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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.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #137

Gemilang, Cemerlang dan Terbilang ... Atau Temberang

Reforming the Leadership

Abdullah should first boldly decouple political (specifically UMNO) positions from governmental ones. He should not appoint party leaders and officials into his cabinet and government. The duties of a minister are onerous enough with all the pressing problems; there would not be time to lead the Olympic Council or be in UMNO Supreme Council at the same time.

UMNO leaders would have to decide whether to hold party positions or be in the government, but not both. The exceptions would only be the President and Deputy President, being PrimeMinister and Deputy PrimeMinister respectively. Everyone else, from the Vice Presidents, Supreme Council members, State Chairmen to divisional heads should not hold executive positions in government or its agencies. Presently Abdullah is using this strategy selectively, as an excuse to keep his supporters who were trounced in the last UMNO leadership conference.

This separation and diffusion of power would ensure effective checks and balances. The concentration of power, especially when unchecked, would inevitably lead to its abuse and corruption. That is human nature. Modern democracies have clear separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches for this very reason. In this way the legislative branch can effectively perform its oversight functions over the executive, with the judiciary adjudicating when conflicts arise.

Technically the cabinet is answerable to Parliament. In reality, with the government controlling it and the opposition ineffectual, this oversight function is non-existent. Malaysians have long since seen the glorious days of having a dignified and effective opposition led by such men as the late Dr. Tan Chee Koon.

What we have today are chauvinistic leaders like Lim Kit Siang who is under the delusion that the future of the great Chinese language and culture hangs only on his shoulders. Or his equally unappealing deputy, another dinosaur character Karpal Singh, who could not decide whether to be a criminal lawyer (that is, a lawyer who defends criminals) or a public servant. You would think that after all these years of lucrative private practice he would have substantial savings so he could devote himself exclusively to public service and thereby enhance his effectiveness for the good of the nation. The opposition Islamic Party leaders are obsessed with trying to turn Malays into Arabs, and to ensure that Malays would end up in heaven. Touching!

Without the effective checks through parliament, it is all the more important that UMNO and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition should have its own internal checks and balances. At present there is little of that. No matter how humble and honest an individual is, after a few years in power and being catered to and humored at, it would not be long before he or she acquires megalomaniac tendencies.

UMNO Supreme Council should be made up of other than ministers and government officials. It could then perform this important extra constitutional intra-party oversight function. The Council could have committees to monitor the performance of UMNO’s ministers and other political appointees, similar to the role of American Congressional committees. This would also give the Prime Minister an independent assessment of his appointees. With such a system in place, we would not have the specter of swollen-headed ministers who think they could do no wrong as long as they please the Prime Minister.

These oversight committees could become effective critics of ministers. The committees could also be ideal training ground for future ministers and other appointees, as well as the perfect place for ex-ministers (as long they garnered the necessary members’ votes to get elected) so their experiences could be usefully tapped by their successors.

Abdullah sensibly carried on his predecessor’s tradition of appointing a few non-politicians to his cabinet. His choice of Nor Mohamed Yakcop, a former senior Bank Negara executive as Finance Minister, was widely praised. My only reservation is that this is the same character implicated in the bank’s massive foreign exchange debacle of the early 1990s. To date there is no satisfactory accounting of that and other equally spectacular financial scandals. There were other rumblings to his appointment, but for different reasons. The Finance portfolio is associated with the disbursement of lucrative contracts. Many ambitious politicians would like that position for its power to dispense favors and patronages. Having a technocrat rather than a politician may reduce this blight.

Those few bright spots excepted, I am appalled at Abdullah’s haphazard and chaotic selection of his cabinet, as well as candidates for the last general elections. Days preceding the nomination, he had to fly all over the country to settle last minute glitches. There were obvious interferences from the palace in Johore and Pahang that were uncalled for and seriously undermined the constitution. All these could have been avoided with proper planning and a systematic approach. When he announced his post-election cabinet, it too was marred by unnecessary delays, confusion, and indecisions, with ministers named but no responsibilities given. It did not reflect well on his commitment to “excellence, glory and distinction.” Of more relevance, it exposed poor staff work and the thin executive talent of his supposedly young bright advisors.

In the tradition of parliamentary democracy, cabinet members are drawn largely from the elected members of the House of Representatives. Hence the importance of carefully selecting candidates for elections, as they would be the talent pool for cabinet and other senior appointments. Abdullah needs to cast his net wide and deep in search of talent.

Next: Vetting Election Candidates


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