Leaders of Quality for a new Malaysia

By Nilakrisna James

In developed countries, voters gauge the potential of their leaders over a given span of time which acts not as a campaigning period but a time of reckoning. In such countries, politicians work as a team and, together, would present their choice of candidates and their election dates several months in advance in the hope that these candidates would enter a fair level playing field to engage in public forums and debates and show their prowess as society’s major decision makers.

They are squared off against opponents and rival parties in a way that allows the voters a chance to make an informed choice about the type of leader they would want and the type of person who is likely to take the country from its present predicament to a more advanced and well-managed system that could remain resilient against fluctuating global economic uncertainties. 

The type of leaders developed countries headhunt and nurture are those who individually have the potential to take on a ministerial portfolio and be able to develop and enhance the potential of that portfolio in an international market and not just within the safe confines of their own little communities. Every ministerial portfolio in this country deals with an international base of investors and stakeholders. We engage as a nation in the development of international trade and cross-cultural understanding through rural development programmes, youth and educational exchange opportunities, international philanthropy from NGOs, government to government initiatives and international policies and legislation which could impact the local situation. It is very rare for developed leaders to want to enter the game in the hope of becoming backbenchers or winners without portfolios. In Malaysia, it is a totally different ballgame. The ambition is warped by the idea that many before have entered in anticipation of “rewards without sweat”—which reminds me of an animal rights mantra that says “beauty without cruelty”—pitching the idea that working as a minister is a chore compared to the “perks” and “projects” that many expect from positions far less demanding and glamorous.   

What then is this country searching for? Why are the leaders unable to read the sentiments of the internet-savvy and intelligent young voter base who are tired of leaders who pretend they understand this new age group and yet who have lost the knack to be relevant to them? It is not just a question of finding a young leader or a popular choice or someone that wins for their communities. It is a question essentially of where Malaysia needs to go between General Election No.13 to General Election No.14 and which set of leaders in parliament and State cabinets would be able to sustain their portfolio with very little funding and very few opportunities for success stories in the next five years. We are heading for one of the worst recessions this world has ever seen. By the time we reach GE 14, there will not be a single person left in Malaysia who will tolerate any more broken or empty political promises and they will no longer accept the continuous discrimination and disenfranchised situations that certain sectors are already screaming about. These will no longer be compromised for a political rhetoric or carefully crafted “feel-good” political jargon. The many people who have crossed the paths of the NGO tracks I have traversed blame the “ghosts of government past” and that we are either living the terrible consequences of previous bad decisions or we simply continue to make bad decisions. So when the people scream for change they are basically asking the government one fundamental question: if we are in this situation today because you have sat and warmed those seats for the past 20 odd years or more without successfully listening to the pain we feel inside and without lifting us into a decent civil society with decent laws and policies that respect us irrespective of race and creed, then you are unlikely to change any of this in the next 5 years while we sit through the world’s worst economic crises. Therefore, are you willing to eat humble pie and make way for new leaders with new ideas who may be able to make a difference to the Malaysian community? 

Let there be choice and if their chosen ones fail, the people have themselves to blame. The fundamental right to vote comes with the fundamental right for every voter to have candidates presented to them equitably by parties and for them to exercise their democratic right to choose based on whatever grounds including their own personal ambitions and their own personal interests. At the end of the day, if quality is compromised over favouritism, self-interest and promises, communities will continue to stagnate and remain in their festering angry backwaters. 

There is a theory which suggests that well-paid politicians are less likely to seek their rewards elsewhere by compromising their own integrity and ethical standards. In a country that started with principled leaders who believe first and foremost in good governance, this theory is probably feasible and has been proven to be somewhat successful. In a country that has grown from seeds of greed and corruption, you are less likely to see this theory work because people are nurtured and conditioned in an environment where personal interest over the common good has become an accepted cultural norm.  

Malaysia’s cultural transformation basically took shape after Mahathir vacated his seat as the Prime Minister. It was around the same time that online critics and writers embraced a newfound sense of literary freedom where voices were given a stage upon which the masses were able to engage in public dialogue without the fear of imprisonment; a freedom which Mahathir himself is ironically enjoying. Far from being a weakness of Badawi or Najib, I saw this instead as a cultural revolution in itself and revealed the strength in Mahathir’s two successors that will mark their journeys as statesmen who were willing to take on the pent-up latent anger of those who took to the streets, the internet and the print media. There is no end to the flurry of furious voices who for so long had held their tongue because Mahathir was willing to lock them up and put them away, denying people the right to trials and destroying families who may have had their breadwinners in ISA. While a few Malaysians roamed this planet in unspeakable wealth, many more would struggle to put their children through universities only to find that they returned to a workforce that favoured a percentage sector. As these young people grew up listening to the spite and anger of their own parents, they harboured untold pain and suffering which no amount of political diplomacy will or can ever appease.  

This country is demanding a change; a systemic change that many believe means a change of the characters who have dominated the political scene for too long. People have forgotten that systemic change is also about enhancing the quality of the civil service. In Peninsular Malaysia, they are asking for a level playing field between the various races that will not allow certain sectors to gain at the expense of others. Over there, they are demanding for the right to review all laws which repress the people’s right to speak the most sensitive political issues and to abolish laws which imprison without fair trials. They are demanding for fair tenders in projects that will allow the best to flourish in a culture of equal opportunities while allowing the worse-off to live in a welfare society that will provide a decent standard of living without discrimination. In Sabah and Sarawak, much of the same is expected except for one fundamental difference. We see ourselves as having a more superior position as “Borneo States” compared to the “States of Malaya”. We are demanding the reinstatement of rights which pitch our playing field against the entire Peninsular on the premise that development policies in this country must respect the fact that Sabah and Sarawak are autonomous and that clear demarcations were set which spelt out the limitations of Federal control in both states in 1963. Much of what is happening in West Malaysia frustrates people in Sabah and Sarawak because we do not identify with those problems. The damage inflicted on the government and political parties in West Malaysia creates an impression in the Borneo States that the Federal powers have lost control and the consequence of such bad public perception is that many have lost trust and confidence in the policy of Federalisation that brings forth the culture and ways of West Malaysia at the expense of Borneonisation which Sabahans actually believe may bring forth greater equity and justice in their present system. The system of Borneonisation that prioritises a greater control by Sabahans over their own political and economic destiny in this State remains untested and there is also a lot of scepticism in Sabah as to whether we could trust our local leaders enough to be able to handle autonomy with greater integrity. If the system in place in this country is unacceptable to West Malaysians, the Borneo people would naturally assume that something isn’t right in the way Federalisation operates in this State and as such, many would probably be prepared to throw caution to the wind and allow the fulfilment of the first fundamental political promise Malaya made to Borneo on the 9th July 1963. This begs another fundamental question we would ask the government: Why are you silent on the part of history which marks your word when your word is meant to be your honour? 

Najib faces an incredibly daunting task in the next General Election. He is wealthy enough not to need a job as a politician. He is successful enough not to need the validation from the people that he is a smart man. Yet, the signs have shown that Najib is not prepared to go without a fight and he is tasked with manoeuvring the greatest team from his political army to go against the might of those who have proven their economic potential in opposition-held States. Najib would not want to vacate his position until such time as we can safely say that he created his own legacy of excellence which we could measure not by the existence of big buildings and towers and rich friends but by his ability to steer this country out of a recession when the rest of the developed world is crumbling and to be able to engage in fruitful collaboration with China as potentially our biggest trading partner in the next 5 years. The leader whom China trusts and gets on with in Malaysia is the man or woman we need as the Prime Minister in the next election. He or she must be able to harness the dissenting voices in this country with a firm but kind hand and allow such dialogues to flourish while politicians continue to bring economic development to their various ministerial portfolios and improve the standard of living of the people in this country, irrespective of their financial status, their sex, their creed or their race. For every leader that Najib chooses, it would be a leader who could individually sit with him one on one to discuss the outcome of his/her portfolios, irrespective of which party that leader belongs to. If Najib is prepared to speak to strangers in his Facebook, he must be prepared to scrutinise and know the brain and ability of every leader that represents the coalition under his wing and not take other people’s word for it. The captain of the ship must be able to anticipate the mutiny and the bounty.