On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

They hear but do not listen

Neither are there many Malaysian leaders who can emulate first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, the late Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, oppositionist Dr Tan Chee Khoon, the Seenivasagam brothers, socialist councillor C.Y. Choy and Penang's first Chief Minister Wong Pow Nee. These were names synonymous with integrity and ethics. 

Except for the Tunku, few Malaysians would be familiar with the other names. This is most unfortunate because their contributions have been tremendous. 

They led simple lives and in many instances forbade their children from telling their friends who their fathers were. Certainly, they never had mansions with 17 rooms built without approval. 

Despite the Tunku's aristocratic background and free nature, he understood the strengths of compromise and his moderate ways kept the country together, ensuring that all communities felt secure. 

Dr Tan, a religious man, was not charismatic and certainly was never known for delivering fiery speeches but the opposition figure of the 1970s understood one of the most critical traits of a leader: humility. 

Writing on leadership in Time magazine recently, Sherren Watkins noted that a humble leader listens to others and is prepared to hear the truth, even if it is bad news. More important, humility is marked by an ability to admit mistakes. 

How many of our elected representatives – or even appointed leaders – are prepared to take responsibility for their fallacies and admit their mistakes? Not many are prepared to step down even when their abuse of power and disregard for the law have been exposed. 

And even when they do admit to making a mistake, it tends to come across as a political tactic rather than a genuine act of repentance. 

They claim to be passionate about working for the people but ignore public views at the same time. These people of power have become so accustomed to the privileges, perks and applause of their followers that they find it hard to let go. 

They cling on to their positions, hoping to be rescued by their political patrons. If they succeed, they hope all will be forgiven as the media moves on to other concerns. In most instances, such strategies often work. 

Tracing the failures of the Enron leaders, Watkins, who lectures on leadership and ethics, asked whether society was cultivating humility as much as we ought to if we wish to produce God-fearing leaders. 

Enron Corporation was an American energy company that went bankrupt, causing 21,000 people to lose their jobs. It has since become a symbol of corporate fraud and corruption. 

Last week, the head of the National Association of Evangelicals Ted Haggard was forced to quit after being accused of seeking the services of a male prostitute and buying drugs from him.  

Haggard was considered one of the most influential men in the US because he had direct links to President George Bush and the Republican Party. 

Writing in the Leadership magazine, editor Gordon MacDonald asked: "Why are some men and women in all kinds of leadership getting themselves into trouble, whether the issues be moral, financial or the abuse of power and ego?" 

Admitting his own failures and humiliation, he cautioned: "When people become leaders, when they become famous and their opinions are constantly sought by the media, we ought to be more cautious." 

The drive to achieve ambitious goals can sometimes stray us into areas of excitement and risks that can be dangerous and destructive, sometimes even unstoppable, he wrote.  

There are parallel situations in Malaysia. Politics, sex, greed and even religion are powerful combinations and, sometimes, can be deadly. 

We come across leaders who like to pass themselves off as pious with their ability to recite verses from holy books and seemingly choosy with their diet but are tainted with allegations of corruption. 

Then there are some who put on the cloak of religion but their ambitions and actions are identified by their desires for power and position rather than their commitment to God, irrespective of their faith. 

Malaysians cannot be blamed if they seem disillusioned with some of our leaders. They talk of the rich and powerful getting away with violations of the law; sometimes they express frustration over high-profile cases such as the death of 14-year-old Chinese national Xu Jian Huang who was found dead in a swimming pool of an Ampang bungalow, and the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Sabahan Anthony Chang Kim Hock. 

Certainly, they want justice for the victims and their families. They find it hard to understand why the killer or killers in these two cases remain at large and cast aspersions at the system when powerful figures are reportedly implicated. 

The lesson for leaders, whether businessmen or politicians, is that many of them claim to speak on behalf of us, even as they misspeak. How we wish that they listen to us more.