If there’s one thing I know well, it’s organisational culture and how it has an impact on an organisation’s goals. “Organisation” here could be a commercial enterprise, but also a government ministry, a sports team or even a criminal gang!
But let’s back up a little.
I spoke to a large local and foreign audience recently as I’m wont to do in my retirement, and perhaps in my dotage. I’m cheap: a free lunch or even a coffee and I’m all yours.
I was introduced as a “motivational speaker”, presumably because I used to work in areas where I was supposed to “motivate” people. More likely though it was because the phrase made me sound important and worth listening to.
Well, I’m no motivational speaker. When I speak, nobody ever jumps out of their skin to storm the ramparts and snatch unlikely victories. If there’s any storming at all, it’s probably to tar and feather and run me out of town.
So I corrected the MC and did my stuff. There was the occasional nod and a few questions, but that’s how these things go.
Incidentally, I recently got to know a venerable, storied organisation that’s been serving the public, first as a government department and now as a corporate entity, for over a hundred years.
Don’t try to guess its identity: there are many like it in Malaysia, whether in electricity, telecommunications, aviation, finance, railways, postal services, or even hospitals. They’re very similar in so many ways.
This particular organisation faces a crisis of identity. It’s trying to figure out what are its “national service” responsibilities, and what are its corporate responsibilities, meaning profits and dividends etc.
As with many government-owned companies, there’s a lack of diversity in the workforce. The vast majority are Malays, with very few women, and a dearth of young people with the talent and skills needed in today’s world.
The company has suffered decades of poor leadership and mismanagement. It’s been kicked around like a football within the government’s orbit, while sharks, in the form of predatory crony companies, circle and seek to devour it.
There’s the usual litany of staff complaints – poor motivation, little appetite for change or desire to learn new things, etc. The relationship between management and staff is frosty, bordering on hostile.
Most managers rose through the ranks and have the “what do you know about our industry?” syndrome. While the world has changed, mental blinkers mean many staff, even senior ones, are still living in the past.
An article of faith is the belief that the government will always come to the rescue, because what the company does is supposedly critical for the nation. Government rescues indeed have happened multiple times, even if it has also become increasingly more difficult.
The internal rationalisation to explain away poor performance probably goes something like this – if we try to make profits, many ordinary citizens would find hardship in using our services.
That’s true enough, but there’s the counterpoint that they’re sucking up
hundreds of millions in taxes to subsidise their money-losing operations that could otherwise have gone to help millions of really needy, desperate citizens elsewhere.
This is a microcosm of how the world appears to many Malays: a worldview wrapped in a pervasive sense of entitlement that the government, as a matter of duty, must always take care of them no matter what.
What saddens me is the impact of this mindset, this culture, on the children of these people.
There’s a Malay saying “Bapak borek, anak rintik” whose meaning you’ll never guess, given the archaic Malay words used, but it basically says “as goes the father, so go the children”.
Herein lies the rub. So many Malays today are dependent on the government. That wasn’t supposed to be the case.
I remember a word in the old days: Berdikari, a mashup of the syllables of the words “Berdiri Di Atas Kaki Sendiri”, or standing on your own feet. It was probably invented by a government communications (read – propaganda) office from the 1960s.
There were campaigns, songs and slogans about it, and there seemed to be real, earnest energy in promoting it. It went on for quite a while. Until it didn’t.
It went out of style decades ago, and is now a very inconvenient word in today’s politics. Hectoring for self-reliance doesn’t jive with the current mood about rights, privileges, entitlements and handouts.
Such a pity. A father who thinks his “sacrifice” in performing national service must be rewarded with job security (which totally upends the very definition of the word sacrifice!) inevitably also results in children having the same mindset.
Protecting a thousand “national service” jobs gets increasingly harder on the public finances and offers no guarantee there’ll be similar protection for the five thousand of their offspring, and by extension, the millions more out there in similar situations.
One of the biggest failings of Malays today is in not raising children who are strong, resilient and mindful of their duties and responsibilities, and who are not merely aware of their rights and entitlements.
It encourages the invention of ever angrier and irrational excuses and opens us to exploitation by politicians playing racial and religious politics, for whom the more of such insecure, needy, dependent Malays there are, the better for their own political fortunes.
Of all the political slogans that have appeared in Malaysia – and we’re world class at producing them – perhaps Berdikari is the most important to the Malays. But it’s also the most difficult to accept – as difficult as taking bitter, but necessary, medicine when you’re sick.
If I was truly a motivational speaker, my pitch would be “Bapa Berdikari, Anak Di Hormati” – a self-reliant father raises respected children. It’s my own modern day version of “as goes the father, so go the children”.
I had better get prepared to be run out of town.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.