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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.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Chief Secretary Should Not Be Chief Clerk

Judging from the gushing praises, Chief Secretary Sidek Hassan is performing miracles with his Special Task Force to Facilitate Business (Pemudah, its Malay acronym) committee to streamline the civil service. A reality check is in order.

It reflects how out of touch our top civil servants are from the realities on the ground that it took Sidek and his Director-General of the Public Service Department Ismail Adam to make an unannounced visit to a District Office in Selangor for them to realize how difficult it is to pay one’s “quit rent.”

Then they were shocked to find that the District Officer was out of his office. Again that reflects their naivety and ignorance of the current sorry state of the government machinery. Perhaps they put too much faith on the recent glowing report of IMD’s World Competitive Yearbook that placed the Malaysian government ahead of Japan and Germany in terms of efficiency. The Malaysian public knows better.

It is pathetic that these top civil servants are reduced to being chief clerks checking on the keranis (junior clerks) to make sure that they are at their desks attending to their customers.

Sidek’s unannounced visit is now fast becoming a legend, of a meticulous and diligent top civil servant paying attention to the smallest of operational details. Even previously cynical commentators are now heaping praises on the man. This chorus is repeated by the seasoned corporate figures co-opted into Pemudah.

If those corporate figures were truly impressed, then it does not say much of the crispness of their own management. Alternatively, they had such low expectations that any improvement would impress them. My hunch is that their praises are nothing more than shrewd maneuverings to be on the good side of the government. In a country where the nexus between government and private sector is fuzzy, this is expected. It would not surprise me that their companies do substantial business with the government.

Interestingly, although Sidek had been interviewed umpteen times, no one asked what disciplinary actions (if any) he took against that errant District Officer and, more importantly, his immediate superior.

If past experience is any guide, the poor underpaid kerani would bear the heaviest punishment, with the District Officer reassigned, and his immediate superior left untouched.

Misplaced Emphasis on Process Instead of Policy

Pemudah’s emphasis has been exclusively on administrative processes. It reflects the deep rot that a simple procedure that would have been simple only a decade or two ago would today be tortuous and drawn out. Nonetheless that does not stop Pemudah from trumpeting its easy victories. These administrative details should have been streamlined at the mid management level; they are essentially staff work.

What Sidek should be doing is to teach those middle manages how to identify, analyze, and solve their problems. That would have been far more effective than surprise visits and issuing edicts from high above. Sidek could not possibly know the operational problems at the various land offices; the issues in Ulu Selangor would be very different from that at Petaling Jaya. With the urban and more educated clients at Petaling Jaya they could try on-line payments, for example. That would not be possible in Ulu Selangor.

Tun Razak hired the American consultant Milton Esman in the 1970s to spruce up the civil service. Esman’s personal accounts are highly illuminating. For example, during his first meeting with our top civil servants, he was confounded that they behaved like little school kids. Their attitude was: “You are the expert; you tell us what to do!”

At Treasury, he asked them their major issues. Their immediate response: “Overworked and understaffed!” They could also have added, “Underpaid!”

They complained of the volumes of vouchers they had to scrutinize. Esman suggested that they study the bills they had already processed and group them by their face value. To their surprise, a substantial portion of the vouchers were under a certain amount, and those were routinely paid without further auditing. Esman suggested if they were to henceforth make a policy that all such bills be routinely paid or better yet, authorize the various departments to pay them without referral to Treasury, their work load would be reduced considerably. They would then have extra time to scrutinize the important big bills. As for the smaller vouchers, all they need would be to do random checks for quality control.

Through such exercises Esman taught those civil servants how to isolate and solve their problems. It was far more effective than lecturing and making surprise visits. Oh yes, Esman did not spend his time giving press interviews!

On a more substantive matter, by the time civil servants reach the top, certainly at the Secretary-General and Director-General levels, their concerns should not be staff, administrative, or operational details rather with policy analysis and policy making.

Consider the government’s recent decision to restrict the sale of subsidized essential goods to non-Malaysians. Such policies should first be vetted by senior civil servants, addressing such issues as their practicality and cost of implementation. Does that mean that we now have to show our passports or identity cards to shop? What about citizens buying for their non-citizen neighbors?

Similarly with the graduate employment scheme; what are the social, economic and other consequences for the government to assume the role of employer of last resort? Egypt has such a policy; it now has one of the most bloated and inefficient civil service, as well as a university system totally unresponsive to the needs of the marketplace.

Sidek Hassan and his colleagues should be studying and recommending solutions to the cabinet on the impact of the current American credit crunch and impending recession, not checking the time cards of clerks in a district office in Ulu Selangor.

Ambrin Buang, Not Sidek Hassan, The True Hero

Sidek need not look far to find examples of excellence; he could find it within his own civil service, specifically in the exemplary performance of Auditor-General Ambrin Buang.

Ambrin could have reduced himself to simply doing the traditional “bean counting” activities, of making sure that there are receipts for expenditures and other accounting minutiae. Make no mistake, those are essential details. The greater fallacy would be to assume that those are the only or even major duties of an auditor.

It reflects the diligence and professionalism of Ambrin that his Annual Report regularly grabs headlines. It also says much about our politicians and civil servants that they do not read those reports. He is not at all bashful in commenting on such boondoggles as the Sports Ministry’s planned facility in London as well as the RM50 screwdrivers.

Ambrin’s report gives a far more accurate (and depressing) picture of the sorry state of the government machinery, certainly far more realistic than that depicted by the IMD Yearbook or Pemudah’s too frequent glowing press releases. It is also revealing that Ambrin is not a member of Pemudah.

An insight on organizational behaviors is that public institutions, in particular the civil service, are not there to serve the citizens. Instead these institutions serve their own self interest while attempting to put a public face to it.

Recent policy initiatives as restricting the sale of subsidized items only to citizens and graduate employment scheme serve nothing more than to expand an already bloated civil service. The currency among civil servants is the size of their respective departments as measured by the number of employees and budget allocations, not whether certain policies would ease poverty or improve the education system.

The wisdom and success of President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was their recognition of this essential truism. The folly of the Abdullah Administration is its naivety in believing that what is good for the civil service is good for Malaysia and Malaysians.

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