Viewpoint: Towards A Bold And Transformative Leadership – By Dato' Ambiga Sreenevasan

The general elections of 2008 and 2013 saw an awakening in this beloved nation of ours. An awakening of the people of Malaysia to our rights, to our democratic values and to the shared aspirations of the people.

There was a sense of ownership in the destiny of our country. This is evident from the high voter turnout in the recent general elections.

Ordinary people also took it upon themselves to come out and preserve the integrity of our elections. I am reminded of the famous speech of Harold Macmillan in South Africa on February 3, 1960, when the British intended to grant independence to territories in Africa where he said: “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact”.

Similarly in Malaysia, the growth of our national consciousness is a political fact. Despite the disappointment for many over the general elections (essentially because they were not conducted freely and fairly), there was still a feeling of optimism that this country was moving forward and that change for the better is yet to come.

That optimism, however, has seen some of the most serious challenges since the general election of 2013.

We have started to see the beginning of one of the most divisive periods in the history of our nation. It was expected that those who felt their power being threatened would react so as to entrench their positions further.

Nevertheless, the extent to which these elements have gone, is unprecedented. Malaysians have been watching with increasing alarm, the attacks on specific communities, for example, the Chinese, Christians, Hindus, all of which seem to receive the tacit support of those in power.

The rhetoric of racism and religious extremism suggests that as a nation we are losing all sense of logic, dignity and respect. Those who spew racism and demonstrate belligerence in doing so, dominate our public spaces.

Ironically, there are those who roundly condemned apartheid in South Africa and supported that noble statesman Nelson Mandela, but see no problem in promoting racism in Malaysia.

The argument seems to be that we are different from any other nation on this earth! Every time I read these troubling comments, my first question always is, where are our leaders and where is the leadership?

I read an article by William Pesek of Bloomberg whose conclusion was that the fact that there has been no regime change since independence is turning Malaysia into the region’s “weakest link”.

This he said, had led to complacency and is holding back the country’s economy despite its rich potential. He said that insularity is holding back a resource-rich economy that should be among Asia’s superstars, not its weakest links.

He says further that “The need for change is becoming acute… as China’s dominance grows and neighbours like the Philippines get their acts together.”

In my view, it is not just complacency that plagues us. We are dragged down by corruption, abuse of power, divisive politics and selfish politicians who put their own interests above that of the nation.

We have an education system that needs urgent repair. It is a system that is not there to teach our children. Rather it is there to brainwash them so that they fit in with a narrow political agenda.

History books are rewritten, children are divided according to race and religion, indoctrination takes place constantly.

I ask, how dare we stunt the intellectual and social development of our children in this way?

Do we deserve the stinging Bloomberg commentary? I believe so. Are we in trouble? I believe so. Can we fix it? Yes!, with bold and transformative leadership. What we need are statesmen, not politicians.

What is a statesman as opposed to a politician?

The best definition I can refer to is by James Freeman Clark and used by many, including Hillary Clinton. It is stated thus: “The difference between a politician and a statesman is that a politician thinks about the next election while the statesman thinks about the next generation.”

To understand the kind of transformative leadership that is needed, we have to examine how we started, where we are and where we want to be. We need to understand the meaning of transformative leadership.

Malaysia is a blessed country. Rich in resources, free from major natural disasters and populated by a rich, diverse and talented people, we have all the ingredients for a winning formula.

We should be an economic and cultural powerhouse. We should be the Switzerland of the East but we are not. We need to examine and understand why this is so.

Before I deal with the specific issues of leadership, I would like to discuss two matters and dispel certain unhealthy notions that have crept into the national discourse today.

The Federal Constitution

First is the suggestion that our Federal Constitution is a Western document.

When Malaya achieved independence in August 1957, our first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaimed:

“And whereas the time has now arrived when the people of the Persekutuan Tanah Melayu will assume the status of a free independent and sovereign nation among the nations of the world and… whereas a Constitution for the government of the Persekutuan Tanah Melayu has been established as the supreme law thereof and provision is made to safeguard the rights and prerogatives of Their Highnesses the Rulers and the rights and liberties of the people and to provide for the peaceful and orderly advancement of the Persekutuan Tanah Melayu as a constitutional monarchy based on parliamentary democracy….” (emphasis ours).

He concluded the proclamation by stating that independent Malaya “with god’s blessing shall be forever a sovereign, democratic and independent state founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people and the maintenance of a just peace among all nations.”

There is, therefore, no doubt whatsoever that Malaysia was established on the universal ideals of democracy as contained in our founding document, the Federal Constitution.

Before anyone says that the Federal Constitution was drawn up by a group of foreigners (the Reid Commission) telling us how to run our country – you must know the following facts:

The Reid Commission held 31 meetings and they heard evidence in support of any memorandum that was presented – 18 of those meetings were held in Kuala Lumpur, 13 in the other states. In all, they received 131 memoranda from a wide representation of all communities, interests and sections of the population.

The commission visited each state and conferred with the menteri besar, British adviser and state officers.

The commission held many other meetings with individuals, organisations, local authorities, persons from all sections of society, including political organisations.

The commission itself held 118 meetings in Malaya and they then went to Rome to prepare their report.

It is clear that the Reid Commission placed much weight on the Alliance memorandum and statements made at the hearing attended by its delegation.

The Reid Commission, in fact, largely accepted the proposals and recommendations of the Alliance party, particularly with regard to the social contract which were essentially the inter-communal promises made.

The Alliance memorandum also showed a commitment to a democratic style of government.

The Reid Commission consisted of the following eminent people: it was chaired by Lord Reid, Lord of Appeal in Ordinary from the United Kingdom, and was composed of eminent legal personalities from the United Kingdom (Sir Ivor Jennings), Pakistan (Justice Abdul Hamid of the West Pakistan High Court), Australia (Sir William McKell, former governor-general of Australia) and India (B. Malik, former chief justice, Allahabad High Court).

Therefore, we had a wonderful beginning, built firmly on the sturdy rock of the Federal Constitution, an extremely well-crafted document which drew its content from all sections of the people of Malaya.

You can see that the Federal Constitution was not thrust upon us – it was very much our input that went into its creation.

Once we remind ourselves of our roots, we must do all we can to ensure that we have a working democracy of the people, for the people and by the people.

It is the responsibility of the government to be accountable to the people and it is our responsibility to ensure that they are.

When one talks about democracy then, of course, we must speak of its pillars – namely the doctrine of separation of powers, a strong and independent judiciary and upholding the rule of law.

Human rights

Second, the notion that human rights is a threat to the country.

Sometime in May, the prime minister in a speech on the opening of the 57th National-level Quran Recital Assembly spoke these words that caused considerable alarm. He said “Islam and its followers are now being tested by new threats under the guise of humanism, secularism, liberalism and human rights.”

“He said “this mindset appeared to be becoming a new form of religion which was fast expanding locally and abroad.”

“They call it human rightism, where the core beliefs are based on humanism, secularism as well as liberalism.”

When the public reacted with alarm, the prime minister explained that he was not against human rights.

Interestingly, when Malaysia sought to be a candidate on the Human Rights Council in 2006, we produced an aide memoire in support of our candidature where we said (among other things):

“Malaysia, since attaining independence in 1957, upholds that the promotion and protection of all human rights as an indispensable aspect in the process of nation building.

“Consistent with the Universal declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), successive Malaysian governments have made the guarantee of the individual’s fundamental rights and liberties, as enshrined in the Constitution, the cornerstone of the policies and programmes, while noting that all individuals have duties and responsibilities to the community to ensure the continued enjoyment of peace, stability and prosperity (emphasis ours).

“The respect that the Malaysian government has had for each individual’s rights is clearly manifested in the fact that free, fair and peaceful general elections have been held consistently without fail since independence for the people to elect their representatives to the various branches of government within the nation’s democratic system. Universal suffrage has been a principal feature in each election.

“Another manifestation of the importance that the government attaches to the enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms is the promotion of a free media, including in cyberspace, as well as the encouragement of vibrant active civil societies.”

This aide memoire is a statement by our government to the United Nations, of their commitment to human rights. We cannot in any circumstances deny that. Those who have forgotten our commitment to human rights must revisit this aide memoire.

Fifty years on, we see the world changing. We now strive to be an active participant in a global setting. We have witnessed recent announcements to liberalise various aspects of our economy.

Malaysia certainly has what it takes to be a useful member of the global economic community.

But as we strive, we must be acutely aware that as a participant in the global stage, we are accountable for what we do in our country, not just to our people but to some extent to the rest of the world.


Leadership in Islam is regarded as an “amanah” (a trust) and a responsibility. Dr Adalat Khan, president, Mina Management Institute, who specialises in Islamic leadership sets out the core values for Islamic leadership and I will reproduce some of them:

Faith and belief;

Knowledge and wisdom;

Courage and determination;

Mutual consultation and unity (fraternity and brotherhood);

Morality and piety (honesty and trust);

Justice and compassion;

Patience and endurance; and,

Commitment and sacrifice.

In an article written by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, entitled “The Duties of Kings”, she summarised the “Ten Duties of Kings” which aptly sets out what is expected of leaders.

1. The first duty of liberality (dana), which demands that a ruler should contribute generously towards the welfare of the people, makes the tacit assumption that a government should have the competence to provide adequately for its citizens.

2. Morality (sila) in traditional Buddhist terms is based on the observance of the five precepts, which entails refraining from destruction of life, theft, adultery, falsehood and indulgence in intoxicants. The ruler must bear a high moral character to win the respect and trust of the people, to ensure their happiness and prosperity and to provide a proper example.

3. The third duty, paricagga, is sometimes translated as generosity and sometimes as self-sacrifice.

4. Integrity (ajjava) implies incorruptibility in the discharge of public duties as well as honesty and sincerity in personal relations.

5. Kindness (maddava) in a ruler is in a sense the courage to feel concern for the people.

6. The duty of austerity (tapa) enjoys the king to adopt simple habits, to develop self-control and to practise spiritual discipline.

7. – 9. The seventh, eighth and ninth duties – non-anger (akkodha), non-violence (avihamsa) and forbearance (kshanti).

10. The tenth duty of kings, non-opposition to the will of the people (avirodha).

Those ideals remain relevant even today. They set out a framework for a democracy.

The Bhagavad Gita requires of leaders that they are selfless and do their duty for the people without regard to personal reward.

Rob Asghar in an article, wrote about Pope Francis’s radical leadership style and looked at some leadership lessons Pope Francis is offering:

a. Actions and images can count more than words.

The Pope understands the power of vivid images and decisive actions and symbols. When he shuns the lavish privileges of his high office, when he washes the feet of a Muslim woman, when he embraces a man who inhabits the lonely exile of hideous disfigurement, when he undoes bureaucracies that serve entrenched interests, he calls to mind words that are attributed to his legendary namesake, St Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all time… And, if necessary, use words.”

b. When you do use words, you can use them honestly…. while still building bridges to those with whom you disagree.

c. Good management and nice management are two different things.

d. Power should amplify your good character, not dilute it.

As most leaders reach the summit of their organisational mountain, they tend to feel entitled to the perks that their predecessors had. They lose the vantage point that they had from a humbler and lower station.

These core values of leadership are clearly universal. So, what do I believe is the kind of leadership required in Malaysia?

What do we have to do to start our journey to a dynamic and successful Malaysia, a Malaysia we will be proud to leave to our children?

I have the following suggestions for the immediate, initial steps that must be taken:

Understand and respect our Federal Constitution. Know why it is important. (Actually first know what it says!) Understand why strong institutions are vital.

Strengthen them. Understand what are fundamental freedoms, why the independence of the judiciary is critical, why you cannot change the basic structure of the Constitution.

Appreciate that the administration of justice is vital to all Malaysians. That enforcers of the law must be above reproach.

Be principle-centred, humble and selfless. Admit faults and clean up the administration. Malaysians will be more forgiving of a leadership who is honest with them and admits his mistakes.

Corruption remains one of the biggest scourges that pervades every aspect of our lives. With corruption comes cronyism, a lack of transparency, an increase in crime, and ultimately a breakdown of law and order.

The leadership must proclaim a zero tolerance for corruption policy. They must lead by example and declare their assets. They must be strict and not allow contracts for friends and family.

Take our education system out of the hands of politicians and give it to educationists who are interested in broadening the minds of our children and teaching them to think independently.

We must equip them with the tools to succeed in a tough, globalised economy. We must make excellent education available to all.

Have a social inclusion policy. Help all those who are marginalised and oppressed, regardless of race or religion. It is said that gangsters are largely from the Indian Malaysian community. That is hardly surprising.

People who have a feeling of hopelessness are housed in small and crammed quarters and have no access to the best education and jobs, turn to social evils that they believe give them a sense of purpose.

Solving the social problems of any marginalised group helps society as a whole.

Have a no-nonsense approach to racial bigotry and religious extremism. Speak strongly against it.

Encourage dialogue to resolve religious conflict. Solve the problem of the jurisdictional conflict between Shariah and the civil law once and for all.

People, including children, are suffering from a failure of the system to resolve this divide. Show by example that you respect all religions. Stop persecution of any kind.

Let the media be free. Really free. Stop being paranoid and sensitive about criticism. Be courageous and respond fearlessly instead.

Give us free and fair elections.

We want to bring change through the ballot box. Don’t force the people to have to bring change by street protests.

Have a vision. One that sees all the people in Malaysia with all our diversity as a united people. Share that vision with us.

Respect democracy. Respect Parliament. Fight each other in Parliament with the dignity the house deserves. All parties must know that they hold the aspirations and dreams of the people in trust.

Come down hard on abuse of power of any kind.

Care for the people, the environment, and our rights under our Constitution.


I spoke earlier of an “awakening”. Malaysians are much wiser now and we want to live in a peaceful and harmonious nation.

We want to build Malaysia together, and we want to work to strengthen the important institutions of the country.

In this journey that we take together in building our nation, our guiding light, our beacon, must be our Federal Constitution and the rule of law to which we must at all times be fully committed. For without that we will ultimately fail as a nation.


* This is an edited version of Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan's speech at a conference organised by the YWCA on June 7, 2014.

* The views expressed in this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Catholic Lawyers Society Kuala Lumpur. CLS makes no representation concerning, and does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness or reliability of any statement, information, data, finding, interpretation, advice, opinion, or view presented.

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