December 24th, 2007
Someone ought to tell Prime Minister Abdullah that he is not up to the job. Malaysia deserves better. If he truly loves his party and country, as he frequently professes, he should acknowledge his limitations and gracefully pave the way for someone else. As one prominent Malaysian wrote me, it is a tragedy at this stage of our development to have foisted upon us a leader who is clueless, incompetent and arrogant. He has taken all of us for a ride, he continued.
His is the sombong si bodoh (arrogance of ignorance).
This is not the time to maintain our silence, elegant or otherwise. That would only embolden Abdullah, prodded by his advisors, to pursue his current disastrous path. We already have too many preacher boys who for peanuts would willingly spread his message that the world is flat. The next day and with a few more cheap candies thrown their way, they would preach with even greater gusto that the world is indeed round.
Abdullah’s crude handling of the recent Bersih and Hindraf rallies, the largest in a decade, was merely the latest demonstrations of his ineptness. The choice is not, as he naively put it, between public safety and freedom, rather in enhancing both.
There is no safety without freedom. Suppressed, humans will ultimately erupt like a volcano, and with equally unpredictable devastations. Freedom without safety is anarchy. Safety and freedom are two sides of the same coin; each complements the other and both are hallmarks of civilized societies. “Safety” without freedom is illusory.
Abdullah’s “public safety before public freedom” argument is specious; it only reveals the latent tyrannical streak or prison-warden mentality in him. A few more years of him and Malaysians would lose whatever little freedom we have, and the much-sought safety would still elude us.
Delivering the Message
While many Malaysians share my view of Abdullah, not many have taken upon themselves of conveying this critical message to him. Even if they were, there is no assurance that Abdullah would listen. He has the stubborn streak of a village idiot.
Former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir tried, but his typically blunt and in your face message did not register with Abdullah. He is the typical village penghulu who responds best to cakap selindung, berkias, berpantun, dan bergurindam (indirect, allegorical, poetic, and humorous language), as we say in my kampong.
Next to try was Tengku Razaleigh; he too was direct in frontally challenging Abdullah for the leadership. Like Mahathir, Ku Li too failed.
Recently the MP from Kota Baru, Zaid Ibrahim gently chided Abdullah to be more enlightened in dealing with public dissent: engagement instead of suppression. Zaid not so subtly reminded Abdullah that contrary to his assertion, rallies and demonstrations are very much a part of our culture. Indeed that was how we derailed the Malayan Union proposal and gained our independence.
Musa Hitam recently repeated the same theme. He related his experience in convincing the long-time President of Maldives to be more tolerant of public rallies and expressions of dissent. Musa challenged Abdullah to “Try lah!”
Musa Hitam surprised me. Since receiving his Tunship, courtesy of Abdullah, Musa has been the administration’s chief cheerleader. To Tun Musa, Abdullah could do no wrong. This time however it would be Musa’s turn to be surprised; he too would find that Abdullah is dense to suggestions. Worse, Abdullah would now consider Musa as one of those ungrateful “Melayu mudah lupa,” (Malays who forget easily). Unlike the Maldives President, Abdullah is innately incurious and intellectually lazy, with little capacity for learning.
Musa might also have had better luck had he conveyed his message in private instead of through a public interview.
Understanding Abdullah’s Psyche
Abdullah is your typical Malay leader that we see too often today and in much of our history: not too bright and only too susceptible to flattery. The British read this Malay psyche well, which is how they managed to “advise” the Malay rulers. A perfunctory visit to Buckingham Palace, an exalted Knighthood of some Medieval Order, a modest pension, and the delusion that their throne was on par with the British crown were all that was needed for our sultans to willingly cede Singapore and effectively give up their sovereignty.
President Bush too read Abdullah well; a token visit to the White House silenced Abdullah over American excesses in Iraq and tamed the OIC that he chairs. With Abdullah’s silent submission, the leadership of the Muslim world by default now falls onto such characters as Iran’s wily Ahmadnejad.
Closer to home, Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee who despite his close association with many would-be Malay leaders during his university years in Britain, utterly failed to comprehend the Malay psyche. Surprisingly, the younger Lee despite his lack of close association with Malays seemed to have read Abdullah better.
Lee, Jr., has also learned well from history, specifically from the British. That is, Malay leaders are suckers for flattery. Praise them effusively and they would willingly part with their prized heirlooms.
It is instructive that Singapore was the first foreign country to invite Abdullah for a state visit. Its leaders were uncharacteristically effusive in praising him. As a result, while earlier sultan would readily ceded Singapore, Abdullah now readily gives up a big chunk of the southern tip of the peninsula.
Singapore’s institutions, undoubtedly prompted from high above, have also been generous in honoring senior Malaysian personalities. Witness the recent awarding of an honorary doctorate to the Sultan of Johore by the National University of Singapore.
Many members of Abdullah’s inner circle were invited to address prominent think tanks and other institutions in the Republic. They were flattered by such invitations and could hardly hide their pride back home; an implicit acknowledgement of Singapore’s successful strategy! UMNO Youth leaders now regularly play golf with their PAP counterparts. No marks for predicting who would win those tournaments!
Senior UMNO statesmen would do well to copy Singapore’s techniques to reach Abdullah. Praise the man sky high and humor his ego. Once you have him in your pocket, the rest would be easy.
Massaging Abdullah’s Ego
Abdullah is a simple man and not too bright to boot; massaging his ego should not be a challenge, despite his recent fondness for the lifestyle of the rich and famous, at public expense of course. Apart from the prerequisite luxurious corporate jet, he is now partial to fancy sailing yachts. Never mind that he hasn’t a clue what a jib or sheet is. Yachting after all is synonymous with affluence and elegance; it is the style he is after. Again, typically Malay! He is too much of a klutz to indulge in such royal sports as polo and horse riding; besides those were already the hobbies of his predecessor. No glamour in imitating!
Humor Abdullah! Tell him he deserves all those perks after years of patient and loyal public service. Treat him like Sukarno. Make him take as many overseas trips as possible; he is useless at home anyway. The more he is away, the less likely for him to wreck damage on the country.
In short, treat him like a sultan; he already relishes that role. Indulge his fantasy. Notice that his wife is now being regularly referred to as the First Lady. And she and him are absolutely lapping it up.
There is only one slight problem. Who is going to mind the store? For Abdullah to play the sultan, he would need a capable deputy who would be the de facto chief executive. We had precedence for this. While Tunku Abdul Rahman was enjoying himself as the “world’s happiest Prime Minister,” he had the capable Tun Razak running the show.
It is said that under the old Soviet System, its ambassadors were merely titular heads of their respective embassies; the Chefs De Mission (DCM) were the real power. In that way the Ambassador could hobnob with the native elite while important consular work like spying would still be carried out by the DCM. Further, if the Ambassador were to be drunk or in any way caught in a compromising situation, state secrets would be safe, as he knew nothing!
The snag here is that Abdullah’s current deputy, Najib Razak, is equally inept. Making Abdullah dump Najib would be tough as they are both pathologically dependent on each other. Each harbors the other’s dark secrets. The only way would be to disguise the maneuver as an attempt to spite Mahathir. Abdullah is not fond of Najib anyway; Mahathir hoisted Najib upon Abdullah and he was too meek to object. I am certain that Abdullah is still chafing at that. Dumping Najib would even the score for Abdullah with respect to Mahathir.
While Abdullah may be susceptible to such a suggestion, his hangers-on and courtiers would not. Those who depend on his “protection” would stand to lose the most and would thus readily see through and object to the plan. However, if we flatter Abdullah enough, he would unhesitatingly give up his hangers-on. Earlier Malay leaders had given up even more when they were sufficiently flattered.
The alternative of doing nothing would be to doom our nation on an irreversible course towards perpetual mediocrity. As for Abdullah, there is only one thing worse than having a tyrant as a ruler, and that would be to have a not-too-smart one.