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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Little Limp Napoleons and Mighty Ming Emperors

Little Limp Napoleons and Mighty Ming Emperors

If Prime Minister Abdullah cannot handle the Little Limp Napoleons in the bloated Malaysian bureaucracy, there is little assurance that he could deal with the Mighty Ming Emperors of the competitive world.

We had a preview of this in the bungled negotiations over the proposed crooked bridge to replace the causeway. That was an embarrassingly graphic demonstration of the administration’s ineptness. If that was Abdullah’s performance in dealing with representatives of only a Little Ming Emperor, imagine if the adversary had been the big Ming Emperor!

In the negotiations with Singapore over the proposed bridge, Abdullah nearly gave away the store after being indulged with effusive flatteries. Malaysia is currently deliberating a Free Trade Agreement with America; that treaty will have major social, economic, and foreign policy implications. If the recent experience with Singapore is any indicator, I reckon that with only a brief visit to the White House, minus a state dinner, would be enough for America to secure whatever it wants from Malaysia.

It would be pretentious of me to suggest to Abdullah ways of dealing with the Ming Emperors of the world, but having served as a surgeon in the Malaysian medical service, I have some ideas on disciplining those Little Napoleons of our civil service. Yes they existed, and were pests, even then.

As for the metaphorical Ming Emperors, rest assured that they did not get to be the “top dog” without being tough, skillful, and in many instances, ruthless. If they were so disposed to their own kind, they would not be any less to others. Taking on our local Little Napoleons would thus be good exercise and training for Abdullah in dealing with the outside Ming Emperors.

The Problems

It is ironic that Abdullah, being a former longtime civil servant, could not discipline those Little Napoleons. Going by the precept that it would take a thief to catch another, Abdullah should be the best person to reform the civil service and rein in those littleNapoleons. Unfortunately this former Little Napoleon has become an even bigger Napoleon, albeit still a limp one, on becoming Prime Minister.

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I wrote that Malays have special reasons in demanding an efficient civil service. One, it is needed to implement the various NEP programs to help Malays. Two, being an increasingly if not exclusively Malay institution, its deficiencies are thus viewed as the failings of the race.

The civil service has at least three significant problems: insularity, lack of specialization, and the brief tenure of its senior heads. Promotions are strictly from within, with no infusion of fresh talent at the upper levels. Recruits enter at the lowest level and work their way up patiently. Personnel are transferred all over the service, with few opportunities to develop areas of competence. You may be in Treasury this year and in charge of old buildings the next.

As officers wait patiently for their turn, they reach the top only near their retirement age. Then they are left wondering whether their contract would be renewed. When renewed, it is often only for short durations. Such agency heads would then be consumed with planning their post retirement careers. The temptation (and reality) would be to suck up to their superiors in the hope of extending their contracts or securing a plump directorship in one of the GLCs. Thus at the time when they should be independent and assertive after reaching the pinnacle of their careers, they become docile and not dare challenge their political superiors.

If I were to survey the top 100 civil servants, this is what I would find. They would be mostly Malays, liberal arts graduates of local public universities, science illiterate, have abysmal mathematical skills, and little facility with English. Their reading repertoire does not extend beyond local publications. Do not expect them to read the Economist or Wall Street Journal. They do not own a laptop, meaning that when they are away from their offices, they cannot do their office work or communicate except by phone.

The late Tun Razak recognized early the weaknesses of the civil service. Instead of endlessly lamenting or criticizing the state of affairs, he invited an American consultant, Milton Esman, to spruce up the service. To me, the revealing aspect of Esman’s work was not his official report rather the book he wrote chronicling his local experiences. Particularly trenchant were his observations on the habits and work culture of our senior civil servants. For example, he was flabbergasted to find that in the official meetings of the Secretaries-General (KSU), the ministries’ number one civil servants, the bulk of the discussions were on trivia like who would get which prized government quarters! One would have expected substantive discussions on major policies. There has been no change since then.

The Remedies

It would not take much to change the work culture of the civil service. A few high-level recruitments from the outside would quickly break the insularity of the service. Imagine recruiting a senior executive from a multinational corporation to be the next Chief Secretary; he would revamp the work culture right away. The impact on the other senior civil servants would also be immediate. Knowing that the top slot is not theirs automatically, they would now buckle down to prove themselves. A few such high level infusions of talent would shake up the civil service in no time.

Next would be to recruit graduates from disciplines other than the liberal arts and encourage those professionals in the civil service (engineers, lawyers, and doctors) who have an interest in management to go for their MBAs. I fail to see why a doctor or engineer could not be a Secretary-General, especially for those ministries that have a high professional component, like Health and Works.

As recommended by Esman, there should be specialization within the civil service, with officers rotated only within their special sphere of expertise. Ministries like Treasury, Trade and Industry, Customs, and Taxation with their high accounting and economics content could be one area. Another would be Transport, Environment, and Works Ministries with their high technology contents. Third would be those concerned with security, and fourth, foreign affairs.

Lastly, there should be greater competition for the top slots. When vacancies occur, they should be open to outside candidates as well as those within the service that are three or four layers below so as to tap the widest and deepest pool of talent.

When officers get the top spot, they should be given at least a five-year term even if they are within a year or two of the official retirement age. That would give them time to stamp their mark. Besides, with such job security they would be less likely to be shy in challenging stupid ideas coming from their political superiors. The nation would then be well served.
Implementing these reforms would require minimal changes in the civil service code or personnel policies. Nor would these changes incur additional costs.

The major obstacle would be for the Prime Minister, being a former civil servant himself, to accept these innovations. The “not invented here” syndrome is ingrained in our civil servants. For that to change, the Prime Minster, his advisers and senior civil servants would first have to expand their intellectual horizon considerably. That would be the challenge.


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