M. Bakri Musa
16th December 2015
The leadership qualities needed in a society during times of great changes and uncertainties are very different from those required in one that is static. Malaysia today faces many great challenges but is blighted with a leadership more suited for a static feudal society.
Today’s Malaysia is a complex, plural society. The unwary could easily be misled by official figures and general consensus that may apply to or describe one segment of society but may well be the very opposite for the others.
There are at least two Malaysias. One is exclusively Malay, dominated by UMNO and PAS; the other, predominantly but not exclusively non-Malay. The differences between the two extend beyond cultural values, socioeconomic status, and general worldview. The former is feudal, xenophobic, and servile towards authority; the latter is modern, aligned with the global mainstream, and views government more as the problem than the solution.
Thus statements like deteriorating local schools apply only to government ones and attended by the first group. International schools are doing very well. As for Chinese schools, the increasing number of Malay parents enrolling their children there speaks of the quality. Both schools are the preferred choice for the second Malaysia.
The Malaysia of Onn and Razak may have been much less complicated but no less divided, nonetheless both leaders exhibited qualities of what James McGregor Burns called “transforming leadership.” Both were great not only because of their exceptional personal and leadership qualities but because they appeared at a time when those qualities were most needed – Datuk Onn following the adoption of the Malayan Union Treaty, Tun Razak in the aftermath of the tragic 1969 riots.
It is said that what makes a great leader great is circumstance. That was certainly true with Onn and Razak. Malaysians were lucky that the sterling attributes of the two shone through at those particular junctures in our history.
During times of stability (or stagnation) it does not really matter who is the leader as things are essentially on automatic pilot. For a while Malay society, like all feudal societies, remained unchanged for generations. So it did not matter who was the sultan; the peasants’ lives would remain the same regardless. You could put a monkey in the palace, and life in the kampongs would remain unaffected.
Leaders’ decisions during those times have minimal impact on the governed. In fact during feudal times it would have been better to have a monkey in the palace as then it would not bother the natives to extract expensive tributes. Besides, monkeys’ demands could easily be satisfied with bananas, not so sultans’.
It is only during times of great change that leadership is most crucial. It is also during such times that the strengths of a culture would shine or its weaknesses be exposed, as with the Japanese reaction to the tsunami of 2011 and the Americans’ to Katrina of 2005 as discussed in an earlier essay.
The genius of both Onn and Razak was precisely their ability to leverage the very elements of our culture that had imprisoned us (or so we thought) to instead liberate us mentally. They did not stand on the podium and berate us for the presumed weaknesses of our ways and nature. Instead they utilized to maximum effectiveness those very same qualities of our culture that others deemed wanting to bring about profound, positive and permanent changes in us.
Consider the Malay cultural attribute of unquestioned obedience to rulers. Onn leveraged that to maximal effect in mobilizing the Malay masses in a very public display of loyalty that effectively prevented those sultans from leaving the palace in Kota Baru to partake in the installation ceremony of the first Malayan Union Governor. Those sultans were essentially “CB-ed,” confined to barracks, or in this case, the palace.
Likewise Tun Razak made full use of our cultural trait of obedience to authority to make his decisive moves. He did not consult anyone or hold public forums before imposing martial law and suspending parliament. He did what he had to do, and did it decisively. Order and peace soon followed.
Even in a stable society with no external forces or natural calamities to disrupt its equilibrium, substantive change can still be achieved if it is lucky enough to be endowed with an exceptionally enlightened leader. Meaning, a gifted leader can transform even a placid society, although the need for effective leadership is never more critical than when a society is in disequilibrium or facing major challenges.
Consider the first scenario where the society is stable and has the cultural trait of excessive deference and unquestioning loyalty to its leaders. If perchance it were to be miraculously endowed with an enlightened leader, someone who accepts and indeed encourages criticism of his leadership, then the masses would readily emulate him and that society would be transformed in short order.
Take China; it long endured the stifling rule of communism under Chairman Mao who led that huge nation from one giant leap to another straight into the abyss. The Chinese too have a long cultural tradition of unquestioned loyalty to a central figure. Before Mao there was the long line of emperors.
Thus even when the unimposing, uncharismatic and uninspiring Deng Xiaoping took over, he was able to radically change direction for the whole nation. He did it not through his personal qualities (being unimposing, uncharismatic and uninspiring would not get you far in any society) but by leveraging to maximal effect the Confucian tradition of “follow the leader.” In one generation Deng transformed China.
This tradition of unquestioned loyalty to a leader is typical not just of China but all developing (particularly Asian) societies. I go further and posit that it is this mindset that keeps those societies behind. On the bright side, it is precisely in those societies where the role of a leader is crucial in emancipating the people, as dramatically demonstrated by Deng’s China.
It is within us, individually as well as a society, to topple our coconut shell. The Arab spring of 2011 erupted without any help from the outside, nor did it have any recognizable leadership. It was spontaneous. Wael Ghonim, a Google executive, a geek effectively, would be the closest individual who could be identified as the leader in the Egyptian uprising. In Tunisia, it was the unemployed hawker Mohamed Bouaziz, may his soul rest in peace, who triggered the revolution.
Of course with proper leadership the process of toppling the shell would be greatly facilitated and the collateral damages minimized. Also with identifiable leadership, the movement would not risk being subsequently subverted. The transition would also be faster, smoother, and less traumatic, as with the “Quiet Revolution” in Ireland and Quebec of the 1960s and 70s respectively.
With the possible exception of Tunisia, the Arab Spring failed precisely because there were no identifiable strong and enlightened leaders emerging to lead and channel the rising aspirations of the people. To be sure, there were many strong leaders appearing but they exhibited the bad old tendencies of their predecessors. They were consumed less with fulfilling the demands of their followers, more on tightening their grip on power and on avenging the wrongs of their predecessors.
Instead of exploiting the soft values of their faith Islam, where being forgiving and to forgive are highly valued, those new Arab leaders resorted to and expanded on their primitive cultural ethos of the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, except this time degenerating to a more lethal and protracted friend-of-my-enemy-is-now my-enemy. At least with the former you could potentially create new friends; with the latter, only more new enemies.
Like his late father Tun Razak, Najib too is very much aware of the Malay cultural propensity of blind loyalty to their leaders. Unlike the Tun who leveraged that quality to good purpose to end the May 1969 race riots quickly, his son exploited that very same communal trait to extract support and indeed blessing for his corrupt and chauvinistic ways!
To Najib’s brand of leadership, loyalty is to be exploited to insulate, if not excuse, his incompetence and corruption. Honest enlightened leaders on the other hand would never even contemplate betraying their followers’ trust and loyalty
Razak the father solved a major crisis; Najib the son will trigger one, if Malaysians do not stop him.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.