August 18, 2018
Tariq Ismail takes on The Economist for calling Dr. Mahathir Mohamad “Chief of Everything”
By Tariq Ismail
I refer to the article referencing an editorial in The Economist entitled “Malaysia’s New Leaders Have Found Their First 100 Days Tough”.
The Economist editorial board opined that although Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has made headway in fulfilling key election pledges, in effect Mahathir is hindered by a “novice” Cabinet.
The article further contends that this has resulted in Mahathir having to become the “chief of everything”, thus reverting to his old autocratic ways. The piece also claims this is why Mahathir is retaining “cronies” such as those in the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) and Daim Zainuddin.
Malaysia’s ” Chief of Everything (The Economist)” or a strong crisis Leader ?
Worse still, The Economist is mischievously insinuating that Mahathir has no intention of dismantling racial policies seen as favouring the majority Malays despite his unexpected move in appointing Lim Guan Eng as Finance Minister.
The Economist further, and I have to say very subtly, insinuates that this state of governance is hindering Malaysia’s economic growth, by comparing Malaysia’s expected growth rate of 5% for 2018 against 6% in 2017.
I have to say, this is a very mischievous and almost maligning piece by The Economist. I thus feel compelled to enlighten the public, both local and foreign, of the state of matters as it stands.
The Economist, as influential as it is, must surely understand the nature of change, particularly involving changes in government. Who can forget the case of the Missing W’s when President George W Bush took over from President Bill Clinton? Or even the debacle of the US Cabinet appointments under the leadership of President Donald Trump? Yet, The Economist expects immediate and absolute perfection in the new Malaysian Cabinet line-up despite a game-changing opposition win after 60 years of single-party rule.
The Economist apparently fails to understand that in situations of change, there will be learning curves and gaps in knowledge and experience. That is only to be expected.
I challenge The Economist to undergo an equally momentous change without similar issues, just within its own organisation.
The Council of Eminent Persons is, in fact, a crisis management team. It is being led by former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin who took Malaysia out of two serious economic recessions. His leadership of CEP and his steady stewardship of the economy (in 1986 and 1998) is welcome by the international and domestic business community, given the uncertain times ahead as the trade war between America and China heats up. –Din Merican
The appointment of the CEP was made in recognition of this gap in experience and knowledge, particularly given the anticipated challenges in cleaning up after the Najib Razak administration. Professionals in the field of change will know that in such situations of extreme challenges, it is important to establish a team focused on clearing and cleaning up while the existing managers ensure that business runs as usual.
Failure to do so will exacerbate the tremendous problems currently faced.
It is just good change management practice and should be more relevant given the situation the new Malaysia finds itself in.
As for becoming the “chief of everything”, I am surprised The Economist says this. After all, isn’t a CEO a chief of everything? Yes, under normal circumstances, a CEO approves by exception only. However, these are exceptional times for new Malaysia. A new ruling alliance and fresh-faced ministers are confronted with a corruption and money-laundering scandal which has inspired a new field of study in international money-laundering, and these same fresh-faced ministers have to contend with the fall-out of that scandal domestically.
I ask the CEO at The Economist, had you been the incoming CEO in such a situation, would you freely delegate as you would in more normal circumstances? Or would you keep tighter control on the reins of power?
I have to say that despite all this, Mahathir has been admirably receptive and flexible to the suggestions and objections of the coalition ministers in his crafting of policies and handling of issues.
I think The Economist and regrettably most Western commentators on the new Malaysia underestimate the fine balance between the PH coalition and the public support behind it. There is an assumption, especially in the international media, that change was imminent simply based on the change instigated by PKR 20 years ago, and that this meant the PH coalition partners are all cut from the same cloth, so to speak, and are thus of one mind. This is a simplistic and careless analysis of Malaysian politics.
The reality is that Malaysia’s voting demographics, whether by economic standing or ethnicity, is fractious at best. This extends to political party support as well. PKR would never have made it on its own without the other coalition partners who are more modest in comparison but who still commanded crucial support from the section of society that could push PH over the 50% mark to win the election.
At this juncture, everyone would do well to remember that a coalition by definition is “a temporary alliance for combined action, especially of political parties forming a government”. Massive amounts of negotiation and give-and-take are required to make a coalition work, and even more so to make it historically successful. This does not happen without a firm leader guiding the numerous coalition partners in thought and deed, such that everyone reaches a consensus. If this is mistaken for Mahathir reverting to his “old autocratic ways”, I can assure you, a significant number of voting Malaysians are happy for it to remain so for now.
I say this because The Economist, and probably many others, seem to have forgotten the most important lesson of the new Malaysia. It is this: ordinary individuals who share the same universal values and the desire to do what is right by their own selves have the power to effect change regardless of race, ethnicity, economic standing, gender, age and ideology.
As such, The Economist’s pathetic attempts at stoking the fire of dissent and racial enmity topped by a prediction of poorer economic performance will not work in the new Malaysia. The people of the new Malaysia have always been the drivers of our own economic and political fortunes, good or bad. We know this for certain. And we know that as we did before, we can do so again if need be. The power is in our hands.
Tariq Ismail is a member of the PPBM Supreme Council.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.