Our Leaders and Test of History

January 2, 2011


Our Leaders and the Test of History

by Dr. Munir Majid*

I sometimes wonder, if he were to write a book,what Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah would say of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. And, indeed, when Mahathir publishes his, what he would make of Razaleigh. Not much, I guess, either way.

In the books they write, political readers usually lay claim to a larger calling and their big place in it, even if how big will be subject to the judgment of history.

In his memoirs (A Personal Journey), former British Prime Minister Tony Blair skipped about almost everything that occurred during his time, with not even a hint of an apology for the invasion of Iraq, but with a beautiful chapter on Princess Diana’s death and that exquisitely coined phrase, “the People’s Princess”. Also, there is not a chapter on his bete noire Gordon Brown–although there were plenty of snide comments on hs former friend turned bitter enemy in a fair bit of the book.

Brown, on the other hand, in his excellent monograph, Beyond the Crash, stayed true to his commitment to public duty with his clarion call to overcome the first crisis of globalisation. Blair? He got one mention on Page 23 (the same number as Anwar Ibrahim in relation to a discussion over a dinner in 1998 at which I was present as Securities Commission chairman).

Will Mahathir go into greater detail on the battle for UMNO with Tengku Razaleigh and the subsequent bringing down of the Judiciary in 1988, or on the Asian Financial crisis of 1997-98 when he singlehandedly took on International Monetary Fund orthodoxy and turned the country around? My guess is we will read more about his Herculean success with the latter.

Apart from their big place in history, another instinct political leaders have is to avoid awkward points in it. In her perhaps premature autobiography, Living History, Hillary Clinton only accords a couple of paragraphs to the Monica Lewinsky affair–whereas the media had been full of it, and her husband mortally damaged his presidency for having lied through it.

In Malaysian history–perhaps the exception of Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman’s diaries, which somehow left me craving for deeper backgrounding–there has not been much good writing from the horse’s mouth, as it were, by the political leaders. Tunku Abdul Rahman stands out as the most endearing for not avoiding awkward points. Why, of course, he did drink and had his good times with fast cars and perhaps even faster women. Didn’t everyone?

Never a hypocrite, he (the Tunku) took the opportunity to hit back at Mahathir in his column in The Star newspaper. He did not spare policies by Mahathir that he did not agree with, no doubt also influenced by the fourth prime minister’s part in bringing him down after the May 1969 riots. To his credit, Mahathir tolerated it, although in truth there was not much else he could do to the Tunku that he did to everybody else. After all, playing the central role in the Tunku’s political downfall was enough.

One wonders if and what Tun Musa Hitam would write. The witty and smooth former politician would make interesting reading now that he does not have to posture in a political role. There were three of them in that age group– Musa, Razaleigh and Tun Daim Zainuddin— who have been friends and foes, in love and in war, so to speak. Really, they should all be writing (I understand Daim is doing his version) so that the youths of today would understand the past as they look to the future–something our top leaders harp on often enough. The reading habit nowadays seems to be limited to blogohistory, which is a pernicious thing.

Tun Abdullah Badawi and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim should have a lot of interesting events to relate. Abdullah’s time as prime minister, although short (October 2003 to March 2009, the last year of which was largely informed by a face saving succession plan), saw a transformation in the most concentrated fashion on Malaysian history, second only to the rise of Barisan Nasional and the New Economic Policy, which were however brought on by the violence of 1969. Even if he may be too laid back to relate all this, he could perhaps do it in the style of Sukarno: An Autobiography as told to Cindy Adams, although one would expect him to stop at the telling, which was not what Sukarno actually did.

Anwar, when in power, was no different from other Malaysian politicians. However, when out of power, he is something else completely. I would not joing the barrage demonising him, particularly the Malay media, which could not have enough of him when he was in power;neither would I consider him God’s Gift to us all in Malaysia, which, I must say, is a shocking proposition. Yet, he is a fascinating political phenomenon. It he does tell his own story, I suspect the writing him would veer from Greek tragedy to Prince of Darkness.

Of course, both Abdullah and Anwar have had things published and have done their writings, of sorts–actually, rather stodgy, promotional stuff on hobby horses like Islam Hadhari and the Asian Rennaisance–nothing particularly reflective on political events in our country.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is too busy at the moment. But, with his analytical skills and structured thinking, he is best suited to match Lee Kuan Yew’s two volumes of memoirs. Like it or hate it, those volumes are an impressive record of the Singapore Story.

I understand preparation of the memoirs was thorough, with endless challenges and criticism of drafts until a final version came through. As you can expect with Lee, it must have been a monumental task to drop even a comma from his original draft. Thus, Lee published a tried and tested version that I place on the top shelf among political memoirs of his generation.

There is not yet the compelling Malaysian story, as top by a top Malaysian political leader. The Tunku’s writings are rather whimsical. Second premier Tun Razak, alas, simply did not have enough time. With no disrespect meant, the honourable Tun Hussein Onn would have taken too long and he retired by choice becoming, by a whisker, the shortest serving prime minister the country ever had. Mahathir, our longest serving prime minister, would naturally have the most to tell and during his time the most number of big things happened. But his hectoring style and acutely political predisposition might not make his tome easy and enjoyable reading.

I think Najib is the one best suited to come up with the kind of political memoir that could intellectually match the best in the world and stand the test of history. Even as he is working on so much else, he should work on it, and recognise celebratory biographies for what they are.

*(Tan Sri) Dr. Munir Majid, Chairman of Malaysia Airlines, is Visiting Senior Fellow, London School of Economics IDEAS Centre, United Kingdom

21 thoughts on “Our Leaders and Test of History

  1. Real funny! As though people are clueless of Najib’s doing.
    Visiting senior fellow of LSE-you must have lost touch with the ground as you are always up in the air.

  2. One more comment:

    When Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP came to power, they cleaned up corruption in Singapore. I’m not a supporter of the PAP and its repressive style of governance. But at least they succeeded in terms of economic growth and transformation of the structure of the Singapore economy. At a recent meeting in Austria that I attended, you can sense the respect of the audience when members of the Singaporean delegation spoke.
    Dr. Phua,
    It is all about honest government working hard and standing up for Singapore. I am an admirer of Singapore’s governance. Their leaders transformed the economy.–Din Merican

  3. “Najib is the one best suited to come up with the kind of political memoir that could intellectually match the best in the world and stand the test of history.” Munir

    My budak boy college mate has either gone bonkers or is trying hard to do what he does best – apple polishing or more succinctly, bodeking.

    I think it’s the latter.

  4. More serious comment than just a one liner sentence is required from you, Mongkut Bean.

    Writing memoirs, especially like LKY’s, is a challenge for anyone. Lots of research with back-up of specialist help will be needed, if you want it be exceptional and not one which is about “I did this and I did that”. I would agree with Dr. Munir Majid that Najib would be able to do better than his immediate predecessor, Badawi because Najib is doing a lot of new stuff, but now he requires the people’s endorsement via the ballot box.

    Remember like Badawi, Anwar too started with lofty ideals and a bold vision, but when he failed to execute his vision to be business unusual and in stead resorted to conventional politiking after March 2008, he lost his way and his credibility eroded. But he too can write an interesting book of his political life since he has a good group of writers and researchers around him.

    I would say that Mahathir’s memoirs would make an interesting read. He is a prolific writer with a number of books and articles to his credit. But as Dr. Munir says, “his hectoring style and acutely political predisposition might not make his tome easy and enjoyable reading”.

    Mahathir would in all probability be very defensive and self serving. Well, we will have to wait for it before we can form any final conclusion about its value to us as readers.

    I would, however, agree that comparing Najib’s to be written memoirs to an already written LKY tome is a little over the top. Najib’s premiership has just begun and we have yet to see the full effects of his policies and programmes. Only time will tell. History is still the best judge. And leaders must face the test of history.–Din Merican

  5. A political memoir on Najib would be an interesting reading if it does not skirt around issues and happenings that would not be too kind to his liking. If his memoir is akin to Tony Blair’s, then many may shun away. I believe, the latter will be the case.

    The denial syndrome seems to be a facet of his life. It will be interesting to see if he will open up and spice it with revelations of the ” truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God”, kind of thing.

  6. Munir always uses everything at his disposal to further his position.

    Dinobeano – don’t give him the respect of considering what he said in this article because it was written with one objective in mind – to bodek the current boss.

  7. Tony Blair’s book was already being sold at half price very soon after it appeared in bookshops in England! I was almost tempted to buy a copy because of the attractive half-price.

    Still wondering why an intelligent man like him would be sucked into George W. Bush’s neo-conservative-inspired imperial war.

    Anyway, there is an interesting book called “The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders Since 1945” by historian Peter Hennessy on the post-war British Prime Ministers. The most interesting being Labour Party’s Clement Attlee of British welfare state fame and the Conservative Party’s Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher.

  8. Munir is a smart alec – a by-product of RMC which churned out many outstanding professionals and personalities.

    Throwing around his idea of a memoir of Najib now that Najib is the PM, may be made out of ordinary. But on the same breath, it could also be like the Malay saying, “ada udang di sebalik batu”, or a tendency towards bodek-ing.

  9. at his age and level…still doing apple polishing…shame on you dr munir, unless the contract for mas chaimanship is about to expire….expire or not enough ( cukup ) lah tu …..i would not comment at the details from the article, some are definately hilarious……

  10. Din

    The penmenship of memoirs is done after you have left the office and you feel the ned to tell the “story” from your own perspective and as you lived the events. that is what LKY did. Even then there will critiques who have their own perspective of events which may be different. History has to be seen from both the winners and losers perspectives and other independent observers.

    Unfortunately in Malaysia, even its past history, including pre-colonial and the times of the Hindu and Buddhist Kingdoms are being denied! Colonial and pre- as well as post merdeka history is being distorted. None of our leaders in the past 50 years have penned anything for us to understand ourselves better. Even the intellectuals in our universities write to please the UMNO bureaucracy!

    Munir’s little piece is self serving and no more.

  11. Guys, bokeking in Bolehland has turned into an art form. You’ve Al Kutty to thank for this one single most effective transformation coming in the wake of a revival of Mahathirism. Munir is just part of the larger picture.

    Bodeking goes beyond deeds and actions, paying homage and singing in tune are part and parcel of the syllabus.

    In the army it involves sending the spouses to the commander’s house to “giling rempah” in order to be in the good books of the boss. That’s the extent some would go.

    If I am PM tomorrow, hopefully not, Munir will be singing the same tune all over again. He’ll allude to RMC and budak boy as his opening intro.

    Way to go, Munir…

  12. A worthless piece of article that adds nothing to the furtherance of human knowledge or advancement of M’sian society.

    Munir must have too much free time in London and has completely forgotten the number of times Rosemajib has openly lied to the M’sian public. What short memories these establishment psuedo-intellectual testicle carriers have!

    we are all of 1 race, the Human Race

  13. ” Is this all a graduate from London School of Economics has to say ? Sheeesh … ” – Mr Bean

    Hahahahah ….. wow .. Mr Bean, how astute a remark . An economy of words but your words do speak and say plenty, contrary to what Mr Din thinks.

    I do agree with you Mr Bean , that this article is unworthy of time spent to read it . I wonder how it made it into the edge at all. Similarly , I wonder why Mr Din thinks your comment above is not enough. How does one comment on something written by a d..khead with no content?
    There is content in Munir’s piece, only that you do not like it. You should refute that the statement that leaders must be subject to the test of history because that is the theme of Munir’s article.–Din Merican

  14. Din,

    I’m so sorry. Apparently the verdict is unanimous.

    This Munir should be writing about his other First Collegian buddy whose only credentials for the position of CEO of Proton was his constant polishing and stretching of Mahathir’s nuts and his only experience with cars is that he likes to race in one.

  15. “I do agree with you Mr Bean , that this article is unworthy of time spent to read it . I wonder how it made it into the edge at all. Similarly , I wonder why Mr Din thinks your comment above is not enough. How does one comment on something written by a d..khead with no content”. Salmiah


    It is one of those hollow pieces written by someone who has no clue where he is coming from or where he’s going, or whether he’s coming or going.

    Devoid of substance. What esle do you call a piece of work when at the end you are compelled to ask, “So??”

    It is OK to call someone a dickhead Salmiah. Over here that will be a right protected under the First Amendment and nobody can take that away from you.

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