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  • Writer's pictureDr. Asma Abdullah

Time For Cultural Surgery

Research by scholars (namely Hofstede, Hall, and Trompenaars) in Cross-Cultural studies often cites Malaysia as a country with the highest score on power distance. Those who are familiar with the concept know that members who come from large power distance cultures accept hierarchical relationships and unequal distribution of power, roles, and resources as legitimate.

Members regard inequalities in power as normal and accept “their place” in the system for the sake of harmony. Subordinates, followers, and employees acknowledge the authority of their leaders, managers, and bosses and tolerate a centralised structure and autocratic leadership.

Besides Malaysia, other countries that are similarly grouped as having large scores in power distance include Thailand, Philippines, India, and Mexico.

On the other hand, cultures with low scores in power distance believe that power is shared and well dispersed. Superiors and subordinates regard one another as equal in power. Often there are laws to ensure that those with power do not take advantage of those without. Countries with low power distance scores and are less hierarchical include Austria, Germany, Scandinavian countries and New Zealand.

Cultural dimensions on leadership

As a Malaysian of Malay origin, the large scores in power distance would mean that hierarchy is an important cultural dimension in our way of life. The Malay cultural values are based on the assumption that relationships are not always equal between those who are older and younger. We are expected to show respect for our elders at home, towards our leaders in politics and superiors at the workplace as it is part of our adat and adab of politeness, good manners, courtesy and tata tertib among others. There is a dependency and paternalistic relationship between subordinate-superior, which is nurtured and strengthened.

The 20 Cultural Dimensions developed by Dr. Asma Abdullah

When carried to the extreme, this cultural dimension and values can lead us to total obedience and a non-critical attitude towards our elders and superiors. Though there are many young Malays who are becoming more outspoken and challenging towards their elders, they have to be cautious when expressing dissent and alternative viewpoints openly. Indeed it can be a challenge for our Malay leaders to observe a democratic and participative leadership style. With the recent outcomes of GE14 on May 9, the adverse consequence of the cultural dimension of hierarchy has to be put under a microscope. It has to be analysed and reviewed in the context of local leadership practices for the benefit of those who want to lead and be led.

While much has been written about the “must have” and “must do” about leadership on the political landscape, the time has come for those in positions of power to transform themselves. They have to do some cultural surgery by discarding what is no longer appropriate and strengthening what is considered as good practice.

Like many of us who are observers of our political landscape, it is because of hierarchy and too much respect for elders that we are not able to give honest and direct feedback to those in positions of power. We are reluctant to articulate a point of view that may not be palatable to those in positions of power and authority. It is because of wanting to preserve the good name of those in authority that we tolerate poor leadership and bad governance. It is because of the fear of being singled out as a deviant and losing one’s position and status that we avoid raising a contrarian viewpoint with our senior elders.

When the dimension of hierarchy and its accompanying values are carried to the extreme, we will have a situation where apathy, reluctance, and unwillingness to state the truth will reign. Being critical can cause one to lose status and power. On the other hand, those in positions of power too may not feel compelled to act on the feedback from their juniors believing that the latter do not have the right and experience to do so.

In moving forward, leaders in our Malaysia Baharu may have to do some introspection and locate new ways of expressing their power and influence in order to receive the respect they deserve from others. While we look to Japan and other Western and Nordic countries as sources of inspiration and to emulate in terms of development and progress, those in positions of power and authority have to model the way. They have to find what their followers/subordinates want and give their blessings for embarking on any new initiative. Only then would they be able to persuade and influence others to get things done.

Local research

Based on research on local leadership, Malays believe that leaders who have the common/small man approach will earn more brownie points than those who come across as arrogant, crude kasar and crass. They believe strongly in leaders who are able to berdiri sama tinggi, duduk sama rendah (aspire to be like one of us) and are comfortable with people at all levels of society.

In addition, the saying of masuk kandang kambing memgembek, masuk kandang kerbau menguak(be able to adapt to different cultural contexts) can provide some guidance on how to lead in the local setting. More important is for them to demonstrate the values of solidarity, humility and modesty in their behaviours — those who can model the behaviours of turun padang dan mesra rakyat (go down to the field and obtain grassroots level support) To demonstrate these values we want our leaders to downplay their achieved status symbols (like titles, degrees, awards, and honorifics), and material wealth (like houses, cars, planes, art collections, luxury items, pieces of jewellery, handbags, clothes, “trophy” wives) for fear of creating the wrong impression.

We want our leaders to abhor corruption, cronyism, and rent-seeking activities that have made our politicians, civil servants and royal families the butt of conversation, especially in social media.

We want leaders who value differing opinions and champion discussions, dialogues and discourses and promote a climate of openness, vibrant exchange of ideas among followers and not tell them that they are biadap (ill mannered) and ta’ sopan (rude). We want our leaders to develop and nurture talent and human capital recognizing that they would not be in power forever (concern for the future cadre of leaders).

We want leaders to have a moral compass, an inner conscience to deter them from committing a crime, a corrupt act, and dishonest move.

Gone are the days of “father knows best” and saya makan garam dulu (I am more experienced than you). The saying jangan lawan tauke (do not fight with your boss) should no longer be the mantra of those who are in positions of power, authority and leadership.

The leaders we want in Malaysia Baharu are those who truly adhere to the local sayings of Saperti ular menyesur akar tidakan hilang bisa nya (remain the way we are no matter what the situation is like) and Ikut resmi padi makin berisi makin menunduk, bukan resmi lalang makin besar makin menjulang (one who has real substance and remain low keyed). Both statements show how important to have leaders who are exemplary role models in all aspects of behaviour and character in the way they conduct themselves and relate with others. They have to initiate new ways and lay down pathways for doing things, which are in the best interests of all.

This change of mindset has to be initiated right now in our homes, our schools, workplaces and higher institutions of learning in order to instil a culture where new ideas are embraced and celebrated through open and difficult conversations.

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