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Where are Malaysia’s leaders?

Germans standing on top of the Berlin Wall in 1989; it would be torn down
in the following days (Wiki commons)

“WHAT I wonder is, where are our leaders? It seems as if there is nobody Malaysians can look up to for leadership,” the woman in the audience said.

I was moderating a panel discussion organised by the German Embassy at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang on 15 Oct 2009, and this was the question that was posed to the panellists. We had just finished a discussion titled 60:20 In the Name of Freedom. The discussion had looked at the democratisation and unification of Germany following the founding of their constitution 60 years ago and the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. We also discussed the development of democracy in Malaysia, and the parallels we could draw from both countries.

It was after this discussion that the USM lecturer in the audience made her observation. She seemed genuinely perturbed and in need of a hopeful response. Indeed, it’s a question worth pondering. Where is the leadership? And where should we start looking for leadership if we want to make things better in Malaysia?

Bringing down walls

The panel discussion at USM wasn’t just all talk. Prior to the discussion, a short but riveting video about Germany’s history demonstrated how the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 and was finally brought down peacefully on 9 Nov 1989. What brought the wall down, after 28 years, despite the communist leadership’s stubborn resistance and denial of its citizens’ clamour for freedom and democracy in East Germany? The video below tells it all.

Remarkably, when it came to the final crunch, the Berlin Wall was brought down without a single drop of blood being shed. Thousands of Germans — tired of waiting for their leaders to fulfil their legitimate demands — congregated, pushed against the border patrols, raised their voices, and finally walked freely across the border that divided East from West Germany.

Market women overthrow president

Germany’s history isn’t the only one that has a moving and uplifting story about citizens demonstrating leadership against the might of an oppressive state, sometimes even in the face of bloodshed and terror. In Liberia, Leymah Gbowee organised and led her fellow countrywomen to demand for a peaceful country from the nation’s leaders. After 15 years of civil war between the government of a ruthless president, Charles Taylor, and warlords wanting to overthrow him, more than 200,000 people had been killed and one out of three Liberians were homeless.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Public domain)
Desperate for peace and safety, Leymah and her countrywomen armed themselves with a simple white t-shirt and took to the streets, knowing that they faced the very real threat of being beaten and killed. They became known as “the market women” who cajoled and pressured the warring men to end the fighting. Part of their strategy was a tactic used by the women of ancient Greece: No peace, no sex.

Their strategies worked. Taylor was toppled from power and banished from Liberia in 2003. Two years later, the country elected a new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who became Africa’s first woman head of state.

Leymah’s journey — her leadership as a frightened young woman in a war-torn country — is a moving and inspiring one that was made into an award-winning documentary. Pray the Devil back to Hell is today screened in other conflict areas, and has inspired other women to take charge of peace in their own countries.

These two historic examples tell me something. They tell me that often, perhaps even too often, we give up power to politicians, political parties and governments to provide us with leadership. Germany and Liberia are two countries that couldn’t be more different than chalk and cheese. Yet, it was when people stopped looking outwards for leadership that the change they wanted to see happen, happened.

To be certain, Malaysia is nowhere close to war-torn Liberia. Neither can it be likened to communist East Germany, where Germans were so desperate to leave they jumped out of buildings and risked their lives to escape to West Germany.

But do we really need to start becoming like Liberia or East Germany before we begin exercising leadership as citizens?

Role models

For sure, it’s hard not to be disillusioned and feel hopeless in the face of racist politicians, religious extremism, abuse of power and what seems like the continuous erosion of our constitutional rights in a democracy.

It’s made harder because the media too often fail to profile and promote stories of individual or community initiatives such as demonstrated by some of the recipients of The Nut Graph‘s Merdeka and Malaysia Day awards. Instead citizens are fed with endless stories of sex scandals (whether real or fictionalised), police abuse and inefficiency, hateful rhetoric and actions, and the dismal performance (mostly real) of our elected leaders whether from the Barisan Nasional (BN) or the Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Indeed, the USM lecturer’s question during the panel discussion revealed that she was disillusioned not just with the lack of leadership in the BN government, but also in the PR lineup.

I’m also convinced that Malaysians are repeatedly disempowered by our education system, our government-controlled media, and the race-based politics embodied by the BN, to feel like we cannot be leaders in our own country.

Still, the East Germans and Liberians had it far worse. And yet they were able to rise above their desperation, disillusionment and disempowerment. And really, there are many Malaysians — theatre workers, teachers, journalists and writers, community organisers, non-governmental organisations, honest politicians — who do demonstrate leadership. Often, they are what are described as “ordinary” people. A real misnomer if you ask me, because there’s nothing ordinary about being an extraordinary citizen.

Jacqueline Ann Surin‘s bible for citizenship, leadership and empowerment is Howard Zinn’s You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. She is a less disillusioned citizen for having read it.

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6 Responses to “Where are Malaysia’s leaders?”

  1. Phua Kai Lit says:

    Let there be “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”.

    Regime change in Penang (change of state government) has led to improvement e.g. better governance in terms of management of the public finances of the state. This alone should continue to inspire us to work for change for the better!

  2. Rajesh Taluar says:

    I’d like to offer a possible answer to your question. With due credit to Ernest Benn, Malaysia’s leaders are busy “perfecting the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” So much for the hope of change since March 2008.

  3. Gopal Raj Kumar says:

    Perhaps we should look within and not to scholarships that seek to create leaders of people of another country.

    Who says the wall came down because of the people there? There was a process and that process was held behind close doors for an outcome which culminated in the brining down of the Berlin Wall.

    Eric Hoenecker, Gorbachev, Ronald Regan and William Casey had already met with Helmut Khol and their British counterparts and decided on the theatrical finale once Gorbachev had been compromised.

    It could otherwise have become ugly. And the threatened moves by the Spetnaz and a few other loyal divisions of the Soviet Armed Forces could have manifested themselves in the bloody coup that was planned.

    Who the hell says democracy is what’s needed? The scum that’s poured out of the Eastern Block of pimps, thugs, pushers and just plan madmen (and for your sake I will correct my sexist langauge and say madwomen too) justified the wall.

    The increase in racist Nazi attacks against the Roma (Gypsies) in Europe after the fall of the wall is because of the unleashing of terror hidden behind these walls for generations.

    The best argument against democracy is a five minute chat with a voter. (Winston Churchill.) Today that voter is the East European former communist citizen.

    We always get the leaders we deserve. So why are you still searching?

    Gopal Raj Kumar

  4. oster says:

    Malaysians like to be led. They like concentrating power (and by extension, responsibility, but curiously, not accountability) on several individuals or narrow institutions. Then, they’d like to treat these powerful individuals or institutions as black boxes, and hope that they do the “right thing”.

    I wasn’t there to hear the question, but the image I get is one of a person yearning to be led, yearning for the strong firm arm of the state to take control.

    And therein lies our problem.

    We don’t realise the inherent danger of putting all our eggs into one basket, and relying on one single leader.

    [East] Germans and Liberians both shared the same characteristic in their time of great change: the existence of multiple power bases and not one single overpowering institution (in our case, this would be the Federal Executive).

    What we need is not a strong leader who can wield authority and impose it, but an even stronger leader, who would willingly devolve powers to the states, to local government, to individuals and communities. A strong leader who can relinquish, instead of going down the usual road of the strongman.

  5. p fong says:

    The country will never amount to anything until all its children are free to dream equally.

  6. Merah Silu says:

    “I’m also convinced that Malaysians are repeatedly disempowered by our education system, our government-controlled media, and the race-based politics embodied by the BN, to feel like we cannot be leaders in our own country.”

    Yes, the writer has [a] habit of complaining [about] anything done by [the] BN. She has never been grateful for what past and present leaders achieved [for] five decades after the British returned the power to the legitimate rulers of this country. Many of us are grateful that the past and current leadership have brought [peace] and prosperity to the country including generously [granting] citizenship to immigrants who assisted [the] British [who robbed] the wealth of this country. I hope the current leaders will not repeat the same mistake again to current immigrants [from] [Indonesia], [Bangladesh], Vietnam, etc.

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