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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, March 30, 2008

Good Team, Bad Captain!

Among other things, in this election Malaysians have asserted in no uncertain terms that they do not approve of Abdullah’s inept administration, and his tolerance if not encouragement of corruption and shady practices among those closest to him. With his new cabinet however, Abdullah once again demonstrated that he has learned nothing from the election debacle, his frequent declarations to the contrary notwithstanding.

While the addition of fresh talent in the persons of Amirsham Aziz and Zaid Ibrahim makes this a good cabinet, the retention of the same old tired faces as Syed Hamid, together with the inclusion of tainted characters like the “double Muhammad” Taib, smudges what otherwise would be an excellent team. It was, as the Economist noted, Abdullah’s shuffling deckchairs on a personal Titanic.

This election did what Abdullah could not, that is, get rid of deadwoods like Samy Vellu and incompetents like Zainuddin Maidin. Voters showed the way but Abdullah did not carry it further with his choice of a new cabinet. This good new team is cursed with the same old bad captain.

A team no matter how talented could not turn an incompetent captain into a good one. Neither would a prolonged “warm up” time accomplish much; a bad captain will still remain so. As one blogger cheekily noted, today even Abdullah’s “sign dah tak laku” (signature is worthless, as on a bounced check), in reference to the Raja of Perlis ignoring Abdullah’s choice for a Mentri Besar. As of my writing, the Sultan of Trengganu too is set to do likewise.

Abdullah’s cabinet remains bloated with 33 ministers, including five in his own department. His “reform” consists of nothing more than changing faces. He fails to address more fundamental issues like whether any of those ministries are needed at all.

For example, what is glaringly obvious from this election is that the Ministry of Information has no credibility with Malaysians or foreign observers. It is nothing more than the propaganda arm of the ruling party, and an inept one at that. Replacing its minister would not alter that reality. In the Age of the Internet, this is one ministry Malaysia can do without. Abolishing it, together with other unneeded ministries like Sports, Tourism, and Federal Territory, among others, would shrink the cabinet and streamline the administration.

This huge cabinet is unwieldy. No meaningful or robust discussions could take place. Even if each minister were to speak for only a few minutes, cabinet meetings would stretch for hours.

Lee Kuan Yew, who knows something about forming an effective cabinet and selecting capable ministers, once said that he would appoint only those for whom a cabinet appointment would mean a reduction in their personal earnings. This does not mean that Singapore pays its ministers miserly – on the contrary they are very well compensated – rather that those ministers have excelled elsewhere and thus are earning considerably more before they become ministers.

Only two of Abdullah’s appointees, Amirsham and Zaid Ibrahim, meet Lee’s stringent criterion. Long-serving former Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz would find few takers in the private sector for her talent. The only reason she remains calm after being fired is not to jeopardize her chance of being given plump directorships in the many GLCs. Further, if she were to complain too loudly, watch the ACA suddenly becoming diligent in scrutinizing her old AP files.


Blemishes and Kudos

Abdullah’s commitment to combat corruption is made hollow by his bringing Muhammad Taib into the cabinet. He was the former Mentri Besar of Selangor who was caught at an Australian airport with literally millions in cash on his person. He was acquitted from the criminal charge of not declaring the currency, but he has yet to explain how he secured the loot in the first place.

If Abdullah has not asked Muhammad that pertinent question, then he (Abdullah) is derelict in his duties by not exercising due diligence in selecting his ministers. If Abdullah did ask and was satisfied with Muhammad’s answer, then Abdullah owes the public to share that explanation. Failure to do so would make Abdullah’s renewed call to combat corruption more than hollow; it would be hypocritical.

Yes, that incident took place over a decade ago, old story Muhammad would claim. However, there is no statute of limitation with criminal acts. Time does not make a corrupt act less corrupt.

I applaud Zaid Ibrahim’s appointment. He is one of the few independent minded and unafraid to challenge the leader, a rare quality especially among Malays. We are still feudalistic, blindly loyal to leaders regardless of circumstances. I also applaud him for his commitment to the rule of law. Also rare among Asian leaders and newly rich, Zaid is well known for his philanthropic works. Forbes magazine recently listed him as one of Asia’s top philanthropists.

Of interest here is that Zaid Ibrahim was only recently found guilty of “money politics” by UMNO’s Disciplinary Committee, whose esteemed members included Zaki Azmi, now Court of Appeal President, the second highest position. Zaid strenuously appealed his “conviction” right up to the President of UMNO, Abdullah, but to no avail. It reflects more on the credibility and prestige of that disciplinary committee (more correctly, the lack of both) that Abdullah would now appoint Zaid to the cabinet to be in charge of law and the judiciary!

I have the highest regard for Zaid’s personal integrity and professional honor. I bring this up merely to demonstrate Abdullah’s and also UMNO’s hypocrisy towards disciplining its members. The fact that members of UMNO Disciplinary Committee would choose to remain silent on Zaid’s appointment attests to the “seriousness” with which they executed their duties. Let us acknowledge openly what was previously simply alluded to, that disciplinary committee was nothing more than a kangaroo court, its deliberations not worth considering, not even by UMNO’s president.

Zaid should consider his “conviction” a singular badge of honor. When knaves and crooks rule and do the judging, the virtuous and honorable would be considered criminals.


Presidential Power versus Collective Cabinet

In the previous cabinet, Abdullah was also the Minister of Finance and of Internal Security. That would be a tough assignment for even the most accomplished executive. With Abdullah, well, the results were obvious; he was totally ineffective. He held the Finance portfolio only to ensure that his family and cronies would get plump government contracts and privatization projects. In the new cabinet, Abdullah still holds on to Finance but he has given up Internal Security.

Abdullah continues to have the five full plus four deputy ministers in his department. He is developing a presidential-type administration in tangent with our customary collective cabinet responsibility. This could potentially give rise to unnecessary conflicts. Eliminating those positions would reduce the size of the cabinet and enhance its efficiency.

As a former civil servant Abdullah revels in the committee system. His answer to every problem is to appoint a committee; it is a sly way to duck personal responsibility.

I have an observation: The executive talent of a leader is inversely related to his penchant for forming committees. Abdullah is “Exhibit A” for my thesis; he has never seen a committee he does not like.

Therein lies the problem; Malaysia is being “committeed” to death. We cannot allow Abdullah to do that; we must force him step down for the good of the country.

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