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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.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia # 95

Chapter 13: Deteriorating Institutions


The Civil Service


If I were to survey the top 100 civil servants, I would likely find the following: they are overwhelmingly Malays, liberal arts graduates of local public universities, and joined the organization immediately upon graduation. They have no or minimal experience outside of government (excluding pseudo private entities like GLCs and local public universities). The only publications they regularly read are local newspapers. Most have limited comprehension of English, and magazines like the Economist and Harvard Business Review or professional journals pertaining to their field are foreign to them. They have probably never read a book within the last few years.

Unlike senior executives in the private sector, they do not own a laptop; their secretaries still type their memos and write or reply their e-mails. When these officials go out of town, they are completely out of touch with their offices. These civil servants are frequently rotated; they have little expertise in specific areas. They may be at Tourism Ministry one year, then Health or Defense the next; there is no specialization. With a strict seniority system, civil servants do not reach the top until they are within a few years of their retirement. Then they would be preoccupied not with running their agencies but lobbying for their post-retirement careers. As promotions are strictly from within, there is no infusion of fresh talent at the upper levels, making the civil service very insular.

A reflection of the caliber of these senior civil servants is that few are sought after by the private sector when they retire. The private sector does not value their skills and experiences. If indeed they were hired by the private sector it is for lobbying their former colleagues.

Many have graduate degrees from good foreign universities, but lacking experience elsewhere and after decades in the civil service, they have internalized its stultifying work culture. They have to in order to survive.

The civil service is also very bloated, with over a million civil servants for a population of 25 million. As it is essentially a Malay organization, the reference population should be that of Malays: 13 million. The civil service is overwhelmingly Malay in culture and psyche.

Reforming the civil service means addressing the twin issues of bloat and insularity. With the government expanding its reach and taking over what should rightly be the realm of the private sector, this bloat will only get worse. With thousands of unemployed local graduates, the government is under tremendous political pressure to employ them, and Abdullah Badawi has responded to this by filling in and creating vacancies in the civil service. He has also expanded his cabinet to 33, with each ministry needing its own hordes of civil servants.

Reduce the civil service by at least 20-25 percent; that would streamline the government and make it efficient. This magnitude of reduction would send a very strong message to those remaining to shape up.

There will be a hue and cry to such cuts. To mitigate, I would offer generous severance pay, freeze new hires, and undertake massive re-deployment. A reduced civil service would discourage Malays to pursue the liberal arts knowing that there would not be jobs in the civil service.

The insularity could be effectively broken by the infusion of fresh talent at the upper levels. Once these civil servants realize that the top slots are not automatically theirs, there would be immediate improved performances as they would have to compete with potential outside candidates. A few such senior recruitments would send shock waves throughout the organization.

A measure of the difficulty in improving the government machinery is exemplified by the Police Force. That the Force is corrupt, incompetent, and lacks discipline is obvious. The world had a glimpse of this when the Police Chief brutally assaulted former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. The sad part to that horrible incident (as revealed in a subsequent criminal trial) was not the fact that the chief himself personally beat up his victim, but he did so in the presence of his senior officers. Yet not one of them had the courage to restrain their chief who had obviously gone berserk. Worse, none of them had been disciplined for their obvious dereliction of duty. They witnessed a horrendous crime being committed and yet did nothing to stop it.

The rot in the Police Force had been going on for decades; it was apparent when Abdullah was the minister in charge. Yet nothing was done. When public outrage could no longer be contained, Abdullah as Prime Minster set up the investigative commission. It duly submitted its recommendations, and that was the end of it. A year later, another scandal erupted, this one over making female detainees do repetitive squatting in the nude (the “nude squad-gate”). Abdullah’s response this time was (you guessed it!) to form yet another Commission of Inquiry!

Among the first Royal Commission’s recommendations were to increase the number of recruits and raise their qualifications, pay, and amenities. Those measures would not help. Those recruits would quickly fall into the same culture of corruption. With their now higher pay and increased qualifications, they would demand even greater loot. Whereas before, a RM100 ‘tip’ would have been enough to fix a traffic ticket, now they would sniff at that.

My solution would be the very opposite; reduce the size of the force by laying off personnel. If there were to be any new recruitment, it would be for civilian employees. Shift the administrative work to civilian workers and have all uniformed personnel be on the beat. I would also outsource some of the police work to private security companies.

Another solution would be to have separate police jurisdictions. America has separate and independent police forces for cities, counties and states. There are also separate units for large institutions like universities. If you suspect corruption at the city police, you could go to the state or federal level (the FBI) and lodge a complaint.

The police force is huge, monolithic, and unwieldy. When it is corrupt, ineffective, or inefficient, there is no way to bypass it. There is no reason for Penang not to have its own state police; likewise Sabah and Sarawak. There could be separate units for ports and airports. Dispersal of power and authority would reduce corruption and create a competitive atmosphere.

At present, all police work in Malaysia is done by the Royal Malaysian Police. They do everything, from providing outriders to ministers and sultans to providing color guards and other ceremonial functions. The negative consequence of this is that the talented and honest policeman would aspire to be assigned to these easy and plush units. Those who are corrupt would shun those jobs, as opportunities for duit kopi (coffee money) are non-existent. In America, such duties as guarding the president and senior officials fall on the secret service, another independent agency.

The difficulties of effecting change would be equally formidable with all the other agencies. It would take a strong and determined leader to execute it, the very qualities lacking in Abdullah Badawi. As a former civil servant, he thrives in the present culture of the civil service. To expect him to change would be a tall order.


Next: Islamic Institutions

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