My Say: Is it so difficult to say ‘No’ to things that are wrong?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 11, 2022 - July 17, 2022.
My Say: Is it so difficult to say ‘No’ to things that are wrong?
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Retirement gives you time to catch up with old friends. What do we talk about? Family updates, mostly; and health-wise, the cholesterol level and a list of medications one is taking, perhaps. Another pertinent question — are you catching up on good sleep?

Beyond these rudimentary questions, depending on the sets of friends you are meeting — maybe according to the name of your WhatsApp chat groups — one main topic could dominate. Members of The Blackbird (from the name of The Beatles’ song) group chat have been postponing their get-together, but rock music is something that we cannot avoid discussing when we meet.

Another WhatsApp group, Kawasan Melayu, comprises my primary school friends who grew up in Section 3 of PJ Old Town. Sadly, two friends have passed away in the last year but it is here that we reminisce about our footballing days, playing for hours on the fields — in front of the Assunta Hospital (the field is no longer there), near the Section 3 mosque, or at Road 10 in Section 1. But with Manchester United shooting blanks on the trophy side, I would prefer to talk less about football these days.

But there is one common topic, no matter which WhatsApp group you are in. If you are a Muslim above 60 years old, one cannot escape talking about Islam, how to improve our relationship with Allah and be closer to the Almighty.

We talked about all these matters when I had a teh tarik session in Bangsar with ex-journalist friends. But being journalists, retired or not, we somehow cannot run away from talking about national issues we have covered on the news in the past — matters that are still of concern to us.

“They don’t make them like they used to,” says Ahmad. “What? Cars, superbikes?” I interject. “No, people … I mean the civil service,” he replies. “Just look at the newspaper reports and the ongoing corruption trials involving politicians. The civil service, those in the top brass, are supposed to be responsible gatekeepers. Not just mere yes-men to the political masters.”

Another retired journalist, Don, who also had a stint with national oil corporation Petronas, agrees. “It is a cliché but I guess one worth repeating if it is about the civil service. They don’t make people like the late Petronas CEO and chairman Azizan Zainul Abidin. He was a world-class, visionary and genuine technocrat with impeccable integrity,” says Don.

“Ask Azam. He will vouch for that. He wrote a biography on [Tan Sri] Azizan,” Don says, pointing towards me.

It has been a long time since I wrote the biography The Quintessential Man — The Story of Tan Sri Azizan Zainul Abidin. It was 18 years ago in July that this great man passed away. Awarded the title Tun posthumously by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Azizan was the trusted and able principal private secretary to not one but three prime ministers — Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Tun Hussein Onn and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

After serving as the secretary-general of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Azizan was destined for the top civil servant’s post of chief secretary to the government. But Mahathir had other ideas, assigning him to a corporate role as CEO of Petronas. The task was to turn Petronas into a global player, which today is a reality. 

When I accepted then Petronas CEO Tan Sri Mohd Hassan Marican’s invitation to write the biography, I felt a heavy burden. The fear in me was that the book might not do justice to the man’s reputation.

Azizan’s strength was his firm character. Honesty and high integrity were his hallmarks. He was hardworking, humble and quiet, but was not someone you could push around. He was a stickler for procedures and the civil service general orders (GO). His mantra was “follow the book and one cannot go wrong”.

Some might think this made him an inflexible character who would not do well in a management role but to him, there was nothing rigid in following the GO and procedures. What was right was right, and what was wrong was wrong — it was as simple as that. He had no problem having to say “No” when things were not right, even if the directive came from the prime minister.

To describe and assess the strengths of the man further, here are excerpts from my interviews with those who were close to him.

Business tycoon T Ananda Krishnan, who served as Petronas board member in the mid-1980s, shared this view: “Azizan was a humble guy. He was close to and had access to Mahathir, who encouraged Petronas to venture out [go global] and be brave. If there was any problem, he could go and talk to Mahathir. The thing about Azizan was that he had enough confidence in his relationship with Mahathir to say ‘No’… this is important too. To be able to say ‘No’ and at the same time maintain a good relationship with the PM … [for this to happen,] there has to be leadership.”

Much-respected international corporate figure Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, who was chairman and CEO of the Shell group of companies in Malaysia in the 1980s and later rose to become chairman of the Royal Dutch/Shell group of companies, saw Azizan’s ability to resist political pressure as one of his most significant contributions to Petronas.

“He contributed a spirit of integrity throughout the organisation. He also defended Petronas from many efforts to use it as a vehicle to save and hide basket cases. This allows Petronas to concentrate the most part on its main business. As a person, he was quiet and modest but had steely determination and absolute integrity. As a professional manager, he led by example without seeking the limelight, cautiously examining alternatives without losing the big dream. He had strong consideration for others. A committed Malaysian … I would trust him absolutely.”

Tabung Haji chairman Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, then a consultant with Binafikir Sdn Bhd, worked with Azizan when he was chairman of Malaysia Airlines during the implementation of its restructuring plan in the early 2000s. He considered Azizan “a man of few words but those few words spoken were always relevant. He allowed debate, and discussions were always vibrant at board meetings. At the end of each meeting, he would be firm in his conclusions but he would present them in a gentlemanly fashion.

“What struck me was that he seemed to get the respect of people in the meeting with natural ease. He was someone who was judged by his deeds. He was a man with strong character, had the ability to make tough choices and would stand by them … something that I discover many smart people find difficult to do.”

Hassan Marican, who, with Azizan, strengthened Petronas’ business direction and professional ethics, had this to say: “If you looked at these (Petronas’) shared values — loyalty, professionalism, integrity and cohesiveness — they were the reflection of the man. He was a team player, that’s where the cohesiveness came in. He was not interested in personal glory and had no personal ego. Those four simple words were the perfect way to describe Azizan [and Petronas’ DNA].

“He was a man ready and able to make tough decisions without blinking an eye. He had a clear mind; he was calm and was not a reactive person. He knew that what had to be done must be done. No procrastination with the hope that time would solve the problem. This strong trait of his was totally the opposite of the physical representation of himself.”

Azizan’s son, Datuk Seri Amir Hamzah, CEO of the Employees Provident Fund, says: “I don’t think he ever had trouble looking at himself in the mirror. To him, it does not matter if you have the best mind but, if you don’t have integrity, that’s when things would simply give way … His philosophy was very simple: Do what is proper. With work, one carries responsibility and one’s values … which should not be compromised.”

As for Mahathir, Azizan was a person who “had a lot of strong character. He was very opinionated in that, if he believed in certain things, he would pursue it because he believed it was right. He would pursue it until it was accomplished. Sometimes, I had differences with him. He knew how far he could go and he knew he could voice a contrary opinion without me taking any action against him.”

When Azizan died, Mahathir went to his house to pay his last respects. This was the first time Mahathir had stepped into his house for Azizan considered that it was improper for him — as a civil servant — to invite a busy prime minister, who had more important tasks to do, even for Aidil Fitri.

“I didn’t think Azizan was a rich man [but] I was surprised, when he died, to find that where he resided [in Segambut] and his house itself were not typical of some rich people,” said Mahathir.

Today, the civil service lacks professionals and technocrats of Azizan’s calibre. Compared with him, they earn a lot more and many even have salaries exceeding RM100,000 a month as CEOs and chairmen of government-linked companies (GLCs) and agencies. Yet, their ability to say “No” and do the right thing is in question, judging from the many ongoing court cases, notably those involving corruption.

The 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal, for example, could have been averted if more people — chairmen, members of the board, CEOs and ministers in the cabinet, including those with a professional background, bankers, consultants and accountants — had simply said “NO”. Many just follow orders blindly, not seeing “the wrongs over the rights” beyond their financial perks.

I firmly believe the financial woes and criminal elements in 1MDB would not have happened had Azizan chaired the organisation.

My colleague, M Shanmugam, also writing in Forum (see “1MDB trials reveal weak checks on power”, Issue 1425, June 13) points out that “nobody was prepared to spill the beans. In fact, they were all sucked into a system that does not allow room for dissent against the prime minister.”

As a nation, this is our biggest problem and it will continue to be so. As with 1MDB and many other corruption and misuse of power cases, the best and brightest professionals have failed in their duty. No nation can progress if the best, brightest and well-educated in the civil service or corporate sector succumb to political pressure and patronage, have no guts to say “No” if things are wrong, and hide behind the veil of blind loyalty to leaders.

Sadly, the same people who had failed in their sacred duty or are only “brave” enough to take partial responsibility remain in “circulation” for many of the top posts in the government agencies and GLCs.

None seems to be willing to resign permanently by not taking up new posts or by retiring, let alone pave the way for the younger ones. They still believe they can contribute to the growth of the nation, which many Malaysians doubt. Professionally, if nothing changes, we could remain stuck in a recycled mode, becoming a recycled nation that cannot move forward, recycling the mistakes of the past.


Azam Aris is editor emeritus at The Edge

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