The 17th Tun Dr Ismail Oration

“On Leadership”

Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh

Salam Sejahtera

Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim

Segala puji milik Allah, Tuhan semesta alam; Tuhan yang Maha Mengetahui lagi Maha Adil lagi Maha Saksama, lalu menyeru supaya para hambaNya melaksanakan keadilan dan sama sekali menjauhi kezaliman. Selawat dan salam ke atas Junjungan Besar, Nabi Muhammad Sallallahu Alaihi Wassalam, ahli keluarga dan para sahabat Baginda, serta para ulama dan para tabiin; semoga memperoleh ihsan di hari kebangkitan.

Beta bersyukur ke hadrat ILAHI, kerana dengan izin dan rahmat dari Nya juga, Beta dapat berangkat untuk menzahirkan titah di majlis ini.


  1. Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists to have ever lived, once remarked, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Tun Dr Ismail bin Abdul Rahman was a giant on whose shoulders an entire nation stands. We see further, and are more, today because of the legacy that the good doctor, and others like him, left behind. He was a man who was hugely talented and unswervingly committed. Yet he was also utterly humble and selfless in his service to the nation. I am glad his memory lives on, and I am delighted to deliver this oration that bears his name. Today I want to talk on the subject of leadership. I hope that what I have to say is worthy of the man and would have met with his approval.
  2. The subject of leadership is something that mankind has struggled to understand for at least two and a half millennia. Around 500 B.C., for example, Lao Tze and Confucius laid down guiding principles for rulers to administer their kingdoms. Among Confucius’ many leadership precepts, he is perhaps best known for the Golden Rule: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” Two centuries later, the Greek philosopher, Plato, wrote The Republic, in which he conceived the idea of the philosopher king. According to Plato philosopher kings had to undergo fifty years of intellectual and physical preparation to lead the state. A thousand years later, the Florentine diplomat and political philosopher, Machiavelli, penned The Prince, in which he introduced pragmatism and realism as essential elements of leadership.
  3. The search for what makes good leaders continues to this day. Politicians, captains of industry, management gurus, psychologists, academics and, of course, the general public, all have their take on what makes some leaders bad, others good, and yet others great. I do not intend to summarise the vast and varied literature on the subject. Instead, I would like to do three things. First, I would like to suggest three leadership qualities that I think the world will need in the 21st century. Second, I would like to make three observations about common leadership challenges and weaknesses. Third, I want to suggest that these imperatives and challenges of leadership are relevant to Malaysia.

Imperatives of leadership in the 21st century

  1. Leaders and leadership are as relevant today, as when man first organised themselves into tribes and later nations. One has only to open a newspaper, turn on the television or connect to the Internet, to see that the individuals who lead other individuals are a constant source of fascination. Their words, thoughts and actions are diligently studied. Their character strengths and flaws are carefully scrutinised. On this basis, we collectively express admiration or heap scorn. Sometimes we do both, as leaders, in the beginning, please us and, thereafter, disappoint. Or vice versa, when leaders earn our approval despite low expectations at the outset.
  2. A great deal of serious scholarship has been invested in the question of what the qualities of a good leader are. The result is that we now have a mountain of information but no clear-cut answers. Charisma, for example, is often regarded as one of the necessary traits of leadership. Charismatic leaders are ones who can create feelings of intense admiration, confidence and loyalty among followers. But even charismatic leaders are not immune to being challenged or abandoned by their followers. If they do not fulfil their promises or if they do not act in honourable and morally correct ways, they too can quickly lose popular support. Some of history’s worst leaders have been described as charismatic. By playing to his followers’ basest needs and fears, Hitler’s charisma and vaulting ambition brought his nation to disaster.
  3. More than charismatic leadership, I believe what the nations of the world today need is what the leadership theorist James MacGregor Burns calls “transformational leadership”[1], which strives to achieve higher ideals, nobler values and superior behaviour among followers. It encourages followers to rise above narrow self-interests and to work in the service of others towards the common good. It mobilizes people to face, rather than avoid, tough realities; to tackle difficult problems and to make hard decisions. It does not turn away from the difficulty of problems by offering fake remedies. It elevates followers to a higher moral level. One example I often refer to is that of Europe. At the turn of the 20th century, many European countries were still devastatingly poor and a large number of their citizens had to migrate in order to survive. Their tendency to regularly go to war with each other also did not help matters. By the end of the 20th century, however, these same countries had become prosperous and advanced. More importantly, they had not only disavowed violence as a means of solving their problems, but had become instrumental in creating the conditions for world peace and stability.
  4. In contrast to transformational leaders, transactional leaders tend to focus on their interests, and the interests of those on whom they depend. Not surprisingly, they are realists and pragmatists by nature and use threats, punishment and reward to achieve their ends. Such leaders can use their power for both legitimate and illegitimate purposes. In democracies, opposing political parties pitch themselves at each other to ensure public accountability and responsiveness. When global conflicts have to be resolved or international business deals concluded, transactional leadership is called for. But transactional leaders can also exploit greed, fear and hatred to advance less desirable agendas. Racists, separatists and extremists of every stripe believe in the use of raw power to achieve their ends, even if it means depriving others of their rights, happiness and even lives.
  5. We need more transformational leaders in the 21st century. By extension, we also need leaders who are much more capable in the exercise of what the political scientist Joseph Nye calls “soft power”.[2] Hard power is what we are all familiar with. For governments, it includes the ability to direct, punish, defend and invade. For companies, it is the power to hire and fire and to acquire and dispose of companies. Soft power, on the other hand, is non-coercive. It sets agendas, persuades, shapes preferences and harnesses voluntary actions. It is marked by participation, delegation and networking, not command-and-control. In short, soft power is about working with and through people. While both may be needed, there is a greater need for soft power in today’s complex information-based world.
  6. The reason why soft power is required in increasing measure is that people today are becoming increasingly empowered, and countries are becoming too interdependent, to be ruled by hard power alone. Many societies are assimilating liberal democratic values. Mass education has made people more knowledgeable and discerning. They are less compliant and more distrustful of those in authority. Problems such as global warming, the spread of infectious diseases, disaster relief require collective and co-ordinated actions. Their solutions require the implicit consent of people who are switched-on and plugged-in.
  7. The third imperative for leadership is that it must be moral and just. Good leadership in the modern age cannot operate in a moral vacuum. International law today makes it harder than in the past for leaders to get away with genocide, corruption and abuse of power. Countries also organise embargoes and apply diplomatic pressure. These are the hard power elements. In addition, however, there is also the power of international public opinion. As mentioned earlier, the fates of countries today are intertwined as never before. The attitudes of the citizens of other countries therefore also matter as never before. When countries are perceived to behave in an immoral or unjust manner, global opinion will be marshalled against them. The fact is that international opinion, influenced by a 24-hour-7-day-a-week media, is a prime shaper of international politics, economics and business.
  8. Leaders today are held up by the public to a much higher standard than in the past, when there may have been no choice but to accept them. They have to have a high degree of personal integrity if they are deemed to be suitable to carry out public responsibilities. If they do not, there will be the nagging fear that these personal compromises will carry over and affect the conduct of public duties and responsibilities.

Common leadership challenges and weaknesses

  1. Leaders must exemplify the values they want their followers to have. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world”. It is difficult, if not impossible, to persuade people to be idealistic and highly motivated when leaders are self-serving and interested only in retaining power and control. Indeed, when a world leader extols the virtues of democracy, human rights and respect for the law, and then proceeds to act in a manner that is contrary to them, he or she makes an utter mockery of them. Only when leaders show themselves to be driven by higher order goals can their followers feel fully assured that they are not somehow being deceived and manipulated into serving illegitimate or self-serving causes. Otherwise conflicting values and clash of interests will give rise to widespread civil apathy or, even worse, open disobedience.
  2. Walking-the-talk is therefore more than just a nice maxim. It is integral to what good leadership is about and what being a leader means. Tun Dr Ismail lived out the mottos “leadership-by-example” and “clean, efficient and trustworthy” long before these phrases gained currency. He demonstrated uncompromising integrity in all his dealings. Such is the measure of the man that we still speak of his leadership qualities and achievements 35 years after his passing.
  3. Another common challenge for leaders is in the area of listening. Listening establishes a number of things simultaneously. It says that the leader values people. Leaders who are not people-oriented will generally find it very hard to lead from the top, front or middle. By showing themselves to be open to feedback, leaders also establish a basis for trust. Leaders who listen are less likely to pursue illegitimate goals or actions. By having their ideas and perspectives considered, followers feel that they have a stake in the decisions made by their leaders. Finally, consultation is essential because without it, leaders cannot make informed and objective decisions. Instead, they fall victim to the dreaded groupthink.
  4. Listening, of course, is never easy. There are not only the views of electorates to consider, but also those of independent analysts, non-governmental organisations, media, financial markets and the blogosphere. On just about any issue of importance there will be differences of opinions due to dissimilar interests and values. Diversity, however, is a fact of life and engaging diversity is one of the leader’s main tasks. There is, of course, a limit to how much leaders can discourse and take into account. At the end of the day, they will have to make and be held accountable for decisions that they think is right. Their lives, however, would be easier if those who are affected by their decisions believe that they have been heard.
  5. A third common challenge for leaders is to deliberately surround themselves with the best and most capable people, ones who can bring different talents and insights to bear and who may not necessarily be the most compliant. True leaders know, however, that they do not have all the answers and they must seek out those who are more competent and capable and delegate duties and responsibilities to them. If they do not, bad and poorly executed decisions can result, and this may end up eroding popular support for them. In order to be effective, they must have their eyes firmly fixed on achieving results.
  6. Naturally, there are downsides to choosing highly capable and motivated people for one’s inner circle. For one thing, they may not see eye-to-eye on many issues. It can take time a great deal of time and effort to forge a consensus. Occasionally, agreement may just not be possible. For another, second-tier leaders quite often end up challenging the leader. This makes many first-tier leaders wary about those they appoint to positions of responsibility. They may be tempted to offer important positions to loyalists who are unsuited. Leaders, however, have to be more confident about their positions. They have to remember that they have a duty towards those who support them and that they should be uncompromising in discharging their responsibilities.

Implications for Malaysia

  1. The general observations I have made about the imperatives and challenges of leadership in the 21st century are, I believe, relevant to Malaysia. One of this country’s enduring strengths has been its almost obsessive focus on effective leadership, that is, one which has to deliver the goods to the people. This has been one source of legitimacy for leaders apart from personal popularity. The leadership process has also, to a degree, been open and inclusive and resulted in Malaysia emerging as a shining model of development. Other countries may have had as much, if not more, than Malaysia but they were able to accomplish very much less.
  1. As a result of its successes in human development, Malaysian society has changed. I believe that this has also made it necessary for the type of leadership to also undergo a transition from the transactional to the transformational. The Malaysian development ethos today is no longer framed in purely materialistic terms. Malaysians, especially the younger generation, are empowered and energised. Their demands are for more moral, open, representative, equable and equitable forms of leadership. They want leaders who can courageously cross sectarian boundaries and who depend on their intellectual and moral integrity and gravitas to attract and retain support, not just on political power and patronage.
  2. Leaders today need to be masters of soft power because hard power, though still required to maintain law and order, is not well adapted in dealing with today’s complex and interdependent world. As with any change, there will be tensions. Progress may advance and, at times, retreat, in line with changing circumstances. The pressures for transformational leadership, however, will be incessant and unremitting.
  3. Such leaders will emerge in the future but it is necessary to remember that they have been around also in the past. Tun Dr. Ismail was one in the first wave of leaders who demonstrated an integrity that was beyond question. He passionately believed that Malaysia was a country that could accommodate the hopes and dreams of all its peoples. He envisaged a Malaysia for all without colour lines, without ethnic borders and without any one group feeling a sense of inferiority. He was Malay and a nationalist but he firmly opposed racism of any kind. Instead, he celebrated diversity.
  4. Nor did he have the inflated self-importance that so many, on reaching his position, might have had. On being conferred an honorary doctorate of laws by Universiti Sains Malaysia on 9 June 1973, he said:

“…Saya berdiri di hadapan saudara-saudara bukan sebagai seorang pemimpin negara, bukan sebagai seorang politik, bukan sebagai seorang tokoh dalam masyarakat, tetapi hanya sebagai seorang hamba Allah di tengah-tengah orang yang berilmu, sebagai seorang manusia yang telah lewat umur, tetapi telah banyak menjalani hidup yang penuh dengan kisah-kisah suka dan dukanya.”

Such was the humility of the man. He passed away just 55 days later.

  1. In the person of Tun Dr. Ismail, we are offered a glimpse of a gallant leader who exemplified everything that he advocated. He showed us that it is possible to hold steadfastly to one’s beliefs and yet not deprive others of theirs. History shows that many have been given the chance to lead but only a few have excelled at it. This is because leaders often lose their values once they become besotted with power. Let us hope and pray that there will be many more giants like Tun Dr Ismail on whose shoulders we can stand to continue to undertake Malaysia’s transformation into a modern democratic society.

Thank you.


  1. James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (Harper & Row: 1978).
  2. Joseph Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (PublicAffairs: 2004)
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