What Will People Say?
M. Bakri Musa
When the late Tun Razak moved his family to Sri Taman, the Prime Minister’s official residence at that time, his children pleaded with him to have a swimming pool installed. The Tun, acutely aware of the costs to the public, would have none of it.
“What will people say?” he told his children.
Not that the Tun did not want to indulge his children or that he was being unduly stingy, rather he was conscious of the need to differentiate the personal from the official. Unlike many especially from the Third World, then as well as now, Tun Razak was the rare leader who did not consider the public treasury to be his. Even when there were grey areas, as with the swimming pool, he would err on the side of not burdening the public with the cost.
It could be argued that since Sri Taman was government property, expenditures on improving it as with building the pool should be borne by the public. However, as the pool would benefit essentially only the prime minister’s family and invited guests, he acted with an abundance of prudence and probity in refusing to have the pool installed.
There was another less obvious but more important reason for his not acceding to his children’s wishes. Malaysia of the 1960s was devoid of gleaming skyscrapers and towering condominiums. There were no modern suburbs with luxurious mansions sporting swimming pools in their backyards. Most Malays were still stuck in their kampongs leading subsistence living and sleeping under thatch roofs. Tun Razak was sensitive to that social environment; he after all had served as Minister for Rural Development. To kampong folks, a backyard pool would have been opulence on an especially grand scale. This more than the cost was probably what prompted the late Tun not to have the pool for his children.
“What will people say?” As Muslims we are reminded to have taqwa at all times, an awareness of the presence of Allah. “Closer than your jugular vein,” as the Koran put it. If you have taqwa, aware that Allah is watching you all the time, that does tend to restrain you.
“What will people say?” could be viewed as a secular version of taqwa, an internal compass to keep us along the straight path, away from temptations and ill deeds. For a leader, that would be a path that would meet the approval if not praise from his followers. The expression reflects the power of peer pressure, the universal human need for social approval. Yes, leaders need this too.
There is a cautionary note however, especially for leaders. Pay too much attention to what people say and you reduce your leadership to a wet-finger-in-the-air mode. That is not a recipe for success, much less greatness. For others, as well as leaders, you risk being reduced to a pathetic fool, as per the fable of the old man, the boy, and the donkey.
Leaders who pay too much heed to what their followers say risk pandering to their lowest common denominator, appealing to their baser and uglier instincts. That is the leadership of the Perkasa types, obsessed with “them” taking over “our” Tanah Melayu, and of chauvinistic leaders forever paranoid over losing their culture and language. In America this is demonstrated by the ugly spectacles of the current candidates in the Republican Party primaries.
Backyard Pool, Luxury Condos, Half-Million Ringgit Engagement Party
Our leaders today are a far cry from the caliber, competence, and integrity so publicly and unambiguously displayed by the late Tun Razak. We are being painfully reminded daily of these deficiencies, including and especially with his son, Najib Razak, the current Prime Minister.
It did not escape citizens’ notice that when Tun Razak died, his estate, while not exactly destitute, was definitely not brimming with assets. The same could be said of his immediate predecessor, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and successor, Hussein Onn. Today, our ex-Prime Ministers live in mega mansions and travel the world in private luxury jets. I do not know who foot their bills. At least American ex-presidents make a show of earning their wealth through their exorbitant speaking fees.
This brings me to Rafizi Ramli’s latest revelation: Najib’s recent half-a-million ringgit engagement party for his daughter allegedly paid for by the Prime Minister’s Office, meaning the public. Rafizi, who is Keadilan’s chief strategist, had earlier brought us the National Feedlot Corporation’s (NFC) “cow-gate” scandal.
Thus far Najib had issued only a general denial to Rafizi’s serious allegation. Significantly, Najib did it not through a formal press conference but through his Twitter site. He has yet to address the specifics. Perhaps Najib is waiting to consult his high-priced public relations consultants on how best to spin this.
I agree with Rafizi that Najib has to level up with the Malaysian people. A general denial would not do it; it insults our intelligence. As Rafizi has clearly stated, Najib has to address the eight points raised by the allegation. Even if the lavish engagement party were to be paid for personally, I shudder to think what the actual wedding would cost. Malaysia’s self-styled “first couple” is competing with the Saudi royals with respect to gaudy extravagance and obscene opulence. The audacity and hypocrisy for Najib to then lecture the rakyats on the need to save and be financially prudent!
As Rafizi rightly asserted, Najib has to show incontrovertible proof (as with copies of cancelled checks) that the funds came out of his personal accounts. That alone would not be enough; he would have to explain how he accumulated such wealth to be able to afford such extravagance. As alluded to earlier, he certainly did not inherit much wealth from his father, and Najib has been getting government paychecks all his adult life except for his brief tenure at Petronas. That too could be considered as a government paycheck.
As for Rosmah, her father, like mine, was a Malay school teacher. And I knew exactly what my father’s wealth was when he died, and he was a man not given to extravagance. Rosmah has to show that she had been a particularly successful entrepreneur to acquire such wealth. Anything less and the rakyats would have a right to assume that those riches had been illicitly acquired.
The sad part is that this obscene extravagance is but the latest show of unbridled rapacious greed in our leaders. Earlier there was that dentist and former Selangor’s Chief Minister with his million-dollar mansion that he bragged to have bought at half price through his “shrewd” bargaining. Then there was the sleepy head, Najib’s immediate predecessor, with his equally opulent mansion in Perth, Western Australia, and another one given to him locally.
Diligent citizens like Rafizi Ramli could not have exposed these shenanigans without the help of honest fellow citizens, especially those on the “inside.” The rash of such recent exposés signals a significant development. Malaysians are now no longer afraid of their leader or the state. When that happens, many wonderful things follow. Look at Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
With such sordid examples at the very top, no wonder lowly ministers and others too are in on the act. At least Women’s Minister Shahrizat had the decency to resign her cabinet post even though as she said, “I really have nothing to do with NFC except that I’m married to the chairman of NFC. But as a responsible member of the government, I feel the right thing for me to do is to step down.” Yes, she did indeed do the right and honorable thing in resigning.
Will Najib do the same? As for the engagement party, it certainly cost much more than the proposed pool at Sri Taman. We will know what people say come the next elections. More important however, is what would Tun Razak say if he were alive today? The unevenness of the tiles at Tun Razak’s mausoleum at the National Mosque was the result of his rolling in his grave.