‘Trust, but verify’ in the land of titles

MALAYSIA is a land of titles. At meetings of some importance, you will be surrounded by people with all sorts of titles — Datuk, Datuk Seri and what have you not. Everybody’s something. 

But go deep down, their characters tell totally different stories. More often than not, many of these titled-people do not match up to their reputations, if they had one to begin with. 

The same goes with people with big and fancy designations. Many of them fall short of what you would expect of them. You wonder what moved heaven and earth to land these titles and designations. 

In the big scheme of things, the implication of mediocre people lapping up titles and filling up key positions is the downward spiral of the nation as a whole. When you don’t have the best brains doing the job, you won’t get the desired results. With mediocre people doing middle-of-the-road stuff, you end up with sub-standard outcomes. 

There is a huge dichotomy between what the leaders say about leadership and what they actually do. The real leaders, whether carrying lofty titles or ranks, are people who make a real difference to people and the environment around them. 

If you’re a leader, here is one critical trait that you should own, if you are not already armed with it. Allow for dissent. In fact, encourage the differences of opinion. 

Many leaders lack this trait. Some executives or owners of enterprises or leaders of organisations are known to frown upon dissent. They know it best, they know it all. This dictatorial approach suppresses dissenting voices, curtails divergence of opinions. It is worse when the leader has a strong grip on the company or the party machinery. 

When leaders rule by fear, people stop becoming open. They won’t risk bringing up matters for fearing that they may get hit back. So, they just lie low and play safe. That’s not how you run an organisation. You want people to speak up, you want to encourage people to throw up new ideas. But few will do that in a climate of fear. 

Over the years, we would have encountered self-centred and insecure leaders. They rise due to the broken system in place or a jaundiced environment that trumps connection and affiliation over capability. 

Such appointments mark a failure on the part of the outgoing leader or leadership. For the outgoing leader, he or she is mistaken if they think the lesser person can continue their legacy. Instead, they should pick someone really capable, someone who may even outshine their performance. But, alas, most of our leaders are insecure. They cannot stomach the fact that someone might outdo them. They don’t have the gumption to promote someone who may outshine them. That’s not a true leader. 

Instead, they chose people who are agreeable with them, the “yes-man” in their midst. 

On dissent, we can pick up some learnings from Tan Sri Richard Malanjum (picture), the first east Malaysian to be appointed the Chief Justice of Malaysia. Malanjum, who retired in 2019, has been described as a fearless and staunch defender of the integrity of the Federal Constitution and fundamental liberties. 

In a 2018 lecture on “The Role of Dissenting Judgments in the Malaysian Judicial System”, he said: “The key message of this lecture is addressed to all our judges: ‘Be brave and just do the right thing. When you make a decision consider it as if made on the last day of your working life as a judge’.” 

In Malaysia, who are among the political leaders known to be accommodative? 

I was attracted to a recent interview given by Datuk Seri Mohamad Sabu, a senior minister in the federal government Cabinet under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Fondly known as Mat Sabu, the Minister of Agriculture and Food Security in the Unity Government is also the president of Amanah, a key component of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. 

In the interview with Sinar Harian, he said: “The best team is a team with different views. One goal, but different views. So even the meeting became lively. In Amanah, the meetings so far are free.” When asked if the president can be reprimanded, he replied: “Yes, I have no problems with that.” 

I look forward to hearing from Amanah insiders if this is truly the case, and remains so in the months to come. 

We shall apply the “trust, but verify” rule here. This phrase, rhyming in Russian, was popularised by US President Ronald Reagan who put it to work during the nuclear disarmament discussions with the then Soviet Union. The actor-turned-politician had picked up the phrase from a scholar of Russian history. 

On his part, Mat Sabu’s boss Anwar is beginning to lose the trust of some people who were previously ardent supporters. Well, we’re not even midway of the full term of the present administration — assuming the Unity Government can run the whole marathon. 

Anwar and his team have made some promises. And we can expect more from them. Well, politicians being politicians, we will apply the “trust, but verify” rule. Let’s see if they deliver. 

  • Habhajan Singh is the corporate editor of The Malaysian Reserve. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition