Raising Resilient Future Leaders

COMMENCEMENT SPEECH BY DEPUTY DEFENCE MINISTER LIEW CHIN TONG AT THE ROYAL MILITARY COLLEGE GRADUATION CEREMONY ON 22ND DECEMBER 2018

Selamat sejahtera.


I am thankful to be given this unique opportunity to address the youthful future leaders of Malaysia. Today, rather than speaking to you all of politics, I thought it was best to bring important lessons from three different books. Leaders who do not read often rely on rumors as a means of information, which hinders them from effective decision making. We would do well as good leaders to always read and broaden our knowledge to hedge against this uncertainty. 


RMC is a unique and interesting institution which  combines military training and lifestyle with the academic rigors of a regular school, producing balanced and holistic individuals that have served their country in various ways. All other schools in Malaysia should endeavor to follow this example. 


This college has an interesting motto: Serve to Lead – Berkhidmat Memimpin. It sees leadership as a form of public service. This year, the theme is “Empowering Future Leaders”. The question then becomes, how will service and leadership change in the time that is yet to come?


 In the past, this college has produced quite a legacy; its alumni form not only the highest levels of military leadership, but also prominent civil servants, businessmen, statesmen and academics. People like Professor KS Jomo, renowned Malaysian economist, Tan Sri Abdul Halim bin Ali, former Chief Secretary to the Government, Radzi Jidin, my friend while studying at Canberra, Australia and current Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs, and of course, the youngest minister to ever take office, Syed Saddiq, the current Youth and Sports Minister – this is quite a legacy all of you must live up to.  


But what does serving to lead actually mean? In answering this question, I turn to three books that each bring an important lesson: Leadership: Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times by Dorris Goodwin which shows how great leaders are born from difficulty, What Money Can’t Buy by Michael J. Sandel which emphasizes the need for strong convictions, and Dare Not Linger, an annotated biography of Nelson Mandela by Mandla Langa, which speaks on the important of humility and self-restraint. 


From Dorris Goodwin’s book, we learn that great leaders are often shaped in the crucible of crises. The book talks about four American Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Each president had specific challenges and was marked by a distinct crisis. Lincoln and Johnson inherited an America divided by the question of civil rights and race relations. Theodore Roosevelt had to contend with the largesses of the Industrial Revolution and the Coal Strike, and Franklin D. Roosevelt had to fight the crippling effects of Polio while preparing America for a war on two fronts so far away from home. 


Despite these challenges, they rose to the occasion and surpassed all odds. Lincoln won the Civil War and freed the slaves, and a hundred years later Johnson would fight to make sure that this newfound freedom also came with equality. Theodore Roosevelt became well known for being a conservationist president and established the American National Park system despite a rapidly industrializing America, and Franklin D. Roosevelt saw a victorious America emerge from the war, ready to rewrite the rules of the international system.


Take every crisis as a challenge to step up and become a leader. That is how real leaders are born, and that is how we should aspire to be. 


In the second book, Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy, we find another important quality of leadership. The book describe an increasingly worrisome trend in today’s world, where humanistic every day decisions with moral implications are treated as market transactions, thus removing all forms of subjective human value and belief out of the decision. 


We must remember that, beyond pure logic and rationalism, there must also be empathy and sympathy, which are important components of our sentience as human beings. As leaders, we must consider these aspects to be crucial to our character as they form the basis of our moral compass. 


This strong, moral calling to action will help us firmly make the right decisions, and then stand up against those that would make the wrong ones. May 9th provided us with a clean slate. From now on, we must be willing to be able to tell the rights from the wrongs. 


But, this is not a call to single-minded stubbornness and hubris. We must acknowledge that the world is constantly changing around us, and thus, so do our problems. Thus, we must also be adaptable to find solutions to our problems.


In a similar vein, we must also heed an important insight from Nelson Mandela’s biography, Dare Not Linger: the importance of humility and self-restraint. At the beginning of his term, Mandela promised he would only serve for one five-year term. Despite accumulating much power, prestige and respect over the course of his presidency, he was all too aware of its dangers. At the end of his term, he said: “Do not surround yourself with ‘yes men’, for they will do you and the nation incalculable harm. Listen to your critics, for only by so doing will you become aware of the disaffection that ails your people and be able to address them.”
This level of self-restraint and humility enables us to critically self-assess ourselves, which is crucial for checking our own behaviors and decisions. We would do well as leaders to remember that our actions have implications for not only ourselves, but also our people.


 Here, I am reminded of what Plato once said: to know is to know that you know nothing. Starting with this assumption, if you are proven wrong, you must be willing to accept your errors and be prepared to come to a different solution.


    So, I hope I have conveyed to you the weight of your responsibilities as future leaders. Knowing our values but also understanding the times is a tough balancing act. Every generation struggles with the same basic idea, and every generation finds their own way to make it work. We would do well to remember that excellence is born out of crisis, that our convictions are an important guidance for making the right decisions, and that we must over time restrain ourselves and stay humble.


So to the 251 graduating Puteras today, congratulations! Welcome to the new world. If you remember nothing else, then perhaps remember the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henly:

I am the master of my fate, 
      I am the captain of my soul. 


Thank you, all the best, and good luck!

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