Our leaders need a change in mindset – but so do we

Last May, most Malaysians were ecstatic, full of hope that the Barisan Nasional (BN) “regime” had finally disintegrated. Out with the old, in with the new… or so we thought.

Nine months and five days later, the hopes of the Malaysian public are dashed. We went through the gestation period, and a “baby” was delivered in the form of Pakatan Harapan (PH). However, large segments of our society have lost hope. The new narrative rejects this newborn infant. It is as if we suddenly realised that we do not like the shape of its head, or the position of its ears. It is either too small or too thin and cries incessantly; or it is too quiet or maybe even mentally challenged.

But despite knowing that a newborn has no ability to show its true character yet, many of us have concluded that we made a massive mistake in conceiving it. Did we commit a blunder in voting for PH? Were we too impetuous? Did we act irrationally? Are we too myopic? But the “coffin” has been sealed, till 2023 at least.

The reverse side of the coin exposes a similar, although less obvious, climate of uneasiness and regret. Those voted into power may be asking similar questions of themselves, but it is manifested differently in their public life. The backlash Maszlee Malik received after accepting the presidency of IIUM is a case in point. The media had a field day when they reported that it was against PH’s promise not to prop up politicians as heads of public universities.

Maszlee later agreed to give up the post pending his replacement by a suitable candidate. We hope that this positive step taken by Maszlee was because he realised that he was too impetuous, irrational or myopic, or that he simply made a boo-boo. But we, the public, should stop harping on his mistake and commend him for succumbing to the criticism of civil society.

The recent embarrassment about “lacklustre” degrees obtained by certain Cabinet members is another case in point. The issue, to my mind, is not the fact that an academic degree should be judged as mediocre, good, better or best. The issue, rather, is that the person concerned should not feel so insecure as to withhold the truth about which university granted him the degree. Even worse, he should not try to fool the media and public into thinking that “one Cambridge fits all”, as if we are referring to undergarments.

Again, the issue is about integrity, confidence, dignity and honesty. In this case, Deputy Foreign Minister Marzuki Yahya should ask himself if he, too, was impetuous, irrational, myopic or intentionally dishonest. At least, we the public hope he will engage in some form of self-reflection. We the public should also look beyond the petty issue of Ivy League versus online degree. We should monitor our leaders so that they keep their inflated egos in check, especially when it serves no purpose for the reforms that our country desperately needs. Criticise the ego, not the stupidity.

In early January, a student activist said that despite Maszlee’s announcement on Nov 9 last year that he would relinquish the post of presidency “pending the choice of a suitable candidate”, the process is taking too long. The student questioned Maszlee’s sincerity, asking if he really intended to step down. The delay, the student said, was a deliberate attempt to break a promise.

The common claim in other complaints about “broken promises” is that PH is delaying policy reforms, and that there is an agenda to maintain a BN-like status quo. People feel that the agenda is a ploy to ingratiate the coalition with BN supporters, including PAS.

Maybe so, but we should also be cognisant of the fact that many of our leaders in PH are incompetent or inexperienced. It is our duty to “educate” them and provide constructive criticism. After all, we do that with our children. In Maszlee’s case, we should monitor the situation maturely, because he may be right in saying that “it takes time to find a suitable person”. We should also realise that it is “slim pickings” in Malaysia right now.

Our post-GE14 history has shown that talk about “changing our mindset” has fallen on deaf ears. It is business as usual at our schools and universities, for instance. I am not aware of a single innovative training programme for teachers, or new workshops for lecturers that address “mindset-changing” paradigms for Malaysia Baru. So far, I have not come across any public lectures, talks or seminars in the country that has addressed this problem in depth. After nine months, I wonder if any of us actually understand what “reform” really means.

On Feb 12, a news portal ran a story on Inspector-General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun and his deputy, Noor Rashid Ibrahim. They made a trip to Istanbul together with about 17 other senior police officers and their wives.

Before this was disclosed by a local newspaper, our officials in Putrajaya were silent. After the event appeared on social media, Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin confirmed that he had approved the trip. But the reason given does not justify the business-class travel, the luxurious accommodation or delectable dining experiences for these “vacationers”.

What is baffling is that Muhyiddin did not seem to know exactly what the extravagant trip was about. He was reported as saying: “This is something I felt the police needed.” Sounds very unprofessional, doesn’t it? He was also quoted as saying: “Maybe they want to learn from what is being done by another country.” “Maybe”? Why is our home minister unsure about the real reason for the trip and the huge expense? Once again, the public feels cheated and manipulated.

We urgently need some insight into the psychology of political and social change. It is very difficult to change people’s fundamental political beliefs. This applies to those in government as well as the general public. Many interacting factors are involved, including cultural conditioning, motivation, personality and temperament. Most people are resistant to altering the way they process empirical data. But this does not mean we cannot keep trying.

There is a phenomenon at work in the current political landscape called the “persistence of political misperceptions”. When challenged with facts that debunk various points of view, the more partisan subjects (public and government) become even more sure of their original beliefs.

Mentioning debunked myths such as “the Malays are lazy” while correcting it with the truth – that they are not lazy – is enough to reinforce the original lie that they are.

The mind demonstrates an unwillingness to change, so it is simpler not to challenge existing understandings. It is easier to take comfort in a little ignorance and to remain in the original belief. The downside is that the less Malaysians allow themselves to know about a phenomenon or policy, the more extreme their opinions tend to be. This is basic hat-trick political psychology.

Our current leadership seems to be acting out just such a hat-trick, whether they know it or not. If they truly desire to revamp the education policy, for instance, the ministry should have engaged the media incessantly, informing us of tangible reform programmes for teacher education. Policies about shoes and schoolbags could have been introduced at a later date as the issues are fairly low in the pecking order of reforms.

But we, the public, are just as guilty of warped political psychology. A majority of us gave PH the mandate to lead the nation towards social, political and economic recovery. But quite a number of screw-ups have happened since May 9 and the public is rightfully livid.

As I look around, though, I also see an uncompromising, over-critical and impatient public, stuck in the old mode of “politicians will be politicians”, “this is realpolitik” and “all politicians are corrupt – what to do?”

Let’s criticise constructively, not merely to achieve that two-minute thrill of Facebook or Twitter fame. After all, revolutions throughout history did not reform society in just nine months. Regime change entails years, and even then there are no perfect regimes.

There are several civil society groups which have been giving constructive criticism, who scrutinise events and who toil over media reports about misbehaving leaders. But these are few and far between.

What we need in the New Malaysia is a more educated public with a vision that reaches beyond their pay cheque. This may be a tall order, but if we want our leaders to change their mindsets, we must change ours as well.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.