By M Santhananaban
Malaysia had evolved into becoming one of the most prime minister-centric countries in the world by the early 1980s.
It was once the situation that when the prime minister decided firmly on something, it was first discussed with his closest associates and brought to the cabinet. It was then put before Parliament, voted on and transformed into policy and that policy was implemented.
The civil service of those halcyon years was competent, professional and apolitical.
The system had its advantages and some disadvantages. The main disadvantage was that the flip side of a certain issue would be given less attention than it deserved, especially if it was not debated in Parliament.
Whatever adverse aspects of that policy would be swept under the carpet, but those negative aspects were bound to show up later.
This prime minister-centric tradition started with our first and perhaps best prime minister we had. Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra was an accidental – not an ambitious – PM (1957-70) who came to the position more by acclamation than anything else.
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Two siblings from Johor – Cambridge-educated lawyer Sulaiman Abdul Rahman and his younger brother, Melbourne-trained medical doctor Ismail – persuaded the Tunku to contest the presidency of Umno after Onn Jaafar relinquished the post.
Both these brothers were tactful, trustworthy and talented – but tough. In the early years of Malayan independence, they played a key role in diplomacy and the overall development of the country.
The Tunku set a tradition of heavily relying on and trusting his Deputy PM, Abdul Razak Hussein and entrusted him with almost all prime ministerial functions and powers.
The late Radin Soenarno, who was director general of the Economic Planning Unit, in his memoir Dare to Dream (2012, Petaling Jaya), wrote of how Razak would query him on why certain papers were being referred to the deputy PM when they were the PM’s prerogative.
Radin’s answer to Razak was that it was on the specific instructions of the Tunku.
The Tunku had the magnanimity and bigness of heart to attract strong people of high character to work with him. On their part, the Tunku’s cabinet colleagues were those who had the greatest respect and trust in him.
Territorially, the puny peninsula, Malaya, metamorphosed into the large, strategic land mass of Malaysia with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore initially. When the Tunku found he had taken on too much, he agreed to Singapore’s separation on negotiated terms.
The Tunku brought to his prime ministership an aura of sincerity, integrity, inclusiveness, good humour and cosmopolitanism.
His regal simplicity, given his own royal lineage, gave him a rare gravitas – a grasp of the finer workings of a constitutional monarchy. It allowed him to play a sophisticated leadership role in various areas, like government, community, sports, Islamic affairs and the welfare of the people.
The Tunku was a man of much experience, exposure and deep insight when he became the Chief Minister of Malaya in 1955, when he was just 52.
He had also cultivated friends from around the world. As president of Umno, while living in Johor Bahru, he interacted with Singapore-based consular and commercial representatives from many countries.
So the Tunku had a deep understanding of diplomacy, of the geostrategic importance of Singapore in international navigation and communications.
He was also notably unique in that not a single relative of his attempted to ride on his name and fame to secure a position in the political or corporate ladder.
None of his successors had a full combination of these noble, top-drawer attributes.
For me personally, the only other PM who came anywhere near the Tunku in terms of his exceptional personal attributes was Hussein Onn (1976-81).
But Hussein perhaps had an obsessive weakness for thoroughness and meticulousness. This care and cautiousness made his decision-making process painfully slow.
Another perceived weakness of Hussein was his love, loyalty and respect for Razak, which may be partly the reason – which Dr Mahathir Mohamad also shared somewhat – for overindulging Razak’s son Najib.
Najib (2009-18) was highly familiar and fastidious about his rights and pedigree, but was obviously not equally sensitised to his immense responsibilities.
Thirty-three years after the passing of these two great prime ministers, the Tunku and Hussein, we seem to have entered a conversation and contestation about who could be regarded as the country’s worst prime minister.
It can’t be the man who is justly incarcerated as a dazed 12-year ‘guest’ of the government in Kajang. Najib had many excellent attributes, but he faltered, fouled up and failed to defend himself convincingly from serious corruption charges after his party Umno lost the 2018 general election.
Today, we have a Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who has been imprisoned twice for allegedly committing certain offences. He could, if he does not measure up, become an important candidate for this new contestation for the country’s worst prime minister.
Pointers for Anwar
For this reason, we have to prime Anwar for his first anniversary as PM and assist him where we can to make a success of the daunting challenges he faces during his remaining tenure.
He has to galvanise the vast majority of the people to come together, unite and understand the challenges before them. He needs to persuade them to make some sacrifices to take the country out of the untenable situation it is in.
Anwar’s government cannot embark on this humongous project without the people’s explicit backing. He needs to communicate with the people, listen to them and interact with different segments of society and then make some tough decisions.
Corruption, confusion and complexes
The fundamental problem today, as it has been for decades, is pervasive individual and institutional corruption in the public and private sectors.
The PM is well placed to tackle corruption within the public sector, whether it involves political leaders or the bureaucracy.
Political operatives involved in corruption must be identified, investigated, charged, tried, shamed and sometimes put in the slammer. Jailing them and confiscating their assets is the most effective weapon in this fight against corruption.
Corruption, as an individual or group phenomenon, comes from a complete disregard of the wider interests of society and a lack of loyalty to the country.
It can be attributed, in a crass and crude form, to the following:
- Tribalism – the sense of belonging to a powerful tribe where corruption is acceptable, tolerated, forgiven and not fussed over. This is based on the undying belief that the state or its governance system can cope with, absorb or withstand it. Given these considerations, individuals, associates, business vendors, entrepreneurs and bankers aligned to the ruling government delude themselves that they are exempted, in a strange sort of way, from the provisions of the law
- Turpitude – a weakness for bribes, blandishments, lust and greed. Public servants with a weakness for high living, escapades involving sleaze and sex, gambling and games with betting involved would become particularly vulnerable
- Treason – divided loyalty to the country. This takes the form of attempting to serve another external power, movement or a multinational company while occupying a high position of authority in the public service. A conflicted person in this situation could sell out the nation consciously or unconsciously
Anwar needs to take firm and decisive action against corruption.
M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience. He has no political affiliations