2014: Annus Horribilis

MH 370. MH 17. And now, QZ 8501. 2014 is shaping up to be an annus horribilis extraordinaire for Malaysia. Inevitably, there has been a number of conspiracy theories flying around: how can it really be a coincidence, they say, that we are observing such a succession of calamities, one after the other, over the course of a year?

Obviously, the odds are very slim for such a succession of terrible coincidences to take place, all within a year, all relating to a country whose two airline carriers boast one of the best safety records in the region, prior to 2014? It is all very befuddling, confusing, and for some, rather intriguing. Perhaps there are hidden hands, pulling the strings of cosmic malfeasance which has led to successive tragedies in this year which is slowly coming to a close?

Unlike some of my compatriots, I prefer to keep a calmer perspective. There are myriad reasons why God tests us, and sometimes those tests can come thick and fast. This is what I believe, anyways: that the hands of God can easily giveth and taketh away, and sometimes we may be left in a daze, trying hard to understand the reason and rationale behind the calamities that befall us.

Obviously, these pontifications are all cold comfort for those who are losing friends, siblings, parents, children. To them, my sincerest condolences and commiserations. The most wrenching pain often comes without much warning, or even meaning. Human souls are often left asking “why”, trying to make sense of tragedies.

The human mind is always restless, always searching for that faint thread of narrative that will somehow “explain” our lives and our sorrows. This is how our mind works: we grapple with the disconnected bits of reality and try to fashion some semblance of meaning, even when the random occurrences of reality may actively resist such neat explanations. Maybe such “meaning” will always be elusive. Maybe God wants us to continue to marvel at His Majesty, be it in triumph or in tragedy.

The United Nations, and Finding Your Personal Legend

Yesterday, a group of Edward S Mason Fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School had the privilege of listening to Gillian Sorenson, a former UN Asst Sec Gen, and widow of the late Ted Sorenson, who was Special Counsel to President John F Kennedy, and a personal hero on mine.

Some takeaways from that illuminating talk:

  1. Life can take you in strange directions. It is helpful to have a general plan of where you think life will lead you, but you have to always be attuned to what the Universe is telling you, and be prepared to have your Personal Legend (fans of The Alchemist will be able to appreciate this). Gillian Sorenson followed her interest in politics, and parlayed that into what seems to be a very satisfying and enriching career in the United Nations.
  2. You never know until you try. Gillian Sorenson cut her teeth in politics campaigning for Ed Koch, who she described as 8th place in a field of 8 candidates running for Mayor of New York City. Who knew that a relatively anonymous House member could have won office as mayor of the largest city in the world? I suppose Ed Koch didn’t either, when he chose to run for Mayor.
  3. Public speaking can change your life, or hold you back. Some of the smartest and most compassionate people in the world, can fail as leaders of their organisations if they are unable to step up and represent their organisations as effective and compelling public representatives. Public speaking ability is at the heart of how we represent our organisations and our communities. It still amazes me how so little of public education in Malaysia (for that is the public system I am most knowledgeable of) puts emphasis on the ability to speak in public.

THEODORE SORENSEN GILLIAN

Remembering Menino

It was only the second week of our “Leadership in a Livable Cities” class, I think, and we were face-to-face with former Mayor Thomas M Menino. From the readings, I pegged him as another typical “Mahathirist” politician – strong, bold, transformative.

He was all that, and more.

He wasn’t a “fancy talker”, as he plainly put it, and sometimes I strained to hear him clearly. But what clearly jumped at me was his passion for his city. His love for the art of politics, his delight in the privilege of representing the people.

So it was a shock to me, when word went around that Mayor Menino passed away, last Thursday. Several of my lecturers would start their classes with a remembrance of his legacy. The day after he passed away, the pages of the Boston Globe were plastered with eulogies of Boston’s longest-serving mayor; loving anecdotes mixed with soaring praises of the many transformations which he brought to Boston during his long tenure as Mayor.

And when I took the bus home, the day after news about Menino’s passing spread across Boston, the bus driver was telling me about how Menino had approved funding for his neighborhood’s block party, and proceeded to show up for the party himself!

It is always inspiring to see leaders who truly embody the spirit of the people, and not just blithely claim to be “pemimpin berjiwa rakyat” just for “sedap hati”‘s sake. Hopefully Menino’s leadership will inspire many others to follow in his footsteps…

Thomas Menino

The Pemandu Experience

After Idris Jala’s visit to Kennedy School last week, a number of Harvard Kennedy School students – those who attended the talk as well as those who couldn’t make the time because of scheduling conflicts – have reached out to me, to learn more about the Pemandu experience, to understand what I went through in the early days of Pemandu’s establishment, or just to find out what Idris is like as a leader and as a person. Some have even asked me if they could apply to join Pemandu!

It gladdens me to realize that what we were doing in Pemandu was truly ground-breaking stuff. Those early years weren’t easy, and even today, Pemandu gets more than its fair share of brickbats. But when HKS professors and students get all excited, wanting to learn more of the Malaysian experience, it just brings that Malaysia Boleh spirit in me soaring ever higher.

#proud

On Consistency

I read a blogpost from the Time Management Ninja blog that was very inspiring today.

Blogger Craig Jarrow has built a blog on time management, which I follow via Twitter, and some of his insights are interesting reminders of the importance of always being mindful about how we manage our time.

So it was quite impressive when I discovered that he has been blogging every day for five years. That is quite a feat of discipline and tenacity.

We often tell ourselves that we intend to create change, and make a difference in our lives and that of others. But how often do we follow up on that conviction, with daily consistency, come hell or high water?

If leadership is about nurturing positive change in ourselves and others, then consistency is the key to getting there.

Academic Freedom and Inconvenient Truths

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle recently with regard to the nature of Prof Datuk Dr Redzuan Othman leaving UM: was he asked to leave? Did he resign? Was it really a matter of his contract running out?

Underlying all this is reference to recent polls run by UMCEDEL, one of which asserted that support for the Pakatan Rakyat has increased, while support for the ruling Barisan Nasional has remained stagnant.

Of course, one can dispute such findings, which is well within the realm of healthy political debate. And the Ministry of Education has come out to say that the Professor is being let go due to his expiring tenure, rather than due to any intent at censoring or punishing the latter for his work with UMCEDEL.

We can dispute the technicalities, and we can also dispute whether the Professor deserves the opprobrium for the methodological shortcomings of UMCEDEL’s work.

My comment here goes towards the nature of academic freedom. While we may dispute the UMCEDEL’s methodology and conclusions, we should allow space for interlocutors such as UMCEDEL to inject a more evidence-based approach to Malaysian politics and public policy. We might not always agree with the conclusions or their approach, but we should respect the work of academics striving to improve the quality of public debate in Malaysia. It is always tempting to shoot the messenger, rather than deal with inconvenient truths.

Also, if what has befallen the professor is indeed, as suspected by some parties, an attempt to shut him up, then it certainly goes counter to the “political transformation” being touted by the Prime Minister. Political transformation entails a willingness to debate; a tolerance for diversity of views; a readiness to marshal facts and data to achieve one’s aims.

It will be the continued intent of the political opposition in Malaysia to paint the Prime Minister’s transformation efforts as mere lip service, superficial and insincere. If the Professor’s travails are indeed political in nature, then it marks yet another discordance in the Prime Minister’s stated agenda for transformation.

Education – The Silver Bullet?

online-time-tracking-software-is-not-a-silver-bullet

Recently a few friends and I had a robust discussion about education. Naturally, the discussion started off with something only tangentially related, i.e. the rapid increase in the proportion of the federal budget that goes into emoluments (i.e. wages and compensation) for civil servants. As is typical for most “kedai kopi” discussion on Malaysian politics, it morphed into a discussion about the decline in the quality of our graduates, as a result of poor education. I made a few observations, in reflection from this discussion:

  1. Education is not a silver bullet. Many Malaysians think that all the problems facing the country can be fixed through education. In some ways, they are right. Malaysia is in the economic and social rut that it is, largely because we have failed to equip an entire generation of Malaysians. Too many of them are getting sub-standard education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, resulting in hordes of local graduates who cannot articulate, are not as adaptable, and require massive retraining by employers in order to be acceptably productive. But fixing education is difficult, and the outcome is naturally lagging, as effective changes in the education sector requires at least a decade for it to substantially ripple through the cohorts of students churned out by the system. And Malaysia’s problems are wide-ranging: poor skill levels, corruption, rising levels of crime, choking roads due to over-abundance of private vehicles, halting economic growth due to long dependence on low-wage policies, large amounts of illicit capital flows, and a whole host of other things. Education is one important lever to solve all these issues, but it is not the only one.
  2. The solution is not education per se, but institutions as a whole. In a way, when you think about it, the problem with Malaysian education is actually just one instance of the larger, higher-level problem for Malaysia: weak institutions. With a weak education system, the quality of graduates turns out to be inadequate, and we lack the right amounts of skilled and semi-skilled workers which lead on to a surge in migrant workers. With a weak policing system, crime continues unabated while poor standard operating procedures lead to unnecessary deaths of innocent civilians. With a weak judicial system, judgments are not seen as fully above board, and aggrieved parties are much more wary of taking their disputes to court. With a weak political system, extremists can take centre stage and hold the nation ransom to their own narrow interests, while the rakyat are forced to choose between two sets of equally unappetising politicians. With weak safeguards against corruption, public officials and private individuals are free to line their pockets with the people’s money, and can even flaunt their wealth unapologetically in the faces of the rakyatIn this regard, we can only gasp at the wreckage done to our national institutions by the determined iconoclasm of an impatient politician, and must now rebuild our institutions in the face of two decades of systemic erosion.
  3. BN is the problem, but it can be the solution. Having said all of the above, we cannot ignore the fact that the nation has come a long way, despite all of the weaknesses manifested today by the excesses of the past. For many of my friends who consider themselves to be tribally bonded to the Barisan Nasional, reform can be a very confusing process. Where do you begin, trying to fix the problems faced by the country, when the country has been so firmly shaped by the same Barisan Nasional coalition that continues to lead the country over the past five decades? So far, the government of the day has adroitly skirted around this embarrassing fact. Transformation programmes have been launched, correctly identifying the required changes. But the inability to admit to the excesses of the past, means that internal resistance to change remains high. The nostalgia for Mahathirism is an expression of this strong resistance, and no real momentum for change can probably be borne until there is an open admission from the current leadership of the Barisan Nasional that we have made mistakes in the past, but also that the current leadership has the right diagnosis for transformation. Until then, the country will continue to labour under nostalgia for autocracy, which will only serve to apply friction to earnest efforts to reform the country and bring it closer to the ideal that all Malaysians aspire for.

Exit

This is awesome news for us in Ekuinas – our first major exit from an investment!! Don’t think I can reveal much more than what has been put out in our press release, but suffice to say I think everyone’s happy and wearing smiles 😀

The Rise and Fall of the Body Man

This is interesting – how the humble “body man”, with the right mix of entrepreneurship and chutzpah, can leverage a dogsbody existence into a high-roller life. It is also a sobering reminder of how power intoxicates, and ultimately, poisons.

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(Eagle-eyed readers would notice by now that this blogger is a HUGE fan of the West Wing!)