IT’S the most important criterion in leadership – the ability to listen to what your workers or voters have to say. It does not matter whether you are running a country or a company. Great leaders are simply great listeners.
Extraordinary men and women, especially those in politics, solicit feedback, listen to opinions and act on that intelligence. They will tell you that differences in opinion have nothing to do with dissent.
The younger generation, who are exposed to more information than their parents, would be the first to tell you that they will never accept any leader who talked down to them.
Today, they want to be asked for their opinions, and more than that, they want their opinions to be heard too. In this age of information overload, listening skills have become even more important because there is a need to discern the gems from the cacophony of noise.
Surveys have shown that many leaders have been effective, not only because they execute their plans well, but simply because they understand what people want. They may not have the answers but they are there to listen, to hold their hands, and simply by being compassionate.
It was good to hear the Prime Minister giving the assurance to the people that he was listening with his “big ears” to all complaints and grievances.
His order to MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu to set up a hotline as soon as possible to attend to problems faced by the Indian community is appropriate. Some may dismiss it as too late, but it is better late than never because social problems never go away.
Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has also directed that a special committee be set up to analyse and address the socio-economic problems faced by the community.
But more importantly, these problems should be quickly identified and immediate follow-up measures taken. The problems faced by the two million-strong community is well known – from poverty and neglected conditions in Tamil schools and estates to demolition of illegal temples – and it would be foolish for any politician to be dismissive of these voices.
The statistics are grim – the community controls only 1.2% of the shares in the local bourse and, in 2005, Indians had the highest suicide rate in the country (21.1 for every 100,000) compared with Malays (2.6) and Chinese (8.6).
The Prime Minister’s advice is important because the MIC has the responsibility of seeking redress for the problems of the community. The party represents the community in the Barisan Nasional and its legitimacy would be challenged if it were unable to do its job.
The other Barisan component parties would also be affected if the grievances of this community are not treated with great sensitivity by the politicians.
The MIC should know the problems at hand and should act quickly on the directive of the Prime Minister.
Samy Vellu has said that hotlines would be set up and that contact numbers would be published in local newspapers, saying he would bring up their problems with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.
But he needs to do more, much much more. He needs to set up a public complaints bureau in every state to allow the people, not just Indians, to seek the help of the party. Hotlines alone would be insufficient.
Samy also has to galvanise the support of the business groups to support education programmes for the community because a good education foundation is the key out of poverty. Although the MIC has set up several education institutions such as the TAFE College in Seremban and AIMST University in Sungai Petani, there is a lot more to be done.
The leadership must also hear the complaints of scholarship seekers and check on the overzealous action of low-level bureaucrats. The MIC also has to carry out an honest and critical self-analysis.
The party needs to ask itself whether it has worked hard enough, within the existing channels, for those students whose applications have been turned down.
Listen, and act
The MIC also needs to look at the displacement of Indian workers in estates by foreigners and the migration pattern of these people to urban centres. Car wash and scrap metal outlets provide some form of income but skills development centres would surely help them in the long run.
The community needs a strong lifting hand from the federal government and the public sector to create a larger base of the middle class and poverty eradication programmes, by right, should never consider race as a criterion.
Many of us would not accept the street protest by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) and the open calls to Queen Elizabeth II to interfere has invited negative responses among Malaysians. But we must not turn a deaf ear to the loud calls. They have spoken and the point has been made.
Many of those who took part have been arrested and charged in court. Malaysians hope that this is the end of any protest gathering as we must be mindful that such acts of defiance can also invite counter-protests which can be much bigger in numbers. It is an exercise in futility which would only create unnecessary tension in the city.
Hindraf does not represent the sentiments of all Indians but we cannot deny its action has struck a chord. The Prime Minister, I believe, has received reports and feedback from more than one source.
It is important for all of us to treat the concerns of our Indian brethren as a Malaysian problem. It is not an Indian issue but a Malaysian issue.