Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Malaysia's Poor Leaders, Each PM Worse than the Last

Written by johnleemk on 3:37:00 pm Jul 12, 2008.
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They say that the true mark of leadership is producing successors even more capable than you. By this standard, Malaysians have had a great deal of misfortune. Each Prime Minister we have had seems to pale in comparison with their predecessor; each Prime Minister who has lived to see the Malaysia after his retirement has suffered, watching his successor tear his legacy apart.

As we are a young nation, it is a bit early to pass judgement on the legacies of our previous Prime Ministers. In spite of this, it is very apparent that most of them (Tun Hussein Onn excepted) have rather mixed legacies, and the most questionable facet of their leadership is none other than how they groomed their successors.

Tunku Abdul Rahman is essentially a towering figure in our nationís history. It is hard not to be impressed by all this man has done. Yet, it must be said that Tunkuís biggest failure was not planning ahead for a time when he would no longer be Prime Minister.

Tunku may have bequeathed our nation independence, but he also left us with draconian laws such as the Internal Security Act, and a tradition of suppressing political opposition. Until 1960, the Internal Security Act was an ordinance which Parliament had to renew yearly, rendering the governmentís detention policies accountable to our elected representatives; Tunku rammed the ISA through Parliament, ensuring that future governments would not have to worry about Parliament failing to renew the law on time. Tunku dealt sternly with political opposition; Syed Jaafar Albar, who refused to vote with the government MPs on the separation of Singapore, lost his political positions as a result. Tun Mahathir himself, together with several other famous political personages such as Tun Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, became persona non grata in the country because they would not accept Tunkuís leadership. When you consider that these three men have gone on to become some of the most powerful men in our country and viable contenders for the Prime Ministership, it is impossible to not conclude that Tunku failed to groom future leaders, failed to plan for a future without him as Prime Minister, and ultimately set a bad precedent for his successors.

This is important because in many ways Tunku set the stage for what was to follow. Like future Prime Ministers, he preferred to stifle potential challengers, especially if they were credible and competent, lest they pose a threat to his power. He gave us bad laws that prevail to this day; the ISA and many other bad laws work well with good men like Tunku and Tun Dr Ismail running the show — but if people were good, we wouldn't need laws. Tunku left the door open for abuse of power, and set a tradition of preferring slavish loyalty over leadership ability.

Tun Abdul Razak then succeeded Tunku in 1971, in a process some have labeled a de facto coup. Whether or not this was the actual case, Tun Razak made an effort to groom future leaders, taking Tunkuís three political exiles under his wing. This, together with Tun Razakís farsighted fear of a Malaysia with untenable economic inequities, may make him the most successful Prime Minister of ours to date.

Yet even Tun Razak had his faults. The New Economic Policy he formulated has proved less and less effective over the years in actually ameliorating economic disparities, while exacerbating ethnic tensions. Tun Razak dramatically expanded the role of the state in the economy by forming government-linked companies accountable only to him, not to Parliament — a policy which might work pretty well when you have a man of Tun Razakís integrity in office, but which can also go to bits if a less scrupulous or capable man later occupies the same position. Tun Razak introduced new education policies which, while deAnglicising the school system, also made it unattractive to many parents. Tun Razakís historical legacy therefore remains controversial, and is at the very least, mixed.

Tun Hussein Onn may have been the least remarkable of our Prime Ministers; while his tenure in office was about the same as Tun Razakís, he did not make any significant policy changes. History may well judge him as a "seatwarmer", filling the space between Tun Razakís untimely demise and Tun Mahathir. However, it is definitely Tun Hussein who we have to thank for Tun Mahathirís accession to the premiership — it was Tun Husseinís decision to take Tun Mahathir on as his deputy, instead of Tengku Razaleigh.

Tun Mahathirís administration is by far the most controversial and the most difficult to judge. Because we are hardly removed from his time as Prime Minister, it is difficult to pass an objective and fair judgement on his policies as Prime Minister. No doubt, we have Tun Mahathir to thank for a number of skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, an expensive new administrative centre, and several other "megaprojects".

Yet for all this infrastructure development, Tun Mahathir often neglected the human side of things: the pay of civil servants, from teachers to policemen, is so low that it is no wonder that the standard of professionalism throughout the civil service is abysmal. In the 1970s, books were published lamenting decreasing professionalism in the civil service, and the prevalence of bribery, which seemed particularly effective with policemen. Today, less than five years after Mahathir left office, you hear stories of policemen taking bribes as small as RM2 — in coins. Under Tun Mahathir, corruption ran rampant; even if he was not personally involved, his usage of political patronage and massive government spending must have been very tempting for many other politicians seeking to abuse their power for their own ends.

We do have Tun Mahathir to thank for the concept of Bangsa Malaysia, which acknowledges the necessity of an all-encompassing notion of Malaysianness. However, it is hard not to see this as really quite hypocritical. Mahathir hardly had the interests of about half the country at heart when he unilaterally proclaimed us an Islamic state, and his recent pronouncements on the subject of non-Malay rights have only served to confirm that at heart he brought to the table a very parochial and closeminded approach to ethnic issues.

Tun Mahathir presided over astonishing economic growth rates. However, there is no reason to think he was responsible for them; the precedent of taking oil money and spending it on whatever projects catch the Prime Minister's fancy has not been a good one for the economy. There's no reason to believe megaprojects enhance economic growth, and Mahathir's policy of ramping up industrialisation by government protection has not made any stellar successes out of our multitude of government-linked companies. Our economic growth tracked that of the Asian Tigers overall, and it's almost certain that all that that happened during the 1980s and 1990s was the rising tide of foreign investment lifting all boats in East Asia.

At the same time, Tun Mahathir is infamous for his approach to grooming successors; he was so tough, he could brook no possible challenger to his power. Tun Mahathir had four Deputy Prime Ministers, more than any before him; two of them ended their political careers in Umno by openly challenging Tun Mahathir. Like Tunku, Tun Mahathir had his opponents exiled from the party; unlike Tun Razak, he only accepted them back when he could be sure they would not pose a threat to his power, as in the case of Tengku Razaleigh. As far as developing successors goes, we have no choice but to be critical of Tun Mahathir: he wielded power so brutally that he virtually strangled the potential of the next generation of the countryís leaders, forcing them to toe his line. The result is here for all to see: we have the administration of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, reviled by Mahathir himself.

Malaysia has been plagued by a series of leaders, each poorer than the last. Our media loves to comment on the leadership style of each man; we know Tunku as a charming gentleman, Tun Razak as a brooding, dutiful civil servant, Tun Hussein as a diligent seatwarmer, Mahathir as a strong-willed dominating figure, Abdullah as a laidback, smiling religious scholar. But your personality traits don't necessarily have anything to do with your competence as a leader — in spite of the huge variety of leadership styles in Malaysian politics, all we've found is that as time goes by, our Prime Ministers accomplish less.

Tunku and Tun Razak were not perfect men, but they got a lot of things right. Tunku emphasised the importance of the rule of law, even if he failed to appreciate that poorly crafted institutions only work when the men behind them are upstanding. Tun Razak understood that we have to do something about a community that is clearly and dramatically lagging behind the rest of the country in economic capacity. These are lessons which have become so distorted today that we now know the rule of law as meaning "whatever the Prime Minister wants" and affirmative action as "whatever the disadvantaged want".

Future Prime Ministers have proven less able in providing direction. Tun Hussein Onn did not do much in office, although to his credit, this means avoiding doing damage. Tun Mahathir initiated a lot of policies, but the results are less than impressive, and it is hard to let him off for ruining the judiciary and permitting if not encouraging a culture of competition — to say nothing of his intolerance of anyone competent or charismatic enough to challenge him. It's no wonder that when he had to pick a successor, his scrawny options were such that he had to settle with Abdullah. If current trends continue, the country very well may not have much of a future — a captainless ship is as good as sunk.

We have to return to the foundations of good leadership, and address the core issues Tunku and Tun Razak tried to deal with. Their solutions were far from perfect, but rather than deal with these problems, their successors ignored them, applying cosmetic solutions when necessary. We have to establish sound institutions which can operate smoothly regardless of who is in charge; the UK and US are particularly good guides, considering how many rotten Presidents and Prime Ministers have passed through their halls of government without messing things up too badly. We have to deal with the problem of race, because there is still so much bitterness after fifty years of independence — the government has failed to provide for the bumiputra community economically, and is not satisfying the non-bumiputra community's need to be recognised as equal participants in the Malaysian endeavour. We cannot move on from these issues, because for a country to exist, it needs people and it needs something to unite those people; without institutions and without creating a sense of belonging, there can be no Malaysia.

Just as importantly, we cannot let the baggage of previous leaders drag us down. This tradition of stifling dissent and crushing top performers who pose a threat to the current leaders is a tradition of poor leadership; it must end. The laxness with which we approach our country's institutions, from Parliament to the Courts, cannot last. We have to break out of the trap our previous leaders unintentionally set, and accept that in a democratic society, different people — especially the intelligent and competent ones — are bound to disagree, and that a foundation for keeping the peace has to be solid, concrete institutions.

We've been on nothing but a downward trend since independence as far as leadership goes. It is not yet too late to redeem ourselves, and redeem the brilliance of our founding fathers. We are a young nation, but we cannot remain a nation for long if we do not reverse this trend and return to the basics of nation-building. Let's not give up on leadership and our leaders; let's challenge them to live up to and exceed their successors, rather than falling even lower. Let's keep our ship of state afloat.


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