Last Friday former British Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered the 22nd Sultan Azlan Shah Law Lecture. He spoke, to the chagrin of some, on the Rule of Law and its continuing relevance in an increasingly challenging world. The gist of his lecture was credibly reported in the media and no useful purpose would be served by my summarizing it here. Suffice it to say that Mr Blair presented the key aspects of the subject winningly and, at times, poignantly, lending important validation to what it is civil society has been saying for more than two decades now: an independent and competent justice system is crucial to democracy and the sustainable growth of a nation.
But as I listened to the lecture, it was not so much what he was saying that struck me but rather how he was saying it. His delivery was crisp, articulate and erudite, the intelligence and maturity underlying it evident. I do not intend to put Mr Blair on a pedestal but leaving aside his more questionable decisions including those on Iraq - I know of no leader whose every decision has been universally acceptable and if we are going to accuse Mr Blair of war crimes then we should be accusing those who wield the ISA for political purpose of crimes against humanity – here was, simply put, a world class leader.
After the lecture, I overheard some members of the audience ask whether they could imagine the Prime Minister or any other member of the cabinet delivering a lecture of that caliber. Sadly, the laughter the question generated was answer enough.
I walked away depressed. As unpleasant as it was to admit, they were almost entirely correct. Looking at those who claim the right to lead us, I have difficulties seeing whom it is that I can have faith in to get the job of running this country done the way it needs to let alone make a high performance presentation.
Many say Dr Mahathir was a great leader. I cannot accept this. It was his administration that left us in the difficulties we are in now. From reckless deficit spending on vanity mega-projects to a seeming incapability, or was it unwillingness, to deal with destructive corruption to the dismantling of the Rule of Law to the encouraging, nurturing even, of sectarian interests, his was an administration that left Malaysia deeply divided, distrustful and greatly crippled.
It is a testament to the resilience of Malaysians that we have been able to limp forward in spite of everything. That is our achievement, the rakyat, and not that of our current leaders as they are so wont to claim. To the contrary, it would seem that they have done almost everything to keep us hamstrung in order to secure political interests, no cost being too great for this purpose. Inconvenient realities have been almost carelessly hidden behind a flimsy construct of delusion, self-denial and studied indifference, effective only for it having been propped up by draconian laws aimed at procuring compliance.
The fact is this country is in a mess.
In all of this and more, the only individuals who have ascended to leadership have been those with the cast iron stomachs and the wily cunning that politics in this country requires. Objectivity, maturity, competence, and the other key characteristics of statesmanship appear not only to have been low on the list of prerequisites, they have at times appeared to impede the pursuit of greater political power.
Were things otherwise, we would not be the weak, divided, paranoid, and underachieving society that we are. Malaysia would instead be a strong, united and prosperous nation whose people, irrespective of race or religion, were global competitors capable of achieving greatness. We would have our share of world leaders.
There is no conceivable reason for our not being as successful, if not more so, than Singapore or a number of other nations. We had the talent, ability, intelligence, and resolve to have gotten us there a long time ago. Politics and the vanity of an elite were however permitted to keep or drive them away from where they were most necessary for the nation: the civil service, the nation building institutions, the governments of the States and the Federation, to name a few. Though not necessarily definitive in itself, comparing and contrasting the qualifications of those who sit on cabinet or in institutions such as the Judiciary in this country with those of similar positions in nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom and, closer to home, Singapore allows us to see the contours more clearly.
Politics continues to reign supreme, and those who lead us continue to deny the need for urgent systemic reform across the board and the need for reappraisal of race-relations policies in this country. That the status quo will eventually strangle us to death unless radical change is effected and effected quickly does not seem to figure on their political horizons.
We need a real leader; someone whose commitment to truth, social justice and nation building is as uncompromising as is his or her rejection of politics, greed and vanity. Though we do not need a saint, we need someone who understands that Malaysia belongs to all of us and that its future is our collective future; someone who appreciates the immense power that lies beneath its surface and is capable of harnessing and unleashing that power to capture the world.
Though, someone who could call a spade a spade and get on with dealing with things practically and fairly would be a good start.
Now, is that too much to ask?
Malik Imtiaz Sarwar
(Malay Mail; 5th August 2008)
*Blatantly stolen from his blog.