens.
We tell our adult children that they would have to create for their employers at least twice their salary in the value of work: one half to cover their pay and the other half for other overhead. Anything less and you would be a burden to your employer, or, as kampong folks would say, makan gaji buta (lit. Eating a blind salary). In our faith, that would also be haram.
No one can guarantee you your job security; only your clients and customers can do that. Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) notwithstanding, the world does not owe you a living; our leaders are misleading our young to have them think otherwise. There is no substitute for competence, integrity, and hard work.
Finally, you can make a difference. The individuals Din and Bakri served were driven by their strong conviction that they could make a difference. And they did. There were also individuals of exceptional competence and uncompromising integrity whose personal examples spoke louder then their words. They demonstrated best the leadership ideals of our prophet, s.a.w.,: quadrat hasanah (leadership through personal example).
Again, congratulations on your MBA, and best wishes in your chosen career.
M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican
(Din Merican is a senior research fellow with the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace. He was recently named an adjunct professor of global business strategy and a board member of the newly formed University of Cambodia , Phnom Penh. Din Merican had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bank Negara Malaysia and Sime Darby.)