Certain issues of leadership and governance which have become more pronounced in recent months should concern all thinking Malaysians. We shall highlight two such issues.

The first is related to accountability —

the way in which an appearance is created that one is adhering to the requisites of accountability when in fact one is not. This is most blatant in the handling of the investigations into the 1MDB saga. The questions that are now being raised by investigators in other countries about the loans and debts of the state investment company and the financial transactions it was involved in, tend to convey the impression that local institutions tasked with probing 1MDB such as Bank Negara, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), the Auditor-General’s Office, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Police were either hamstrung for various reasons or deliberately chose not to explore certain highly sensitive areas  which they realised were out of bounds to them.  There may be a grain of truth in this view since individuals in the investigating bodies were harassed and arrested or transferred out and replaced. The real goal of the powers-that-be seems to be the protection of the interests of key personalities rather than unearthing the complete truth about the 1MDB saga. As a result, crucial aspects of the saga remain concealed or camouflaged for the time being at least: an immeasurable loss to the Malaysian public and the world at large.

This brings us to the second issue in leadership and governance —

the attitude towards dissent and criticism. The UMNO leadership was right in expelling party leaders who had openly joined hands with the party’s rivals in pushing for the ouster of the UMNO and BN chief as Prime Minister. In any adversarial inter-party system such conduct would be regarded as a breach of discipline. However, before these expelled leaders forged a common platform with the Opposition, they had, while confining themselves to their governmental and party roles, criticised the handling of 1MDB by Prime Minister Najib. Given the magnitude of the 1MDB saga and its implications for the nation’s economy and its international image, their criticism was justified.  They were acting according to their conscience. It is one’s conscience that provides legitimacy to dissent.

Unfortunately, in Malaysia there is not much appreciation of the legitimacy of dissent especially in relation to men and women at the very apex of society. It is blind, unquestioning loyalty to them — even if their wrongdoings are obvious — that is often lauded as a praiseworthy trait. It is trait that is by no means confined to UMNO. Most political parties on both sides of the divide regard unquestioning loyalty to leadership as an almost sacred dimension of governance. When I was in an opposition party between 1999 and 2001 and urged my members to develop a more evaluative notion of leadership which understands the strengths and weaknesses of those who wield power and authority, some in my audience interpreted it as a criticism of the party’s de-facto leader who was in prison and demanded that I be removed as Deputy President. Though the campaign failed, it showed me how deeply embedded neo-feudal attitudes of this sort were in our political culture. Respect for dissent which is vital not only for effective governance but also for the flourishing of a democratic society will not strike root in our soil unless this neo-feudal attitude buttressed by the magnet of power and the lure of wealth is eradicated.

A sincere, honest commitment to accountability, on the one hand, and genuine respect for dissent, on the other, are among those attributes of governance which have endowed many a nation with the spiritual strength and the moral character to cope with great challenges. If accountability and dissent are sacrificed at the altar of power and position, a nation will sooner or later sink into the abyss. As we approach our 59th year of nationhood, we should reflect on this for the sake of present and future generations.

Image source: yayasan perpaduan malaysia

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