One day in the late 1990s my friend Raja Maimuna walked into her office in one of Kuala Lumpur’s top banks and found a letter from the Prime Minister of Malaysia summoning her to a meeting in his office at 11am the same day. No reasons or explanations were rendered. One hour later she walked into a boardroom in the PM’s Office and found 10 of Malaysia’s top business executives sitting there in silent apprehension.
PM Mathir Mohamed was a no-nonsense man. In a few minutes, he walked in and told them: “Our economy and our country are under siege. Some people want to buy our prime companies for a song and I will not allow any Malaysian company to be stolen from us. Malaysia will not be auctioned by anyone. I will not allow it’’. Then he informed them that they were all being inducted into public service immediately.
Their companies received official notification from the PM’s Office. What had angered Mahathir was the sale of the Korean conglomerate Daewoo for a dollar to General Motors. This happened during the Asian Crisis of 1997 when Asian currencies collapsed, interest rates shot up and many companies, which had borrowed in foreign currencies, found themselves unable to repay. As Asian companies became insolvent, American investment funds swooped in to buy these companies for a song.
The team that the PM set up was given the mandate to revive and save the companies. The government raided the accounts of Petronas, Malaysia’s oil company, and saved many companies.
Some of those summoned found themselves in public service at senior positions. The team was completely empowered by the PM to sort out all issues. Any ministry that delayed a needed decision faced the wrath of the PM who demanded weekly status reports. The team succeeded because the entire government knew that the PM demanded results. Bureaucracy melted away and results came in fast. Not a single Malaysian company was sold. In two years, the Malaysian economy recovered. After the work was done, members of the team then went back to their old jobs.
At around the same time, Kenya set up the Dream Team led by Dr Richard Leakey. The Dream Team, however, failed. Why? First, the team was imposed on the Government. Second, the Government did not choose the team and most important of all, the President did not appreciate being forced to appoint these people. Naturally the team was doomed from the start. It was sabotaged internally from day one.
What is the moral of the story? Kenya today is at a crossroads in its economic development. A few years back, two economists Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote a great book called “Good to Great’’ in which they identified the unique characteristics of companies that moved from good to great companies. The lessons were universal and apply to nations as well as companies. The biggest lesson is that great companies come up with “big, hairy and audacious goals’’.
The President’s Big Four agenda is big, hairy and audacious. If successfully achieved, it will radically transform Kenya and the lives of our people. Government is moving to reallocate resources to ensure that these projects are completed. The problem is that this administration has exactly two years and 10 months left to achieve these goals. Can the great goals be achieved? Can they at least be taken to a point where the next administration will have to complete them? It can be done.
Real leadership entails three things; envisioning, enabling and empowering. President Kenyatta has created the vision of what he wants. He is enabling this vision by allocating resources to fund these projects. We can see a clear drive to align all the ministries to work in the same direction. He has even appointed a prefect called Fred Matiang’i to supervise the projects. But this is not enough. He needs to empower some people and let it be known that they are empowered to deliver.
I propose the creation of a new Dream Team drawn from all sectors of the economy. In times of war, people will be called to serve. First, we are facing economic crisis and the President should call on our best and brightest. An Arabic proverb goes; “don’t ask the expert, ask the one who has done it’’. Don’t bring us specialists in low-cost housing, just bring us people who have done it. Second, appoint people to specific projects and hold them accountable for delivery. I mean a person, not ministry. People will die to achieve results. Men give their lives for medals.
Third, cut the bureaucracy by any means necessary. Business cannot be done by committees. Unfortunately that’s the way government works — but the day the President gives instructions that decisions must be made within two days or else….. and follows it by firing a few bureaucrats who delay decisions, then you will see these projects move to successful closure. If this is not done we will soon be in September 2022 and analysing why the Big Four failed. Dr Matiangi, the ball is in your court.
Mr Shahbal is Chairman of Gulf Group of Companies [email protected]
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