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The dark side of demanding loyalty to the leader

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The demand for loyalty demeans those who have such expectations and develops spineless people around them, observes K Haridas.

James Comey’s book – A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership – has stirred the imagination of many in the United States.

The former FBI chief, in an interview with ABC, has described President Trump as “morally unfit” to be president and as a man who treats women “like pieces of meat” during a publicity tour for his book.

Comey, who was fired by Trump in May 2017, writes, “Our President must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being Truth.” This president, in his view, is not able to do that and hece is morally unfit for the position.

Truth – the greatest casualty of blind loyalty

Comey labelled his former boss Trump as a “stain” on all who worked for him. “As I found myself thrust into the Trump orbit, I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor for the mob.”

He adds, “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The ‘us’ vs ‘them’ world view. The lying about all things large and small in service to some code of loyalty that puts the organisation above morality and truth.”

By writing this book, Comey offers a view to people of what leadership should look like and how it should be based on values. For those who value loyalty above all other considerations, his statements offer an interesting insight as there are parallels with what is happening in Malaysia. There are leaders who are pathological liars for whom the ends will always justify the means.

There is a concerning side to the personal aspect of loyalty. When it means protecting your friends at all costs, then it is an example of loyalty overriding ethics and values. Personal loyalty has its limits, and only a higher loyalty to one’s own deeply held convictions for justice and fairness, the institutions and the Constitution will provide the right and honourable context.

As Comey indicates, ‘Truth’ becomes the greatest casualty. Truth is perceived to have been withheld from Malaysians over several scandals – whether it is the Altantunya incident, the Scorpene scandal, Kevin Morais’ death, 1MDB and a host of other scandals. In all these instances, much has been done to shield certain parties from the consequences and the public from the Truth.

We have heard the exaggeration about a non-existent Arab donor who donated US$700m to the prime minister’s account. This is then echoed by several of his ministers in chorus. We have a leader who likewise continues to be a stain on those he works with.

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Zahid Hamidi, the Deputy Prime Minister, then says that he has met the Arab donor; then claims it is more than one Arab; then a wealthy Arab family and finally he says that the MACC has confirmed this to be true. This is what blind loyalty does.

Zahid Hamidi studied in an agama school and graduated with a major in communicatons. What does all this education mean? The same can be asked of Khairy Jamaluddin from Oxford.

Serious trust deficit

The bill for silence and untruth will be presented and all who have been part of these fiascos will have to be held to account. The ‘trust deficit’ is huge; so how are we to believe what is being presented by the Barisan Nasional (BN) and this government as their achievements. Malaysians will perhaps be shocked when the truth is revealed by an alternative government. Be ready for the ‘shock and awe’ that awaits us if and when and this is brought to light.

This continuing serious trust deficit makes all the claims made by the BN government suspect because we do know that there has been no transformation in the legislature. The situation is worse than being a mere rubber stamp: the executive completely manipulates and orchestrates how bills are speedily transformed into Acts of Parliament.

All their claims are mere propaganda, and until they are appropriately inspected, we will never know. Yet these impact all of us.

When challenged, the BN strategy is to focus on ethnic or religious issues. It is either a Muslim/Christian issue or some red herring that blames all things on Chinese Malaysians. We have witnessed this in decades, and the time has come to call their bluff on all such cheap distracting strategies. Both Umno and Pas uses Islam to manipulate the voters.

Power is closely associated with corruption the world over. The same is valid in Brazil, Argentina, South Korea, South Africa and other nations. All who eventually end up as dictators be they a Marcos or Suharto steadily destroy institutions and jail those who stand up to them.

This is not the case in the United States. Comey is an example of someone who respects the independence of institutions.

It is leaders who build institutions, and it is these nation-building institutions that produce the leaders of tomorrow. When institutions are systematically silenced, then we lose much for the future.

It is the quality of people in leadership that makes the difference. In Brazil, there were leaders and the judiciary; the same can be said for South Korea and South Africa. Alas, in Cambodia the man has been in power for 32 years and the rot continues.

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In a country where there is so much religiosity and where some are so particular about what is ‘halal’ and how women dress, it is worth asking some hard question to leaders within Umno and Pas. How do you condone the way the way MACC and the Electoral Commission operate? Is gerrymandering OK?

A ‘halal’ attitude is a matter of conduct and practice. Can one be particular about food yet undertake despicable acts in relations to politics and expect people to trust one? Yet, we find there is no level playing field when it comes to politics in Malaysia.

Cloud over new MACC chief

The Business Ethics Institute of Malaysia (BEIM) was a board member of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Academy (MACA). We were concerned when Abu Kassim Mohamed, the former MACC chief, stepped down. We felt that someone from within the MACC should have taken over.

But when Dzulkifli Ahmad was brought in from the Attorney General’s Chambers to head the MACC, we were disturbed. He was on the team under the Attorney General’s Chambers that had cleared Najib of all wrongdoings in relation to 1MDB.

We then wrote to the chief secretary, who had appointed us, and conveyed our views that this only indicated a serious lack of intent on the part of the government to tackle corruption effectively. We were unhappy with this appointment from the Attorney General’s Chambers and resigned from the MACA board. We felt that this appointment was a retrogressive step in the fight against corruption. We did not want to further stain our stand for integrity though it was a privilege to have served.

On hindsight, our action has now been vindicated. A serious cloud hangs over the present MACC chief, who is alleged to have been overseas with the wife of a police officer. He should have cleared his name – for this is what any person of integrity would have done. Unfortunately, the powers that be protect their men – for loyalty to an individual seems to be their highest value.

Chief secretary to the government Ali Hamsa must remove this stain from the MACC by taking action to sort this out. We must be committed to a higher loyalty that motivates us to stand up for what is right. This is what good believers naturally do.

Ultimately, each one of us must be clear about the non-negotiables that we stand for and for which we will not compromise.

How serious is the BN government in tackling corruption when they seem to be ready to bring back the likes of Isa Samad and Mohd Ali Rustam, two individuals who were barred from Umno elections because of money politics? Here again is an example of loyalty displacing integrity in the choice of candidates.

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These ‘have been’ leaders are the champions for Umno. They have served their time and made their largesse and it is time for new faces especially if the BN government is serious about tackling corruption. These are the individuals who will further hurt whatever little credibility is left, if any, within the BN coalition.

Save our nation on 9 May

How can we trust the leadership of this nation when we still have the highest illicit financial outflows per capita, which have been growing rapidly over a decade. Illicit financial outflows are related to tax evasion and corruption. The Global Financial Integrity Report (GFI) estimates that Malaysia lost up to US$431bn (RM1.8 trillion) in illicit outflows between 2005 and 2014.

One can definitely trust the GFI Report. What does this say about Bank Negara, our banks and our regulatory authorities? All Najib’s talk of transformation comes to naught with such outflows.

With globalisation and a more interdependent transparent world, trust is increasingly a significant factor and provides the competitive edge. The existing trust deficit causes tension which arises from unethical behaviour or ethical but incompetent conduct and gives rise to politics, hidden agendas conflicts and rivalries.

Corporate and government scandals, the rise of the underworld and fear are threats and unless we regain trust and integrity there is very little to offer. This is a key leadership competency in the growing competitive global economy.

As Tom Peters so rightly says, “Technique and technology are important, but adding trust is the issue of the decade.”

Recently retired Bank Negara’s deputy governor Dr Sukhdave Singh in his parting shot stressed that “leadership is a responsibility and not a privilege”. He reminded his colleagues that “nothing shines a brighter light into the depths of your character than your behaviour when you have power over others”.

In a few words, he gave us an indication of what was happening within Bank Negara. The demand for loyalty demeans those who have such expectations and develops spineless people around those for whom leadership ultimately is only a privilege.

Let us save our nation from the hands of incompetent leaders and thrust values back into the centre of our lives, actions, conduct and behaviour.

In this the BEIM joins hands with the BG (ret’d) Mohamed Arshad Raji of the Patriots, the Group of 25 (G25) and other eminent individuals and parties in espousing change. This is the option that 9 May offers all Malaysians.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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K Haridas, an Aliran executive committee member, is the current honorary secretary of the Business Ethics Institute of Malaysia, chairperson of the Association For The Promotion Of Higher Education In Malaysia and chairperson of the Malaysian chapter of Initiatives of Change International.
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