Longing For A Free Mind (Concluding Piece)
[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]
Q&A (Cont’d) Contemporary Leaders
Q13: We have leaders who surround themselves with opulence while millions of our citizens are mired in poverty. Should Nik Aziz (leader of the opposition PAS) who lives modestly be the more appropriate model? Further, should a leader sacrifice everything – his career, wealth and family life – for the sake of the nation?
A13: Although I do not care for opulence, I have no problem with those who do, including our leaders. In fact I prefer that our leaders be rich. In that way when they assume power they would not look upon that as an opportunity to enrich themselves. Also, the world being what it is, wealth is often a measure of your success and talent, and I want successful and talented leaders. I am here assuming that the wealth is not inherited or acquired though illicit means. I am only against leaders using the public treasury to enrich or indulge themselves. If it is their money I could not care less if they have gold toilet faucets or travel in luxury jets, as with California Governor Schwarzenegger.
Having said that, the constraint for a busy leader is time; for that reason I have no problem with and indeed encourage our leaders to travel in corporate jets rather than lining up and wasting time at the airport. Now there is a difference between a small corporate jet versus an Airbus of the type that Abdullah Badawi fancied.
I do not judge a leader by his lifestyle rather by how effective he or she is. Much as I admire Nik Aziz’s piety and modest lifestyle, as a state leader he has failed miserably. Unfortunately it is the people of Kelantan who are paying for that failure. He has been chief minister for decades yet cholera is still endemic in his state. The burden of his leadership failure far outweighs whatever pahla (religious brownie points) he may have accumulated through his piety and modest lifestyle.
To the second part of your question, no, I do not believe that our leaders should unduly sacrifice everything just to serve us. I am suspicious of leaders who claim to do just that. On the contrary we should pay our leaders well, but not well enough that the monetary rewards become the only goal for serving.
The Sudanese-born mobile phone entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim established the Ibrahim Prize to reward honest, competent and effective African leaders. The funny thing is that those leaders really do not need the extra generous financial rewards from the prize because their expertise would be widely sought and generously compensated after they retire. The gesture however, is worthy of praise. Unfortunately it would not persuade the likes of Robert Mugabe.
I also believe in moderation, and I like my leaders to have other interests. It helps broaden their experience and perspective. That can only be good, quite apart from making them more human.
Q14: You have given us examples of free minds from our legends and history. Can you give us some personal examples?
A14: I have been fortunate to have lived in many cultures, had broad-based liberal education, and traveled widely. It would not surprise you to find me to be open-minded. The surprise would be if were to be insular. So my personal examples would not be particularly interesting.
Instead I will give you examples from my father. Unlike me, he did not go to university, only to the Sultan Idris Teachers’ Training College in Tanjong Malim. He never lived in or experienced a different culture, and had never traveled outside the state where he was born, Negri Sembilan, except for the trip to Tanjong Malim Yet he was remarkably free minded.
I grew up in the 1950s, a period of intense nationalism, anticipating merdeka, and with that a resurgence of interest in Malay as it would be the national language of our new nation. Malay teachers in particular were at the vanguard of this movement. Tun Razak, the first Minister of Education, had expanded Malay schools to secondary level, with promises of further extension right up to the university level.
I was enrolled in an English school in the period just before the resurgence of this intense nationalism. My father went through great effort and expense to secure for me a slot in an English school. Soon after, Malay leaders including Tun Razak were exhorting everyone to support our national language by removing their children from English schools and to enroll them into these newly established Malay schools.
Being Malay school teachers, my parents were subjected to intense peer and community pressures to take my siblings and me out of English school. After all, if Malay teachers did not demonstrate their commitment, who would? As a Malay school teachers however, my parents were only too aware of the limitations of the Malay stream, in particular the lack of textbooks and teachers. So against all odds he resisted those intense social and professional pressures.
What strengthened my father’s conviction was not that he could tell the future or that he had any particular brilliant insight rather that while Tun Razak and the other leaders were urging Malay parents to send their children to Malay schools, they were quietly sending theirs to English schools. Tun Razak in particular went further; he sent his to schools in England! You could say that my father heard the braying of the donkey (Tun Razak’s children attending schools in England), and ignored the words of the Mullah, including the top Mullah, Tun Razak.
Many years ago I was visiting my old village and met one of my former kampong mates whose parents had followed our leaders’ advice and taken my friend out of English school. On seeing where I am today, his only comment was that my father was wiser than his!
Q15: If you were given an opportunity for a private meeting with Prime Minister Najib, what three pieces of advice would you give?
A15: Najib has a short attention span so I will offer him only two. Even if I were to give him three, he would forget the third (or first) anyway!
One is not an advice but merely to elicit from him his vision of Malaysia, and then to inquire what his greatest fear is, politically. The two are related. I think I know what his answer would be to the second part of my question but as to the first, I have no clue. This despite his much-ballyhooed 1Malaysia public relations exercise, and its attendant extravagantly expensive international consultants!
The greatest fear of Barisan, and thus Najib as its leader, is that it would not regain its traditional two-third majority in the next general election. You know the fate of Najib’s immediate predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, when he failed to deliver in the 2008 elections.
If that were to be his greatest fear, then I would advice Najib that the most effective way to deal with a fear, as I indicated earlier, is to imagine the worst case possible and then prepare for that eventuality. If things were to turn out less worse, then you would be relieved and have more confidence in tackling the crisis.
What could be worse than losing the supra-majority? Barisan failing to gain even a simple majority, and with that, the right to rule Malaysia. To add insult to an already unbearable injury, I would have him imagine UMNO winning fewer parliamentary seats than PAS. That would definitely and irreversibly shatter the myth that UMNO is Melayu, and Melayu, UMNO. If that scenario would not be scary enough, then I would add his losing his Pekan seat, as he nearly did in the 1999 elections.
The next election is due no later than March 8, 2013, so Najib has exactly 768 days from today to prepare for that eventual political catastrophe. Add a day more if there were to be a leap year till then!
There would be only two choices for Najib. One, knowing that he would lose everything come 2013, he should seize this short opportunity to enrich himself and his family. Then when he would be booted out he could charter a private jet to whisk him and his family out of the country. This unfortunately is the well trodden path followed by many Third World leaders, the latest being the Tunisian leader, soon to be joined by Egypt’s Mubarak. If Najib were to pursue that course, he would of course deserve the wrath and curse of all Malaysians. Worse, that ill feeling would spill over and despoil the fond memories Malaysians have of his late father.
The other would be to execute his grand vision of a clean, efficient and meritocratic nation, as encapsulated in his 1Malaysia aspiration, and to propel Malays onto the global arena, his so-called glokal Malay agenda. Many, including Najib, have already forgotten that slogan.
He could do this by getting rid of all those tainted UMNO characters in his cabinet and party. So what if they were to rebel and plot against him; the result would not be any worse than the earlier scenario I painted.
Then there are those juicy government contracts. Put them out to competitive bidding and invite international bidders. If an American company were to win it, so what? At least the roofs would not leak or collapse. Yes, those pseudo UMNO entrepreneurs would be ticked off, like a hungry bear whose honey jar is suddenly taken away.
To demonstrate his commitment to meritocracy, visit the top universities of the world and invite those Malaysians there for a private dinner. They might not fall for his cajoling to return but they might just give him some useful advice and brilliant ideas. Who knows, one or two might return. It would be certainly be more productive than meeting a Petronas University flunkee lobbying for a scholarship.
If Najib were to opt for this second course, he would literally transform Malaysia come 2013. Voters, seeing the tangible results, may well enthusiastically endorse his leadership. If not, then Najib would at least have the satisfaction knowing that he has given his best for Malaysia.
My second advice to Najib is real one, not merely a question for him. It is also very short: Get rid of your wife from the public arena! [Spontaneous enthusiastic applause!] As you can see, I am not the only one who would like to throw him that advice!
If Najib’s wife has the itch to involve herself in the affairs of the state (she has certainly given every indication of her itchiness for that), then lobby her husband to nominate her as a candidate in the next election. (Excerpt from M. Bakri Musa, 29 January 2011).