VIRTUS over VIRUS

Reflections of life in the time of Corona and a user guide for your ongoing leadership journey.

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INTRODUCTION

Assalamulaikum W.R.B everyone.

Thank you to Prez TAB my fellow C’78, Serpent, Sdr Boon C’90, Sdr Amin C’98 and MCOBA committee members for inviting me to do this MCOBA IFL (Inspiring Future Leaders) session, the second in the series. It’s an honour for me, thank-you and Alhamdullilah.

The last time I spoke at MCOBA was a bit more than two years ago(1), just before the historic 14th general elections of exactly two years ago today. A lot has happened since. If a week is a long time in politics, two years is a bit of an eternity. At that time at MCOBA, I was trying to find the right approach or metaphor to convey a message that would be relevant to MCOBs at a particularly pivotal moment in our political history, while also mindful that I was holding public office then at Khazanah. Of how to be true to our lifelong promise as College boys of living up to our motto of Fiat Sapientia Virtus (Manliness through Wisdom) while, concurrently, navigating the minefield of partisan politics.

I think I found a way to do so by asking the audience then to consider three songs that we all know by heart. This is done in the hope of getting to the essence and spirit of those songs. The first two are obvious ones – we started with Negara Ku of course with its zeitgeist is essence of loyalty and service to King and Country –and that our King reigns through “…Tuhan kurniakan”. The second is of course our College song, of which the operative line to me is “Kidmat ku berikan” more so than “Bangga ku Rasakan”. Indeed, while it’s OK to be proud, but let’s remind ourselves its sometimes a thin line between good pride and false pride or even arrogance and hubris and the best way I know to overcome that is indeed to land on the line “Khidmat ku berikan”. Whatever we have, and privileged to have has to be channelled for the greater good, in khidmat, in service. But we ended on a personal favourite, and indeed we sang this together at MCOBA that afternoon, to the hauntingly beautiful melody and words of Tanah Pusaka. And of its many immortal lines(2), the most memorable for many must be its last “Biar putih tulang jangan putih mata” (Better to die than to live in shame). That Tanah Pusaka is sung variously as Tanah Air Ku, Tanah Melayu, Tanah Malaysia, Tanah Pusaka or in our case, Kolej Ku is indeed a poignant point on national identity to reflect on, still somewhat contested after all these years, but its outside the scope of today’s short discussion.

So, to recap, to set the stage: if we take the spirit of these three songs, to my mind it’s about 1) loyalty to King and Country under the grace of God, 2) service to the greater good, and 3) courage, honour and grace or virtus under pressure. So, maybe that’s a good starting point for this discussion, as old boys. That we were privileged to have gone through the hallowed halls of MCKK with our promise to beri khidmat and to live up to its motto of manliness through wisdom. So guys, any discussion of “Inspiring Future Leaders” for MCKK old boys to my mind, must be contextualised and located within this.

LIFE IN THE TIME OF CORONA

Before we cover the main topic on leadership, our moderator Sdr. Boon and Prez TAB wanted me to give some brief comments on what I have been up to and on thoughts on the current Covid-19 crisis. Ok, briefly:

First, it’s been some 22 months since I left Khazanah on 31st July 2018. Alhamdullilah, it’s been a rather personally fulfilling period of taking a break and undertaking many things I have always wanted to do. Given that I spent a total of 170 months (14 years, 2 months) in Khazanah, this has been a much welcomed break. First of all, it has been according to plan, on track for two years of an academic sabbatical of sorts in 2019 and 2020. This has been principally through a couple of visiting fellowships at my other alma matter, Cambridge University, but also variously with the Growth Centre at Harvard, and the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies. My main interest is in the area of Finance and its relationship with society at large, via the real economy. A quite topical area. Second, these academic work-tracks and the long years of work in the investment, economics and development space also converges quite nicely on some research and advocacy work I am doing with the likes of the World Economic Forum (Davos) where I sit on their Global Future Council on Investing as well as the Steering Committee of the Global Ethical Finance Initiative, which counts the United Nations among its key collaborators. Third, from early this year, I have resumed some commercial work; including advising clients internationally in strategy and finance, and working on some prospective investments in various sectors that interest me in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. I have deliberately avoided commercial work back home as a matter of (post Khazanah) principle, but still do some academic work occasionally with local universities (Georgetown Institute and UTM).

Fourth, alhamdullilah, I have been able to rekindle the fires of wanderlust (Prez. Tab knows I spent a large part of my accountancy studies escaping, hitch-hiking through Europe and other places!). This means I have been doing lots of travelling, the most memorable being last summer when for 77 days, I managed to fulfil a teenage dream of going around the world, as it turns out, in 77 trains, a few ships and other vehicles. The journey, done in one go, covered 22 countries over 4 continents and of course, the first evening of the 77 days was spent in Kuala Kangsar! Fifth, and not to be underestimated, was spending a lot more time with the family, and to give your mind and body some rest too. Alhamdullilah.

Now, on the Corona virus. I really don’t have too much to add as so much has been said already and there are probably too many “experts” now in any case. Like everyone else, of course I have an interest as a normal citizen, as a student of society, but more so as a father, son, husband, brother and so on. My wife and I had taken a decision in mid-March, some 8 weeks ago, to come home from the UK and in the process we also “evacuated” our two younger kids who are studying in Washington DC and New York City respectively to come home with us. Alhamdullilah, I think it has proven to be the right decision to date. When on the 1st of May as the YAB Prime Minister was announcing the loosening into CMCO, some friends suggested we can now sing the eponymous Bee Gees song, someone quipped that maybe we should be singing Staying Alive instead. At my age and Prez. Tab’s age, that’s may not be a bad idea!

Basically, the way I look at Covid 19, is over three horizons. Three months, three years, and thirty years. The next three or so months, the battle is indeed to save lives while balancing against the economic and societal challenge. The economic challenge is indeed deep and probably long drawn. Most serious economists I know are talking the D word (i.e. depression) rather than just the R (recession) word. Whether it will take 3 years or indeed longer to recover remains to be seen. It is no doubt a very challenging backdrop. And we hope, pray and contribute as best to our fellow OB, the Y.B. Finance Minister from C’90 that as we know he is a man of great stamina and resilience and InsyaAllah, with smart thinking, good effort, cool heads, good hearts, lots of collaboration and a bit of luck, the Force will be with him and I am sure the nation will come out of this crisis as we have always done through many crises.

The last horizon of 30 years to 2050 fascinates me the most I must say. While statistically it is less than likely that I will be able to witness the end of that horizon, as the saying goes, old or older men must plant trees where they won’t enjoy its shade or its fruits because only then will society progress. Indeed, history has taught us that it is in such seismic events and transitions through plagues, wars, revolutions, ecological collapse and so on that truly epochal changes take place(3). In some ways that is quite morbid, quite scary, but it’s also an opportunity to reset onto a better pathway that students and practitioners of change management secretly and not so secretly yearn for, that is the proverbial burning platform, because they know that truly lasting change usually gets done in such dramatic turning points And that for all of you today, or at least most of you, the best part of your working life and indeed your life is still ahead of you and it will be over this 30-year horizon. So carpe diem as they say, do seize the day.

LEADERSHIP JOURNEY

  1. First, that as per the famous hadith by our Holy Prophet S.A.W(4), we are all leaders. As a father, husband, we are all leaders. Some of us are bosses, and would be bosses. The point is it’s our business to know about leadership.
  2. Second, as we know MCKK itself, its DNA, its ethos, is about creating leaders. And indeed MCKK has created and produced so many over the years in so many fields.
  3. Third, at the heart of leadership is actually about amanah (managing of trusts), and the key guidance for this to my mind is contained in Surah An-Nisa 4:58. Several important learnings here of course: that amanah should be given to those who are “ahli” (that is those who are most qualified) and that the discharge of the amanah is ultimately to discharge what is just and fair. And to be clear, there are all kinds of amanah – big, very big, small and medium sized. They are all important and indeed as we heard earlier, we are all leaders and pemegang amanah as such.
  4. Fourth, to me it’s not particularly important whether we all become “leaders” per se by its usual definition. To my mind, it’s much more important that we all be true, to discharge our duties, in khidmat, with courage and honesty and so on. If this means being a follower as such, so be it. If you stay true to those ideals and follow the leader, loyally to the leader who must in turn be loyal to the ideals, then you are a great follower who is actually a leader in itself.
  5. Fifth, that developing oneself to the best of one’s ability is also an important amanah. Because you have been given many gifts – of intellect, of privileges to study including in MCKK, of peace in our homeland and so on. We therefore have a duty to develop so that we may be of use and contribute i.e. khidmat to others. Where we end up is less important to my mind so long as we have given our best to develop to be the best we can be in order to give back to society. insyAllah.
  6. Sixth, on a personal note, I have learned over the years that its best not to volunteer let alone protrude (i.e. menonjol) oneself to fill up leadership positions. When I was younger, in my 20s, perhaps out of innate curiosity and perhaps too much energy, I would tend to volunteer a lot. I have learned over the years its best to do a good job, as best as you can and never ask nor volunteer to so call “climb the ladder”. That if it’s meant to be, the task and amanah will come to you. And at that point, insyaAllah, if you are sincere in your intent, have a strong sense of duty to serve, and you are indeed more or less the best person for the job, then in my experience, you will be on the right path and much help will come your way, from expected and unexpected sources. Alhamdullilah.
  7. Seventh and finally, its slightly cliched but it’s true that that leadership itself is indeed a journey. What that means is that a leader is always learning, so called life long learning. That implies a certain humility, a certain curiosity and hunger to improve, to do better in serving others. Ultimately, a leader will know that his or her best legacy if there is one is to empower others, to build other leaders, and in doing so to build groups of people that over time build institutions. That to my mind, is the ultimate test and achievement of a leader.

A “USER GUIDE” ON THE LEADERSHIP JOURNEY: 3 TOOLS – CYCLES, TRIANGLE AND CURVES,

There are many ways to cover this so-called Leadership Journey. But time is limited, so I thought I share with you three tools to perhaps help you shape your own journey.

The first tool is how to manage the leadership journey’s “CYCLES”

It’s important to understand time and perspective in planning your journey, any journey. How far, how long, what are the milestones. There are of course many ways to do this. I must say I took inspiration from an old boy, Dato’ Dr. Fadhilah Kamsah who gave a talk one Ramadan evening many years ago at MCOBA Building to our batch on how to be good parents. We were young parents then, most of us at least, and it would have been in the early 1990s, when we were in our early 30s. Dato’ Dr Fadhilah outlined the concept of seven year cycles in the context of a child’s development and parenting. I found his analysis and guidance very insightful although it stopped at the first three cycles i.e. as 0-7, 7-14 and 14-21 years old cycles. I must say I speculated and extrapolated that further and used it for my own career and life planning and later as a boss I would use it for many a leadership journey and talent development discussion with my staff, reports and mentees.

Here is an illustration below. Of course, this is a general case and it’s not supposed to be exact for everyone under every circumstance. Some are faster, some later bloomers. The point is it’s a tool to help you to consider perspective and also that the journey, like all journeys, has milestones, is situational and to also enjoy and savour the journey and not just be too obsessed on the destination!

To also consider that a proper time perspective and long term planning is a critical factor in succeeding on this journey. Those with long horizons tend to generally do better, they tend to have a focus on growth and development, on building for future generations and not just for immediate gratification. My first encounter with a Jewish person for example was during a travel through middle America with my batchmate Dato’ Azman Manaf (aka Man Koboi) when we crossed from Indiana to New York by hitching a ride in 1981, and my main “wow” moment was learning from our new Jewish friend that his family has a 100 year plan for him the moment he was born!. By contrast, I learned from another batchmate, Hj Adam Said who volunteers on helping drug addicts then, that a drug addict’s time orientation is the next fix. The saying of kais pagi, makan pagi etc. So, think and plan long term. Why not think of a family 100 year plan? Make sure our children do better than us. That’s what our dear ancestors did, bless them.

The second tool is how to manage the leadership journey TRIANGLE

 The As of achieving – aptitude, attitude and altitude (management). Imagine a triangle, impossible (Penrose) triangle (or otherwise). The base is about aptitude . you need this first; a degree, basic skills in your particular field. This is the base on which you need to build on. This gets you into the door. Its competitive out there – if you have a degree, you may need a really good one, a professional qualification, a Masters degree and so on(5).

But once you have established this base, how far you go will depend on your second “A” – Attitude … This is about your character – can you work in teams, do you have the drive, the diligence, and so on. And even when you get “there” – i.e. reach the so- called top whatever that is (!), then it’s about managing the third A – i.e. Altitude : remember that this is usually the hardest test – many fail this. You need to arm yourself with many things – authenticity, integrity, humility, gratitude, courage, generosity of spirit for starters.

The third tool is how to manage the leadership journey CURVES

It is an article of faith and belief that everyone and every creation is special in that Allah S.W.T has not created anything in vain (Al-Quran 38:27, 54:49 among others) – all creation and everything has a purpose. The tragedy is that many or even most people are not able to find that special purpose, unleash that special talent that they have in themselves. Go find it. Don’t ever give up. Believe!

If we believe in these verses as we should, that everyone has a special talent, that no one is self-sufficient nor is an island, hence the need for mutual exchange and cooperation. The issue is to believe, to find that special purpose and meaning of what is it is your special talent (and it definitely it is there!) and how to position yourself to best manage that talent against where you are; in terms of your job, your vocation, your passion, what the world needs, what you can get paid for and indeed your ikigai (please google this Japanese concept of the happy union of all that).

Your self-worth and self-dignity is within you. Don’t judge yourself vs other people’s yardstick. Judge against the talent, the special talent that Allah S.W.T has given you, and managing this is in effect about managing your own leadership journey curve. Sometimes you are on a curve and find it flattening – chances are you are on the wrong curve, wrong place; go find another curve. This is an advice I received from my then big boss, the late Tan Sri Ani Arope at LLN/Tenaga. I did, I left to find a new curve as an investment analyst at UBS and having risen to become head of research, I also left that curve, took a temporary downward curve even as a masters student at Cambridge and later took on a big curve at Khazanah. Now am on another curve as such, excited in many ways to be learning and adjusting to new things. Alhamdullilah.

If we believe that every human being has at least one curve, perhaps having been privileged to attend MCKK and some of the best education in the world, InsyaAllah I am convinced that you have more than one curve in your cylinder! Maybe 3 or 4 even! You have a duty to go and find and harness it.

IN CLOSING: OTHER IMPORTANT LEADERSHIP JOURNEY PRINCIPLES

There are quite a few other things I would like to cover but time is short and its best that we cover some of this in Q&A perhaps. But in closing, if I could just outline a few more leadership principles that I think are indispensable.

1. Managing the two “impostors” (Triumph and Disaster) through Sabar and Syukur

Kipling’s famous poem “If” says it so eloquently:

“…If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
…….And treat those two impostors just the same”

Imam Al-Ghazali says that life is (more or less) always oscillating between two states of Sabar (in hardship and musibah) and Syukur (in good times and blessings). It is safe to say that more fail the latter than the former. There are many tools to ensure that we stay on the right side of sabar in musibah (sabar, solat, doa, usaha, tawakkal, jangan putus asa etc), and syukur (gratitude, comply with Allah’s laws, give charity, help others, humility, be just and so on).

2. Find Balance

One good way to retain composure and indeed fitrah (our natural state) is to go and seek that elusive balance. Not just the obvious so-called work-life balance in this regard, but indeed many dimensions of balance – between savings and consumption for example, between family and work, between time for yourself and for others, between the short term and the longer term and indeed between dunya and akhirat. In my view, it is impossible to advance until and unless we find this balance, and it is both a necessity and goal in itself as well as fuel and provision for your journey. And a key part of finding our balance, our fitrah, is ultimately to be kind, to be generous, and to serve and to be useful to as many people as we can be.

3. “Agama itu Nasihat” – get the best advice, live a life of counsel and counselling

Am often asked, what is the best advice that you have received and what is the best advice you can give. To be honest there are so many, and there are many ways to present this. And everyone will have your own preferences and resonance in any case. But indeed, the act of advice (nasihat) is itself precisely the right start, as Rasulullah S.A.W. teaches us in a famous hadith that “Agama itu Nasihat(6) and the short but very deep Surah Al-Asr(7) commands us as one of the central planks of success is to enjoin and call each other to truth and in patience. It’s very important to go through your journey therefore with not just the right intent and the right application, but also with the right companions. Helping each other through right counsel and encouragement, among others, is indeed a big part of the journey. As an African saying says, if you want to go fast, go alone, but it’s better to go far by going together.

I hope you find this short presentation to be useful. Hopefully it begins to approximate even in a small way, of the ideals of Fiat Sapientia Virtus. And to take heart that we do now most certainly live in interesting times, and that times of crises such as this are often the crucibles for leadership to emerge. It can and should be a time where our Virtus (Manliness, Valour, Leadership) can indeed overcome this time of Virus.

May you find and harness further your leadership journey. InsyaAllah. Whatever is good is from Allah S.W.T, the gaps and weaknesses are mine alone.

Azman Hj. Mokhtar
(Class of 1978, Idris House)
Kajang
9th May 2020


  1. 28th March 2018
  2. By Ahmad Marican and Wan Ahmad Kamal
  3. Walter Scheidel’s 2017 book The Great Leveler that posits that history shows us that the great economic challenge of our times, ie inequality, can only be addressed or levelled through the proverbial four horsemen of the apocalypse.
  4. Riwayat Ibnu Umar RA
  5. If I may personalise this somewhat: went on to take ACCA, CFA, M.Phil in Cambridge and so on. Even a Diploma in Islamic Studies from UIA (to understand context of everything).
  6. Riwayat Abu Ruqayyah RA.
  7. Chapter 103, Holy Quran
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