YES, Minister: Can we not look at leadership beyond political contest?


Abang Johari frequently speaks of a trend that seems to indicate multi-talent leadership is spreading over a larger spectrum of businesses, and that politics is becoming less important in the competition for influence and leadership. — Bernama photo

FOR a little while, the message seems to have a philosophical undertone that only the enlightened would be brave enough to discuss on a larger scale.

It is considered unusual by many. They would regard it as a radical concept that needs further debate before it can seep into the current hierarchical conventions of power and leadership and become widely accepted.

But Premier of Sarawak Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg saw the big picture and made the decision to go further, if not farther, when he discussed the realities of future economic challenges and opportunities and the need to understand the nuanced nature of power and leadership in light of the shifting social patterns in the years to come.

Individuals fortunate enough to occupy leadership roles must continue to be committed to collectivity of power with a shared direction and set of social values, as opposed to being mired in apathy or complacency.

Shared values

The sharing of values and the commitment to participatory power in the pursuit of improved socioeconomic targets are thus seen as a key definer of the road ahead for the state. Everyone in the collective leadership team, in the eyes of the people, needs to be both an active participant and a good follower of the principal leader – in this case, the Premier of Sarawak.

Being a good follower does not need him to put aside his critical thinking and wait for the top leaders to make a remark that would establish the prevailing narrative, especially when confronted with a contentious issue.

Such a leader in the second or third tier may be perceived by the general public as a passenger who is more focused on his financial gain and job security, or as a ‘pilot’ who is only ready to take off and navigate the skies in clear weather.

Leadership power as social force

To many of us, power and the leadership mandate that comes with it have always been perceived as a social force that has to be acquired through the process of contest in a political arena.

It is a game of numbers as much as a game of popular support.

In other words, the right to leadership remains very much within the operation of a political party system set against the bigger backdrop of democracy, leaving those who are non-politicians as having no access to opportunities to climb up to positions of leadership and responsible stations in the society and contribute to the development of the community.

Expanded dimension

But must leadership be narrowly confined to the hierarchy of party politics even as democracy assumes an expanded dimension across the broad spectrum of a progressive society and adapts to the changing pattern of the political economy of the time.

History has revealed to us that when democracy first took root in the public square of ancient Athens, it drew its first blood directly from the people of various professions and creed and the process was devoid of any political party system.

The ideals of leadership ala democracy and egalitarianism were very much the order of the day as conceived by the Athenians then. Yet, they were able to converge and interact within a non-partisan public sphere.

It appears that we are now moving in a direction where the wheel of democracy is slowly turning full circle as democratisation enlarges its scope and responds to the challenges of globalisation and demands of a ‘k-society’. One wonders if democracy would eventually go back to the rudiments where it once started.

The Premier frequently speaks of a trend that seems to indicate multi-talent leadership is spreading over a larger spectrum of businesses, and that politics is becoming less important in the competition for influence and leadership.

Indeed, it is inevitable that social leadership will become less defined by politics and power and more diverse as democracy and the public sphere expand.

Visionary leadership

Respected for his visionary leadership, particularly in the digital era, Abang Johari acknowledges that politicians will not always have complete control over the frontlines.

Future leadership ranks are expected to include a greater number of professionals who do not necessary have official political affiliations, as societal expectations rise with time.

For many well-meaning Sarawakians with a progressive attitude, it is their aspiration. With their expertise and broad knowledge in their respective professions, they can be counted on to give embellishment to the leadership and contribute to the development and progress of society.

Ahead of his time and often unconventional in his approach to tackling future challenges, the Premier points to the likelihood that more professionals such as scientists, engineers, biotechnologists, doctors, technologists and journalists will be engaged as leaders in the frontline.

Hypothetically, this means that there will be more opportunity for non-political-contest for non-political professionals to be drafted in to the positions of power.

It is a learning and acceptance process that culminates in emancipation.

Yes Minister, together with politicians who have been mandated through the process of political contest, they form a strong and cohesive force and will be able to command the respect and participatory support of the majority in society.

Professionals engaged on leadership front

Professionals will undoubtedly increase and improve the growth and performance of all economic sectors, since knowledge will be the ultimate force propelling our society to greater heights of development in the years to come.

Yes, Minister!

However, Minister, isn’t it too early?

Politics’ power in society is expected to progressively diminish, but it is a misconception to say that it must take a backseat when the people have not yet adapted to such a transition.

Talking about balancing the leadership style at the outset by bringing in both politicians and experts makes more sense. The trend could alter in the upcoming years in line with how democracy and society are evolving.

If we are to take a step to the sideline and ponder over the views expounded by the Premier on the reality of a mixed leadership pattern in the future, we cannot help but acknowledge that the progression of the leadership pattern in the state in the past 40 years (since achieving independence) has been in tandem with the various stages of socio-economic development and is reflective of the heterogeneity of the leadership composition in the state’s central leadership and across state agencies and authorities.

The first decade after independence was a period of political unification and stabilisation of the political environment, followed by the second decade that was marked by power consolidation and emergence of the politics of development.

The third decade saw a restructuring of the state’s economy, which paved the way for the next decade where the thrust has been on meeting the challenges of the new wave of development and globalisation.

In all these, the leadership pattern has evolved in response to the reality of the changing environment, and will continue to evolve to reflect the needs and demands of the people and the era of globalisation.

Shifting the focus from politics to business, one is made to believe that the concept of leadership here is less robust and brutal.

But in the commercial world, leadership takes on a political nature as managers are required to decide how they wish to guide those under their control. Which kind of leadership – command and control or climate control – do you prefer?

‘Climate Control’ leadership

I am given to the theoretical concept of ‘Climate Control’ leadership, which holds that everyone wants to essentially improve the organisations and communities they work with and live in.

This applies in politics and non-political organisations. In all these, our individual and collective freedoms are the source of our creativity, vitality, and sense of community.

How come then being a leader is a political act? The way you lead as someone in a position of power sends a clear message about your support for or opposition to a particular style of leadership.

Yes Minister, this is especially true in supposedly democratic societies where populism is growing or already present.

* Toman Mamora is ‘Tokoh Media Sarawak 2022’, recipient of Shell Journalism Gold Award (1996) and AZAM Best Writer Gold Award (1998). He remains true to his decades-long passion for critical writing as he seeks to gain insight into some untold stories of societal value.