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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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, October 28, 2007

Another Promised Change!

Another Promised Change!

M. Bakri Musa

In a recent meeting with media representatives, Chief Secretary to the Government (its topmost civil servant) Sidek Hassan assured the public that civil servants must now “perform or face the music.” He also revealed the demotions of senior officers, including a few in the “super scale” grade and a Director-General.

Sidek’s assurance was undoubtedly in response to the damning indictments in the recent Auditor General’s Report. (What else is new?) The Chief Secretary went on with promises of more actions. Let us hope that his pledge is for real. We have been through all these promised changes before, so citizens’ cynicism is understandable.

The civil service cannot be improved merely through edicts from high above. No less than Prime Minister Abdullah had made many similar pledges before.

As the top civil servant, Sidek cannot effect meaningful changes until he knows the details of the various operations under him. Not all of them; he needs study only two or three processes in some detail, identify the problems, and then solve them. With that he could teach others and replicate the success elsewhere.

All too often our top civil servants and ministers are content only with mere utterances: “Be productive!” “Compete with the best!” Unless they know the details of the operations of their departments, identify and eliminate the redundant processes, they could not hope to improve their services. These senior officers should not expect their overworked line workers to come up with innovative solutions. Besides, they lack the necessary knowledge or skills.

Leadership Through Ignorance

When I came home as a surgeon in 1975, the top honchos at the Ministry of Health and the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur took me around trying to impress me with their facility. After an hour or so of this dog and pony show, I was fed up with the fluff thrown at me.

We were standing overlooking the busy road in front of the hospital when an accident happened. I asked the hospital director to imagine the driver sustaining a life-threatening ruptured spleen and thus needing my service. How would I be contacted?

From there I was able to find out about the ambulance service (haphazard), the quality of paramedics (untrained), and the Casualty Room capabilities (erratic system of contacting on-call specialists). The two top officials were embarrassed because they could not answer my basic queries.

I suggested to the two that on-call specialists be equipped with beepers so they could be readily contactable. Sensible enough solution, except that neither the Director nor the ministry official could authorize such an expenditure! They would have to submit that first to Treasury! So calling surgeons remained a haphazard affair when I was there. It would not surprise me if it still is, thirty years later.

If the hospital director (or minister) had been familiar with details of the operation of the hospital, he would be less likely to criticize the doctors on call for not responding timely and instead supply them with beepers.

A few years ago I was home to renew my ID card. I was told that it would take months. Fortunately I knew the department head, and between the two of us we had an exercise of going through every step of the process. After that I told him how we could cut down the redundant steps, like having the forms available (and filled) online instead of lining up just to get the empty form. We tried it with my application as a test, and I was able to get my new card within days.

Then the department head told me why he could not do what I suggested. It would mean laying off thousands of unneeded clerical staff; not politically acceptable. Like it or not, our civil service is not for providing service, rather a massive public works program for those with liberal arts degrees who otherwise would not be employable.

As head of a surgical unit at GHKL I was fed up with the large and unruly crowd at the beginning of my clinic day. So I introduced staggered appointments, with follow-up patients (who are within our control as we made their appointments) to be seen at 3PM while patients referred from elsewhere and others (who are beyond our control) be seen at the clinic’s opening hour of 2PM.

It worked wonderfully. At least now we could reduce the crowd by half and thus be more manageable. Our patients loved it.

All went well for a few weeks, and then the crowd began coming back. Puzzled, I decided to investigate. It turned out that the front office clerk was telling everyone to come early and to ignore my advice about the scheduled appointments. She had a very simple and remarkably effective rebuttal for my patients. “Yes, I know the doctor asked you to come at 3, but better lah to come early. The doctor is a busy man; it is better for us to wait for him instead of having him wait for us!”

I could not help laughing at the clerk’s ingenuity in circumventing my orders. To her it would be easier if all the patients were to come at the beginning, as that would mean going to the record room only once.

Instead of getting angry with the poor overworked clerk, I gathered my staff and explained to them my rationale for the staggered appointments. Something about respecting our patients by not having them wait. I also made sure that the poor clerk had additional help in securing the charts. After that I had no more problem. Simple solution, but it required my active intervention as a department head to study the problem, implement the solution, and get my staff on board.

My clinic was one of the few that was orderly. One consequence to my successful arrangement was that people began whispering that I was not a “good” surgeon as my clinic was not crowded! Luckily my patients, colleagues and staff were happy with our service, so that bit of rumor had no traction.

My point is this: Simply saying you must improve your service will not do it. Sidek and the other top civil servants need to do more, like analyzing and re-engineering the various processes. If the solution you prescribed does not work (or no longer does), examine the reasons why and try to overcome them.

Incompetence, Insularity, and Lack of Integrity

Our civil service is afflicted with the terrible triad of incompetence, insularity, and lack of integrity. I am not referring to the rank and file union members, rather the managers and officers, those in the “superscale” category. Each of these afflictions by itself is quite crippling; combined their destructive powers are amplified considerably.

Ask a senior civil servant what management journals he subscribes to or reads regularly, and you would draw a blank. The standard response is that these journals are expensive, but those officers have allowances. The more valid reason is their lack of professionalism and sense of self-improvement. Their low English proficiency is also a contributor.

I would make it a condition for promotions for these officers to demonstrate their competency in English. We did something similar in the 1960s when civil servants had to be proficient in the national language to be confirmed.

As for competency, the government spends little in the development of its staff. Ask a civil servant when was the last time he or she attended a formal continuing education session, and you would also draw a blank.

A major contributor to the lack of integrity is of course pervasive corruption. I need not write more except to note that instead of tackling it head on, the government establishes yet another bureaucracy, the National Integrity Institute. A simple move that would not involve spending more money or hiring additional personnel would be to make the Anti Corruption Agency independent, answerable only to Parliament or the King.

Lack of integrity is also tied to lack of professionalism. How many times have you seen senior civil servants bring their work home? They may be in upper management, but their mentality is still the clerical nine-to-five. I have yet to see senior civil servants on extended overseas trips carry a laptop. Meaning, when they are away, they are cut off from their offices.

When asked why they do not have a laptop, these officers tell me that the government does not provide them with one, and they are too cheap to buy one on their own. If they were to travel business class instead of first, the government would have more than enough funds to supply each member of their family with a super laptop.

Query a Secretary- or Director-General, a ministry’s top civil servant, what innovations he or she had instituted within the past few years, or the challenges facing his agency and how he or she would solve them, and you will also get a bewildering look.

The civil service is hampered by its insularity, with promotions strictly from within. There is no infusion of fresh talent other than at the entry level. To make matters worse, recruits are overwhelmingly local graduates in the liberal arts. Apart from their abysmal English proficiency, they are also severely mathematically challenged. There is also minimal specialization. An officer may be posted in Sports Ministry one year and be in the Foreign Ministry the next.

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I suggested getting fresh talent at the mid and senior levels. The next time a vacancy occurs at the Director-General level, open up the recruitment to applicants from academia and the private sector. I also suggested having four or five broad areas of concentration with officers rotated only within one area so they could develop some specific skills and knowledge. This was also the recommendation of Milton Esman, the American professor hired by Tun Razak in the 1970s to spruce up the civil service.

Yes there will be the exceptional talent who could be an accomplished academic, an effective CEO the next time, and then capping his distinguished career as a seasoned statesman. For most however, especially those in the mid level, they are better off staying and learning within a limited sphere.

Sidek Hassan should go beyond simply warning his officers to “perform or face the music,” I would have been more assured had he asked them to subscribe to at least three professional journals, attend 25 hours of formal continuing professional education courses annually, pass an English competency test, and require them to have a laptop.


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