Our greatest fear is having no leadership

NOVEMBER 26 — In my old university debate days, there was a top formula for success in competitions.

The low bar debating.

Propose almost nothing, therefore opponents cannot attack the proposition and very little needs defending. Focus on winning, not advancing ideas. 

Build a sense of entitlement based on personal or institutional recognition and reputation, therefore rely on popularity not reason to emerge victorious.

Be totally and utterly self-serving, in other words. It works a charm and fills up trophy cabinets.

A bit like how things transpire today in our national politics. Cabinets, low bars and self-serving stratagems, notwithstanding.

Even before Pakatan Harapan’s demise, pretenders have been aplenty. Before and after — all of 2020 has been about contenders taking turns on the catwalk.

None with a big idea. None with a proposition except an intention to win.

Which should worry citizens.

Covid-19’s end is on the horizon — as vaccine deliveries finalise — but Malaysia remains confronted by a myriad of challenges.

Education, state ownership of enterprises, infrastructure investments, East-West Malaysia dynamics, regional security, efficient government services and co-ordination, automation versus employment, tax revenues and so on.

The country has been adrift for quite a while. It needs rudders.

Whether Muhyiddin Yassin remains or not should not alarm Malaysians. However the knowledge that, whatever the outcome, the pursuant victors won’t have any big ideas should petrify my countrymen.

Direction, purpose

Why are big ideas important?

They display courage and desire to take actual steps in a certain direction. A big bold idea invites criticism. 

Of course, it does. It’s naturally divisive because it shakes up things. It begins by recognising the rut we are all in.

But being attacked is not bad at all. In defending the big idea, it is equally improved.

US Republicans vehemently objected to the Democrats' Social Security idea in 1935 — and then Disability Insurance in 1950. They said it was irresponsible for government to secure retirement benefits when America was coping with The Great Depression.

Those mad ideas a century ago are now normal ideas. Malaysia’s Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and Perkeso are carbon copies of America’s initiatives.

Closer to home and to the present, Indonesia increases minimum wage this year to INR4.28 million (RM1,200) to step up the game. Which is the same as Malaysia. How about them jokes about Indons?  It also intends to uproot its capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan, soon placing Kuching and Kota Kinabalu closer to its new capital than Putrajaya.

Vietnam targets 1 million computer programmers from its 100 million population. The medium-term future economy is still unfurling, but it would certainly involve mathematics, coding and logistics. So they think.

Thailand aggressively advances agriculture, while Malaysia flakes on food security. While our northern neighbours dominate global durian production, here arguments persist on how to tax more Musang King producers.

Of course, big ideas can be massively destructive eg. the Khmer Rouge wanted Cambodia to revert to an agrarian economy by killing people and Idi Amin's false dawn of returning Uganda’s economy to natives by emptying itself of South Asians capitulated quickly.

Neither do all big ideas work out well. There is a difference between big ideas and grandiose ideas. The former can be tested theoretically, and the latter just the collective ego of the ruling class, like one more imposing tower for the Kuala Lumpur skyline already overloaded with empty offices.

That’s them ideas, let’s see what our beauty pageant contestants have to offer.

Formidable, traditional, reliable clueless

PKR President Anwar Ibrahim since September spoke about stable MP support for his purported government but offered no reason why he’d do a better job. 

He stumbles back and forth on how he’d have a proper Malay-led government, but a government which serves all Malaysians, which obviously can never let Malays fall behind. Still, his eventual government adores all Malaysians, just as long as there’s a co-ordinated queue for his affection.

Barisan Nasional (BN) Chairman Najib Razak sticks to a “man of the street” social media narrative. Pledges not to partner DAP and beseeches government to allow a higher ratio of early EPF withdrawals, to please the masses. No big ideas. 

No answer if large withdrawals will leave future retirees vulnerable. He cleverly evades talking about his GST which Pakatan terminated. But income is a serious issue for government, however it's terrible when scouring for votes. So, Najib goes silent.

Umno President Zahid Hamidi is only ever famous for wanting to bring more Bangladeshi labourers into the country as home minister back then. He loves Umno, he loves Umno leaders, he loves Umno supporters, and he even might be infatuated by a rival party’s leader. But he’s no intellectual or visionary.

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah might become the compromise leader, but his time is long past. He may keep government intact but he has been out of broad discussions about the country so long only a  few can intimate what his thoughts are exactly.

Pribumi Bersatu, to be fair, presides over the Covid-19 pandemic response. Not an enviable task. But beyond that, this is not a government with any imagination for the future. It is terminally fixed on the present.

Pejuang is a Kuala Lumpur-based protest organisation. But more pertinently, its actual leader Mahathir Mohamad exhibited fully during his second term, its true nature — a band-aid government.

PAS feels a bit more religion might solve all our problems, without exception. Despite this column’s protestations, national uncertainties may promote them up after the next general election.

The rest?

DAP leaders can perform in government, however are scared to present themselves as drivers of national change. They’d whisper their big ideas to partners while Lim Kit Siang writes more editorials.

MCA, Gerakan and MIC like titles and influence which come with supporting the winner. Whatever that means.

Borneo leaders have accepted their kingmaker role, utilising their autonomy and derive funds from Putrajaya to improve their states, not the country.

Just to cover the bases, Gerak Independent’s coterie of liberal lefts -- Malaysian Action for Justice, Unity Foundation (Maju), I Am The Third Force, KitaBantuKita, and Malaysia First -- back progress, principles and honesty. Just no idea how to make Malaysia competitive.

The hollow race

It’s been decades in the making.

This current situation, it was always inevitable.

Every day leaders point to the other side’s shortcomings. They don’t have their own upsides to chest-thump.

So afraid to lose, they just spout all the goodness they can muster and cling on to their own brand of populism.

It might win an election, but it clearly won’t advance a country.  

That’s the impending train-wreck. I’m not sure remedial debate training can fix it.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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