Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Institutions, Not People, Make the Country

Written by johnleemk on 2:24:57 pm Jul 4, 2007.
Categories: ,

A problem with Malaysian leadership has been its obsession with personalities, as opposed to institutions. The three most influential men in modern Malaysian history — Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak and Mahathir Mohamad — all made the mistake of assuming their powerful personalities could dominate the country forever, and ignoring the need for building strong institutions to outlast them.

Tunku Abdul Rahman came to power thinking that the will of his personality alone could maintain him as the "happiest Prime Minister in the world". He thought that harmony could be maintained without addressing the systemic institutional problem of identification of race with economic function.

He was also a moderate in some other ways, advocating a friendly relationship with the West. He also pushed for greater emergency powers so he could tackle the communist insurgency.

Of course, the Tunku did not count on falling from power so quickly as he did after 1969 — when he fell, everything fell apart as well. The Tunku's successors were not as inclined as he was to tolerating the appropriate exercise of civil liberties, and they ended up abusing laws passed under his watch (the Internal Security Act being one) to detain dissidents long after the communist threat was past.

Tun Abdul Razak succeeded the Tunku and hammered out the New Economic Policy to right the societal wrongs of the past. However well-meaning he may have been, the system he created to circumvent the red tape and bureaucracy of the civil service resulted in a new system of red tape and unaccountable bureaucrats in the limbo between public and private sectors known as "overnment-linked companies".

Once the forceful Tun Razak was gone, these bureaucrats had no system to hold them in place, resulting in unchecked corruption and abuses. Worse still, the NEP was then hijacked and turned into the Never Ending Policy, perpetuating a legacy of apartheid.

Later, along came Mahathir. The first few and last few years of Mahathir's administration were relatively uneventful, but the middling years — featuring a Constitutional crisis, an economic collapse, and rising Islamism — were marked by turbulent controversy.

Like his predecessors, Mahathir seems to have thought the sheer force of his personality alone would be enough to keep his policies going. His confrontational foreign policy with the West and Singapore, his awarding of contracts to his cronies — all these things have been changed by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and have been complained about by the now ex-Premier Mahathir.

If each and every one of these men had taken the trouble to create institutions to preserve their principles and policies for after they were gone, they would have done this country a great service — or at least moulded it in the way they wanted it, instead of allowing it to be buffetted by the whims and fancies of the latest Prime Minister.

The Tunku, for instance, could have set a sunset clause on emergency laws like the ISA. Tun Abdul Razak could have built in safeguards to prevent the abuse of the NEP and the state apparatus his administration created.

All of these men wanted cheap glory in the short run — to show they could run the country without thinking too much about preserving their policies in the long run. Their failure to plan for the future after their departure has cost the country and their legacies, because they dismantled the checks and balances crucial for keeping the country on course.

Of course, if this sounds familiar, that's because this is what is happening down south, across the Causeway. Lee Kuan Yew has set up a state that runs well, cleanly and smoothly while he is alive — but the lack of accountability and strong institutions thanks to his policies ensures that what happens to Singapore after he is gone depends solely on whoever succeeds him — and if they get a corrupt dictator, there is virtually nothing to check his malevolent tendencies.

But as always, Singapore has done something better. At least there they got a clean state apparatus up and running, and an efficient economy off the ground, even if they've completely failed when it comes to nation- and institution-building. Malaysia hasn't even been able to succeed in either sphere.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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