Rally shows need for a radical revamp of the curriculum


December 10,2018

Rally shows need for a radical revamp of the curriculum

by Dr.Azly Rahman@ www. malalaysiakini.com

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Book Review: Gandhi and the End of Empire


December 8, 2018

Book Review : Gandhi and the End of Empire

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Image result for Gandhi

Two new books bring sharply different perspectives to bear on the history of British imperialism in India up until the end of the Raj in 1947. Together, they offer important insights into how national political identities can evolve on the basis of self-awareness or self-delusion.

NEW DELHI – The books under review both describe the people and events that shaped the final years of the British Raj in India, and demonstrate a magisterial command of their subject. But the similarities end there: these books could not be more different in the ground they cover or, ultimately, in their sympathies.

The first is by Ramachandra Guha, a well-known Indian historian whose previous works include an excellent biography of Mahatma Gandhi’s early life until 1914 (Gandhi Before India), and a historical survey of modern India following the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948 (India After Gandhi). Guha’s new book, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948, fills the gap in between, describing the final three and a half decades in the life of a saintly nationalist hero who would eventually be remembered as the father of a newly independent India. By contrast, the Mahatma plays no role in The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, the historian David Gilmour’s study of India’s colonial tormentors.

Gandhi’s Larger Truth

Gandhi, as we know, was the extraordinary leader of the world’s first successful non-violent movement against colonial rule. But he was also a philosopher committed to living out his own ideas, whether they applied to individual self-improvement or social change; hence the subtitle of his autobiography: “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.”

No dictionary definition of “truth” captures the depth of meaning that Gandhi found in it. His truth, Guha notes, emerged from his convictions, and contained not just what was accurate, but what was just and therefore right. Such truth could not be obtained by “untruthful” or unjust means, especially the use of violence.

Gandhi described his method as satyagraha, which literally means “holding on to truth,” or, as he variously described it, harnessing a “truth-,” “love-,” or “soul-force.” He disliked the English term “passive resistance,” because satyagraha required activism. To Gandhi, one who believes in truth and cares enough to obtain it cannot afford to be passive, and must be prepared to suffer actively for it.

Viewed in this way, non-violence – like the later concepts of non-cooperation and non-alignment – is not merely about renouncing violence, but about vindicating truth. In non-violence, suffering is intentionally taken upon oneself – instead of being inflicted on one’s opponents – because only by willingly accepting punishment can one demonstrate the strength of one’s convictions vis-à-vis one’s oppressors.

Guha details how Gandhi applied this approach to India’s movement for independence. Non-violence succeeded where sporadic terrorism and moderate constitutionalism had both failed. Gandhi showed the masses that freedom was a simple matter of right and wrong, and he furnished them with a form of resistance for which the British had no response.

Non-violent civil disobedience enabled Gandhi to expose the injustice of the law, giving him a moral advantage. By accepting his captors’ punishment, he held a mirror up to their brutality. And through hunger strikes and other acts of self-imposed suffering, he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go in defense of truth. In the end, he rendered the perpetuation of British rule impossible, by exposing the lie at the heart of imperialist paternalism.

An Enigmatic Life

Yet as Guha reminds us, Gandhi’s fight was not just against imperialism, but also against religious bigotry at home – a commitment that is very relevant to the current era. The descendants of Gandhi’s detractors on the Hindu right now hold power in India, and support for their brand of nationalism is at an all-time high. In their estimation, Gandhi went too far to accommodate Muslim interests. Within the jingoistic Hindutva movement, his pacifism is regarded as unmanly.

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948

But Gandhi, an openly practicing and deeply committed Hindu, defended a version of the faith that was inclusive and universalist, and thus demanded respect for all other faiths. Gandhi was murdered for being too pro-Muslim, and yet he died with the name of the Hindu god Rama on his lips. In the event, he had just come out of a fast that was meant to pressure his own followers, the ministers of the new Indian government, into transferring a larger share of undivided India’s assets to the new state of Pakistan. (Much to the Pakistanis’ horror, Gandhi had also announced that he would spurn the country he had failed to keep united, and spend the rest of his years in Pakistan.)

Such was the enigma of Gandhi. An idealistic, quirky, quixotic, and determined man, he marched only to the beat of his own drum, and often got everyone else to pick up the same rhythm. It has been said that he was half saint, half Tammany Hall politician. Like the best crossbreeds, he managed to synthesize the qualities of his component parts while transcending their contradictions.

But the Mahatma had a personal life, too. Guha describes in some detail Gandhi’s intimate friendship with a married woman, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani (though there is no suggestion of a physical relationship). He also recounts the troubling story of Gandhi’s experiments in sleeping naked with young women (including his own grand-niece) to test his vow of celibacy. Though there can be no doubt about the purity of his intentions – Gandhi gave up sex at the age of 35 – nor can there be any question that such idiosyncratic behavior alienated many of his followers (and remains controversial today).

Still, nothing in Guha’s thorough account diminishes Gandhi’s greatness or the extraordinary and lasting resonance of his life and message. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence, and war, the Mahatma espoused the virtues of truth, non-violence, and peace, and left colonialism utterly discredited. Moreover, he set an example of personal conviction and courage that few will ever match. He was that rare leader who transcends the inadequacies of his followers.

India for the English

The British ruled India for centuries with unshakeable self-confidence, buttressed by protocol, alcohol, and a lot of gall. Stalin, for his part, found it “ridiculous” that “a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India.” Though his numbers were off, he was right in principle: the British Raj operated with remarkably few people. Even at the peak of the empire in 1931, there were just 168,000 Britons – including 60,000 in the army and police, and a mere 4,000 in civil government – to run a country of some 300 million people. The British in India never accounted for more than 0.05% of the population.

In his monumental book, Gilmour sheds light on how they did it. He delves meticulously into the lives of Britons who lived and worked in India over the course of “three centuries of ambition and experience.” (An Indian might be tempted to substitute “looting and racism” to describe the colonial period, but we won’t dwell on that.) A decade ago, in The Ruling Caste, Gilmour took readers on a similarly deep dive into the lives of the Englishmen who worked in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). But in his new volume, he has broadened the range substantially to include the soldiers, journalists, and “boxwallahs” (commercial classes), as well as the hunters who single-handedly decimated most of the subcontinent’s wildlife. In the case of the latter, they lived by the motto, “It’s a fine day, let’s go and kill something.”

In describing the social backgrounds of the young men whom Britain sent to govern its far-flung empire, Gilmour takes us through their examinations, training, postings, social lives, professional duties, and extracurricular (sometimes extramarital) activities. Much of this is familiar ground, notably trodden by the ICS’s own Philip Mason in his 1985 book The Men Who Ruled India. But Gilmour has pored over a wealth of private papers and unpublished correspondence, leaving his narrative enriched by an intimacy that humanizes his subjects.

More broadly, Gilmour explains how the British sustained their empire in India through an extraordinary combination of racial self-assurance, superior military technology, the mystique of modernity, the trappings of enlightened progressivism, and brute force. Of course, it should also be said that the British benefited a great deal from the cravenness, cupidity, opportunism, disunity, and lack of organized resistance on the part of the vanquished.

Paternalism and Oppression

The British were in India to do a job: to advance the strategic, commercial, and political interests of their home country. Interestingly, Gilmour notes that two-thirds of the viceroys in the six decades from 1884 had attended Eton, as had half of the governors of the richest province, Bombay. Elitism at home reinforced racism abroad.

The British in India

Though Indians were permitted to take the civil-service examination from 1868 onward, they were long relegated to inferior positions. As one viceroy, Lord Mayo, put it, “We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race.” Needless to say, few shared Queen Victoria’s “romantic feelings for brown skins.” In Gilmour’s telling, the British had no illusions about preparing Indians for self-government. Their view of Indians was paternalistic at best, but more often contemptuous. Well into the twentieth century, Britons on the subcontinent spoke and wrote of the need to treat Indians like “children” incapable of ruling themselves.

There were British families that served the empire in India over the course of several generations – some for more than 300 years – without ever establishing roots. They would often send their own children “home” for schooling while they “endured” years of separation from loved ones. But it was not all self-sacrifice and hard work. The British in India were afforded not just generous furloughs and a guaranteed pension, but also the highest salaries in the empire. Some found it “quite impossible” even to spend their income. It is little wonder that English political reformer John Bright once described the empire as a “gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain.”

British society in India was shamelessly committed to its own pleasures. The families and hangers-on of senior officials routinely withdrew to mountain redoubts for months on end. As they whiled away their time with dances, banquets, and social fripperies, the Indian people, well out of their sight, continued to be ruthlessly exploited. In the summer capital of Simla, for example, so-called grass widows took in the cooler air while their husbands stayed behind to toil in the hot plains. These socialites’ principal activities included gambling, drinking, dancing, and adultery – usually in that order.

Meanwhile, racism became entrenched, pervasive, and increasingly repugnant over time. But while Gilmour acknowledges the racism, he does not address its connection to British self-interest. The Indians were systematically shown their place, with even those in government service being condemned to inferior ranks, piddling pay, and scarce opportunities for career advancement. As independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said of the ICS, it was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service.”

White-Washed Imperialism

Gilmour writes accessibly, often wittily, and with a wealth of telling anecdotes to bring the story to life. But he is unforgivably non-judgmental toward his subjects. The British imperial system was hopelessly disconnected from the Indians in whose interests it claimed to govern. Yet the very foreignness that Indians regarded as an indictment of colonial rule, Gilmour takes for granted, sometimes even framing it as a virtue.

Accordingly, he presents his cast of characters not just impartially, but often in an affectionate, sardonic light. Rarely does it seem to have occurred to him that these same men were racist oppressors, or at the very least the embodiment of a larger system of iniquity and injustice.

As a result, The British in India comes across as a curiously old-fashioned book, oblivious to the post-colonial currents that have already upended its assumptions. Because Gilmour demonstrates little awareness of the Indian perspective toward the British, we never learn what the subjects actually thought about their subjugators. The growing political consciousness among Indians that Guha describes makes no appearance, even though it provoked a British reaction.

Gilmour also disregards the unforgivable British attitude toward famines. Yet the deaths of 35 million Indians as a result of British imperial policy would seem to undermine his portraits of glittering durbars and elegant soirees.

The fact is that the British did little to advance the welfare of the people they were exploiting. As foreign rulers, they were more concerned with stability. Their job was to ensure imperial profit, not Indian progress, which would have undermined imperial rule anyway. Britain’s presence in India was motivated principally by pillage and plunder, but you wouldn’t know that from Gilmour’s telling. Only an Englishman could write about an emotionally fraught subject like colonialism with such benign detachment.

In reality, by the early nineteenth century, the British had established themselves as a ruling caste not within Indian society, but on top of it. They did not intermarry or even dine with Indians. They lived in bungalows within exclusive cantonments or “Civil Lines,” well apart from the “Black Towns” where the locals lived. They ensconced themselves in little islands of Englishness in the hill stations, where they planted ferns and roses, and built cottages with nostalgia-suffused names like Grasmere Lodge in Udhagamandalam (which the British, unable to pronounce the name, re-baptized “Ooty”). They patronized whites-only social clubs from which even Indian ICS men were blackballed.

More to the point, the British in India sneered at the people whose oppression paid for their comforts. Their loyalties remained staunchly wedded to their faraway homeland. Neither they nor their children mingled with the “natives.” Their clothes, books, and ideas all came from Britain, and British interests always took priority over those of the Indians under their rule. For the most part, the Britons would return “home” at the end of their careers. As the English writer Henry Nevinson observed in 1907, “A handful of people from a distant country maintain a predominance unmitigated by social intercourse, marriage, or permanent residence.”

That was the life of the British in India. Gandhi led the revolt that brought their sordid sojourn to an end. Guha and Gilmour offer an indispensable portrait of the people on each side of the colonial drama. As an Indian, though, I have little doubt about who is the worthier subject.

 

3 Books About George H.W. Bush’s Legacy


December 8 , 2018

 

 

Newsbook

 

George Herbert Walker Bush, who was president from 1989 to 1993, died on Nov. 30; his state funeral in Washington National Cathedral is today. As memorial services continue throughout the week, many are publicly reckoning with his one-term presidency. Some have praised his statesmanship and decency, while others have criticized his insufficient action during the AIDS epidemic and his role in paving the way for the extreme partisanship of today through campaign methods including an infamously racist ad featuring Willie Horton and aided by his chief strategist, Lee Atwater. Here are three books that discuss his life and legacy.

[Read The Times obituary of President George H.W. Bush.]

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BEING POPPY
A Portrait of George Herbert Walker Bush
By Richard Ben Cramer
192 pp. Simon & Schuster. (2013)

 

Cramer’s original opus was a more than 1,000-page-long accounting of the 1988 presidential election, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” in which he delved into the idiosyncrasies and flaws of George H.W. Bush, Joseph Biden, Gary Hart and three other candidates running for the presidency in 1988. In that book, Cramer “set out to write neither campaign history nor political biography,” wrote our reviewer. His main goal was to “examine what leads a person to enter the cement mixer of presidential politics and what happens to him once he does.” “Being Poppy” is drawn from those pages, isolating the story of George H.W. Bush’s candidacy into a slimmer offering.

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THE FAMILY
The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty
By Kitty Kelley
705 pp. Doubleday. (2004)

In this cross-generational family saga, “Kelley reminds readers just how long the Bushes have been with us, sweeping like cattle raiders toward the sources of power.” She opens with Prescott Bush (1895-1972), the elder Bush’s father, and then spends considerable time on H.W. and his namesake son. Kelley depicts George H.W. Bush as “hungrier for power than we remember and willing to do just about anything to achieve it,” said our reviewer, adding that “it is startling to read Kelley’s account of Bush (whose father was relatively progressive on racial issues) campaigning hard against the civil rights movement and calling Martin Luther King ‘a militant.’”

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DESTINY AND POWER
The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
By Jon Meacham
836 pp. Random House. (2015)

Meacham gained unprecedented access to the Bush family patriarch for this biography, in which he covers 41’s personal life — including the tragic death of his daughter from leukemia as a toddler — as well as his political career. Both of our reviews, though largely positive, wrote that Meacham’s biography was sometimes too forgiving of its subject’s flaws and controversial decisions, such as his nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas. Still, the book broke new ground, particularly in reporting Bush’s criticisms of Dick Cheney, whom he credited for his son’s administration’s harsh rhetoric against foreign nations. “But the pleasures of this panoramic book (it clocks in at 800-plus pages) have little to do with the news it breaks,” wrote our reviewer. “They’re about psychological portraiture, enabled by the artful use of Mr. Bush’s diaries — they’re surprisingly rich — and the author’s many probing interviews with Mr. Bush over the years.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A3 of the New York edition with the headline: Here to Help; Three Books on the Legacy of George H.W. Bush. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

 

 

The dangers of feudalism in Malaysian society


December 7,2018

The dangers of feudalism in Malaysian society

 

Image result for dr syed hussein alatas--"Intellectuals in Developing Societies”.
 

We Malaysians are so used to feudalism. The culture of patronage and neo-feudalism is firmly entrenched in the 21st century Malaysian mindset. A feeding tube, through which “bebalisma” trickles, regularly nourishes this culture.

Bebalisma is a concept encompassing the notions of foolishness, idiocy, brainlessness, irresponsibility, unintelligence and half-wittedness. The late Syed Hussein Alatas, lexiconnoisseur par excellence, devoted an entire chapter to bebalisma (Chapter 3) in his masterpiece, “Intellectuals in Developing Societies”.

Image result for dr syed hussein alatas--"Intellectuals in Developing Societies”.

A Corrupt and Disgraced feudal  Malay Politician

The development of Malaysia’s post-colonial politics has been chequered by these notions. Our political history exposes an intellectual development that has gone awry. We can blame none other than our enduring culture of patronage and neo-feudalism. It continues to be the assembly line in which bebalisma is efficiently manufactured, packaged and recycled for eager market consumption. Post-May 9 political transformations have not been spared. I take note of a few developments post-GE14 to demonstrate that feudalism is very much alive despite prevailing anti-corruption, anti-racist and anti-bigotry sentiments that brought the Barisan Nasional administration to its knees.

In October, the central leadership of DAP rightfully called for the prohibition of elected representatives and councillors from accepting titles and awards while still in active political service. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong and state rulers were informed of DAP’s decision that titles and awards should be accepted only after the awardees have proven themselves in active service with positive results.

Awards during service is unjustified and leads to complacency. Given the feudal mentality of Malaysian society, a Datuk, Datuk Seri, Tan Sri or Tun has the upper hand in many aspects of governance including access to corrupt practices. We have seen in the previous administration how this abuse gained momentum, and the attention it was given by the media. For instance, in 2017 a series of print and online newspapers carried stories of “Datuks breaking the law”. One newspaper even suggested that at the rate so many Datuks and Datuk Seris are getting into trouble, “the Prison Department might have to build a new wing just to house these VIPs”. The editor of that newspaper had a welcoming tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. However, such humour is premised on acceptable norms but unacceptable cultural values.

Datuks and Tan Sris are VIPs, but whether they are given preferential treatment or not as criminals should not be open to debate. I would like to see more of our media focusing on the phenomenon that our feudal past should stay in the past. Furthermore, the donning of the notorious “orange lock-up” attire is befitting for all criminals, irrespective of whether they were former leaders in government. A criminal is a criminal. Society was cheated, individuals were hurt, citizens’ rights were looted. A title should not have the power to minimise such violations of societal values.

The general public and the ruling elite must change the prevailing perception of what it means to be respected in society. Feudal notions of respect are superficial and empty. An individual earns respect based on services rendered, not on how many lines your name is.

These services have to benefit a majority rather than a select minority with vested interests. The feudal attitude that is so prevalent in Malaysia has resulted in what Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has bemoaned for a long time, more so since he took office in May this year. The sense of shame among Malaysians is at an all-time low.

But how can one feel ashamed of being corrupt or committing academic fraud if punishment is going to be only skin-deep? Feudalism dictates leniency. Since the release of the National Unity Consultative Council blueprint in October this year, there has been a renewed urgency to tackle racial and religious tensions. Last week’s disturbing incident in Seafield, USJ 25 (Sri Maha Mariamman temple), though, tells me more about the misperception of values as opposed to politicking based on race and religion. Let me explain.

Six civilians were injured, including a policeman and a firefighter. The latter caught the media’s attention as his injuries were critical, apart from him being Malay. What caught my attention though were the appeals made by readers in the comment sections of many online media portals. Many called for an end to senseless bickering by politicians, and an end to politicising race and religion by the opposition. Some made visceral attacks targeted at Malays, while others from various races appealed for normality. One non-Malay reader commented that the Malays are a peace-loving, kind, polite and “soft” people, implying that the temple fracas had nothing to do with race or religion.

I agree, but I also worry that these positive Malay traits are fodder for the perpetuation of a feudal mindset in our society. Manipulators will certainly take advantage of such noble characteristics to claim subservience from the hinterland. Rural folk revere their leaders, especially those with titles. They are regarded as orang besar. The reality is that most rural Malaysians have blind loyalty for their titled heroes. Ongoing support for the likes of our previous leaders and their respective parties is a strong case in point. However, the values of being a kind, polite and “soft” people must be divorced from the backward feudal ideology that has been etched into the Malaysian mindset. The only way we can evolve from this feudal pit of inequality is through education.

Our schools should continue teaching universal moral values. Religious education should be separate from our national education curriculum. More time and resources should be devoted to the teaching of the negative aspects of feudalism and its detrimental effect on the social contract.

Education Minister Maszlee Malik’s call to include the 1MDB scandal in Malaysian history is welcomed. However, if this is not deeply thought through, young minds will fail to see a connection between feudal patronage and corruption. After all, the 1MDB scandal was engineered by many orang besar. Similarly, Malaysians are taught in school to be polite from young, but they should also be taught that stating the honorific Datuk or Tan Sri many times in a single sentence when addressing an orang besar is unnecessary. It does not make the conversation more polite or morally elevated. All it does is prolong an irrational hierarchy in social interaction.

Feudalism being what it is – reverence of a leader, a personality rather than adherence to an ideology – opens society to blatant manipulation. Citizens’ representatives should also be given the choice of whether to accept an honorific or not, without any character assassination should he/she refuse it. In our culture, it is believed that not accepting such awards would be an insult to the Agong or the rulers. On the contrary, I see such a refusal as humble, and an example of a dedicated and selfless “servant” of society. These values should be revered. Such an act of refusal demonstrates great integrity and decency. A feudal mind, however, would think otherwise. A feudal mind would value the financial perks and parking in a no-parking zone.

The overwhelming feeling of privilege and self-deservedness among Malaysians is staggering. For instance, in the world of academia, the highest award given is Emeritus. In Malaysia, we also have Profesor Ulung and Profesor DiRaja, both of which do not make any sense in the global scholarly arena.

On an international level, a professor has reached the highest level of scholarly achievement in a particular academic field based on the decades he or she has devoted to teaching, research and publishing. Recognition of profound academic achievement is also given if students of such professors have achieved their own pristine level of scholarship. Both student and mentor are highly regarded, irrespective of who has been awarded the honorific.

Also, merely the quantity of publications should not be the litmus test of success or failure in the academia. Internationally, academics are given high recognition for quality publications – articles and books that offer cutting-edge discoveries, new theories and creative interpretations that can potentially improve the way we live. An academic could write only a single magnus opus throughout his or her career, and yet go down in history as a legendary scholar and a great mind.

The award of Professor Emeritus should not be dished out irresponsibly. At the monthly staff assembly in the Prime Minister’s Department earlier this week, Dr.Mahathir reminded the government and members of the administration that the power bestowed on them means that they should feel great responsibility to avoid self-benefit and self-interest. Instead, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Chapter 4 of Alatas’ “Intellectuals in Developing Societies” is entitled “The Fools in Developing Societies”. A serious expose is presented on a somewhat “foolish” topic. The state of being a fool in society is prolonged by titled individuals. These decorated individuals come a dime a dozen. If the deserving are honoured, there would be fewer fools in society. If we learn to appreciate the value of excellence and hard work, we would create a society that strives for such an achievement. In the process the level of competency in all aspects of society will be raised.

In the current Malaysian context, H.G Wells’ “martian red weed” (in “The War of the Worlds”) represents how bebalisma has encroached into every nook and cranny of our lives. It is proving to be a herculean task to re-programme such a mindset.

Many in the top political intelligentsia, the business community and society in general seem oblivious to the “invisible hand” of feudalism. We complain a lot about corruption, racism, bigotry, poor quality of education, the increase in consumer prices, high road accident rates, lack of academic freedom, etc. I hope we will continue to find solutions to these serious problems by invoking a more anti-feudalism, anti-bebalisma narrative.

Thankfully there are segments of Malaysian society which have consciously rejected this feudal hierarchy of “idol worship”. However, our education system must become more involved as the young need to be taught that feudalism is not acceptable just because it is part of our tradition.

* The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

 

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Ethics in Governance: The dethroning of our value system


Ethics in Governance: The dethroning of our value system

by Firoz Abdul Hamid

Image result for Richard P. Feynman

“So I have just one wish for you – the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.” 

Richard P. Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1965

faffTrust. Integrity. Honour. Lexicons or Values? The month of November 2018 witnessed many boardroom dramas. Revelations of Facebook in the New York Times spoke of an unbecoming culture of ‘Delay, Deny and Deflect’ allegedly practised by the most senior people in one of the largest corporations ruling this world today: People who we idolise, our children want to emulate, those who frequent talk shows and international business forums. These are people we trust as exemplars for our companies, yet in a public listed company that necessitates high levels of governance, we hear reports of culture that promotes the contrary.

Image result for saw Carlos Ghosn

And then we saw Carlos Ghosn, the Chairman and CEO of Renault who allegedly used company funds for personal purposes. Another case of a public listed company that missed its mark on governance, it would seem. We had German police raiding Deutsche Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt as part of an investigation into whether the lender helped criminals launder money through offshore tax havens when it was not long back HSBC was fined for money laundering offences in Mexico.

These cases and companies are by no stretch of the imagination small feat adventures. These companies are and have been emulative models of case studies for management schools, its leaders receive invites to Davos and we in the ‘developing world’ are made to believe that they are who we should model our market success on.

 

Now – zooming into my own country, Malaysia. It is heart breaking to read day in day out, of late, how the house of cards is crumbling in its own weight in some of our companies with long legacies and national agendas, like Felda Corporation where its entire former board has been sued for losses and bad investment decisions. As if this was not heart wrenching enough this week, we then read Malaysia’s 64 billion ringgit ($21 billion) Muslim pilgrimage saving fund, Tabung Haji (TH), is said to be short of  four billion ringgit of deposits. The story which broke in the Singapore Sunday Times alleges that TH faked its 2016 accounts to justify its dividends. This in the same month we were told the movie-bound 1MDB Auditor General Report was tampered with. Having had several books written after it, made into documentaries and now waiting for its casts to be selected so they can film an all-Hollywood movie with all its trappings for more Malaysians to go watch how we were lied to and how our hard earned monies misused – these escapades are no longer amusing.

Added to this, we are witnessing politicians being hauled up for alleged corruption, the existing government (Pakatan Harapan) being questioned for their said promises in their election manifesto and their intent in honouring the promises. Yes in a glass half full scenario one can argue, we are witnessing transparency and rule of law taking its course. But the bigger question really is – how did we get here 61 years since our independence. Shouldn’t the systems, processes and institutions be solid enough to avert such malfeasances? Shouldn’t we have a civil service and/or leaders of government-linked companies who know that political campaigning is just wrong – yet we had very highly educated leaders, not least highly respected ones who ignored this basic ethics.

So my questions are: How did these people get to these positions? Who selected the company boards and its management teams for these companies? What were the criteria of these selection processes and what are their performance measures – or is it arbitrarily done by a few (in the corridors of power) peoples’ likes/dislikes as was suggested in a recent article in The Star?

Shouldn’t the criteria of selection be made public, for after all they are being paid by the public? Shouldn’t they (i.e. those who selected these leaders – CEOs and boards) too be hauled up for accountability when those they selected or appointed fail the country and its people?

Shouldn’t the criteria of selection be made public, for after all they are being paid by the public? Shouldn’t they (i.e. those who selected these leaders – CEOs and boards) too be hauled up for accountability when those they selected or appointed fail the country and its people?

We have CEOs in this country leading companies on behalf of the government who themselves are struggling with words like vision, mission and governance. They simply cannot understand the concept of business judgement and sustainability. Yet these candidates make the cut. I have sadly come face to face with one too many.

We have CEOs in this country leading companies on behalf of the government who themselves are struggling with words like vision, mission and governance. They simply cannot understand the concept of business judgement and sustainability. Yet these candidates make the cut. I have sadly come face to face with one too many.

Image result for mahathir

When I interviewed the current Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, in July 2018, he spoke of his total frustration and exasperation in the breakdown of governance in our public sector and government-linked companies. He stressed on the rule of law being the way forward. This sentiment I am certain is shared by many in the country – from housewives to fishermen, from the jobless graduate to a janitor, from an underpaid and overworked teacher to a well-paid executive in a leather office.

Yet my gut keeps nagging the one question – the ones leading these companies and departments in government are no fools. They ARE well educated, they are sent to programmes (after programmes) and courses by their companies and the regulators regularly here and abroad (all paid for I might add) – yet we find these missteps, these blunders and these blood boiling news of blatant failure in public trust.

Who exactly is in charge one can’t help but wonder? Who is checking and monitoring these boards and CEOs and their management teams? In a 2014 debate at the Oxford Union, Christopher Hedges, a journalist and writer, argued that often we really do not know who is covering up for who. The committees know they are being lied to. The whole system is designed to cover up each other and this right to the door of parliamentary committees or its equivalent.

 

A friend of mine in his recent fit of frustration of this barrage of government-linked companies news argued that maybe they (the public sector and government-linked companies) have no sense of accountability because they know these funds are government-guaranteed. At the most they would be suspended or demoted within the public sector (unless clear proof of corruption). He also said that the infamous ‘passing of the buck’ rotates from the board to the CEO, to the audits (internal and external), back to the umpteen committees we have in an organisation as a feel-good factor, never mind our love for taskforces as soon as we hit a wall of problems yet no one is really in charge. No clear accountabilities. No clear indication where the buck stops.

Image result for Arnold J. Toynbee,

The well-known historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who famously wrote the nine-volume book A Study of History said that civilizations start to decay when they lose their moral fibre and the cultural elite turns parasitic, exploiting the masses and creating an internal and external proletariat.

He emphasized the importance of spiritual dimension in shaping civilisations. Toynbee studied the rise and fall of 21 civilisations and amongst others concluded civilisations fail when pride and hubris kicks in. Standard. We all know this. But he also speaks of the importance of the creative minority. This is the group of people who are able to challenge the status quo. Able to unfix and fix problems. Most of the time we have people who create a problem and then have no clue how to fix them. We also have those who give solutions to a problem but have no clue how it should then work.

The creative minority, Toynbee argue are those able to decipher what ails the society, and produce solutions that works in  order that society/civilisation moves to its next echelon of dignity – or growth as we call it today. These people are beyond your standard technocrats. They understand human dimension, sociology, culture and, in essence, they build the very fundamentals and the fabric of a strong society. When a society loses this creative minority, and when hubris and arrogance kicks in, the all famous ‘yes man’ syndrome will be its default setting. That’s when you start witnessing the house of cards fall right before your eyes.

The Roman Empire rose because of its greatness in structure and discipline. Its ultimate demise happened when lawlessness crept in, similar to the Ottomans. Hubris ruled and a sense of conceit and arrogance became honourable to embrace. The entire Abrahamic depiction of Pharaoh (the master) and Moses (the slave) plays out in every aspect of society even now in the 21st century. Today we can safely say the story of Pharaoh and Moses is well and truly alive in many parts of our own society, waiting to be destroyed by the parting of the Red Sea. In his recent essay, Terence Fernandez, a Malaysian journalist,  for instance wrote of the culture of sabotage in the public service and how it is affecting the new government operating and this after walking into a post-election (GE14) with such hope for change.

The entire governance system in Malaysian institutions needs to see a deep overhaul and the leadership at the very top has to own this problem and set it right. For if we do not, no amount of measures, programmes, talks, committees, task forces or retreats will save the day. It is a fundamental change of value system and culture necessary -one that takes time — one that isn’t always popular with politicians who by and large work towards the next election, and certainly not a top priority for three-to-five-years contract chief executives whose key performance measure is bottom line.

Malaysia needs to expand and grow its creative minority. We need many more who are able to stand up in the crowd and say: this is wrong and, no, this will not work. We need people who speak truth to power in our public sector and government-linked companies. We really are in desperate need of more people with moral courage in our boardrooms and the corridors of power, people who are able to rationally articulate wrong when it simply is wrong. This does not require an Ivy League degree. It does not require scores of titles. It requires a culture that incentivises moral courage. For this to happen throughout the entire value system, its incentives and remuneration system and culture must change. This has to be led by the CEO of the country (our Prime Minister), not a task force.

In the wake of the brutal Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi’s, murder in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, US President Donald Trump was faced with making a call on his stand on the case and he said (and I paraphrase) – the front and center is American interest and that is jobs and money. When interests are aligned to parameters that change with the next stock market cycle and speculative traits, a company really is doomed to fail. A country on its way to destruction. A civilisation on its journey to ruins.

If we do not exert values, by that, good values, on our core interests to growth, for fear of losing our jobs, titles and status, we are literally opening the doors for our children to bear the burden of our own self-interests. To put it simply if not bluntly, if we do not stand apart with moral courage and are willing to take the bullet for speaking the truth today in highlighting wrongs in our companies and institutions, what we are essentially doing is diverting that bullet for our kids and grandchildren to take, for our sins.

That really is the simple truth. This is why Feynman’s quote above is so poignant for our times.

(Firoz Abdul Hamid is an Investvine contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)