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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.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #138

Chapter 21: Gemilang, Cemerlang, Terbilang … atau Temberang?
(Excellence, Glory, and Distinction … or Merely Hot Air?)

Next: Vetting Election Candidates

In America, political candidates battle it out first at the local primaries to secure their party’s nomination. While that may be a splendid expression of grassroots democracy, it unnecessarily prolongs the campaign and gives rise to excessive politicking. It is also very expensive and distracting, and puts congressional candidates in a perpetual campaign mode.

My preference would be to involve the division and party members through local nominating committees. They would nominate three to five of the best potential candidates. Committee members would not be allowed to nominate themselves or someone related to them. A committee member would have to recuse him- or herself when evaluating a potential nominee who is related to or have any potential conflict of interest.

After reviewing the experiences and qualifications of as well as formally interviewing the candidates, the committee would rank its choice, together with its recommendations, and submit the list to a central selection committee to be chaired by the Prime Minister. This committee too should adhere to the same strict guidelines as the local committees with regards to potential conflict of interest. The committee members, except for the Prime Minister and his deputy, should not themselves be candidates.

In the rare instance where the central committee finds that all the proposed candidates nominated by the local committee wanting, then it should redirect the local committee to reconvene and come up with another list of potential nominees. The final selection must come from the list provided by the local committee. This would ensure adequate local input and vetting of the process. It would also dilute and disperse the power of selecting candidates, thereby reducing corruption and influence peddling. Potential nominees would have to lobby not only the local committee members but also of the central ones.

Were the Prime Minister to do this, the results would be far superior and yield high quality candidates. Malaysia would then have a better government to boot, with enhanced ability to serve the citizens.

Creating A Cabinet

With a wider pool of talented Members of Parliament, selecting potential cabinet members would be that much easier. Again, the mechanism must be streamlined to match the best talent to the portfolio. There is no value—indeed it would be a complete waste of talent—were someone trained, experienced, and interested in law to be in charge of tourism, as with the case of Rais Yatim. If I were Rais, I would decline the appointment, be an ordinary MP, and return to my private law practice. If he were any good as a lawyer, it would certainly be more rewarding professionally and financially.

The prevailing obsession is to be appointed a minister, regardless of whether one is qualified, interested, or have special expertise to bring to the position. The reason is obvious. Cabinet appointments represent a personal advancement, at least financially. These ministers may be lawyers and doctors, but their professional reputations are such that they could never hope to match their professional income with their ministerial pay. This does not mean that they are being overpaid as ministers, rather that they are far from being accomplished professionals. Further with pervasive corruption, being a minister means getting a license to generate private wealth and muster considerable influence. There is so much patronage and opportunities for graft that even if ministers were honest to begin with, the temptations would eventually get to them. That is the only explanation for previously poor politicians who after only a few years in government are now sporting expensive cars and living in opulent mansions. Their wealth, obscenely displayed, could not possibly be accumulated based only on their ministerial income, no matter how prudently they manage it.

If candidates for elections and cabinet appointments have proven track record of accomplishment in their chosen field before entering politics, they would more likely transfer those skills onto their political careers. Equally important, they would less likely be beholden to their political positions, as they would have a satisfying and lucrative alternative career to fall back upon. At present these ministers have to be literally dragged out, either through criminal conviction or some awful public scandal. The former Chief Minister of Selangor (also a former Foreign Minister) Abu Hassan, was forced to resign after seamy allegations of sexual peccadilloes. His predecessor a generation earlier, Datuk Harun Idris, was convicted of corruption.

If one were to examine the post-political careers of ministers and other top officials, the striking feature is how few of them ever shine again after leaving the government. A fortunate few could collect on their political IOUs and be appointed directors of GLCs; most simply sink into oblivion. This more than anything else reflects their caliber.

Ministers like Samy Vellu, Rafidah Aziz, Syed Hamid Albar, and others have become permanent fixtures. Their hanging on to their positions prevents the infusion of fresh talent. These individuals cannot possibly bring any new ideas. They are stale, a fact obvious to all except themselves.

Contrast them to American cabinet secretaries, individuals with solid accomplishments in the corporate, academic, or professional world. Paul O’Neill, Bush’s Labor Secretary, was the chief executive for Alcan, a Fortune 500 company, as was Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. State Secretary Colin Powell had a distinguished
military career, having served as Armed Services Chief of Staff. These individuals have no qualms in telling the President the truth as they see it. Being fired or resigning from the cabinet does not faze them as they have other useful and more rewarding careers to pursue. In the case of Paul O’Neill, his candor and open disagreement with the President enhanced his post-cabinet reputation. What a contrast to the experiences of Malaysian cabinet ministers!

Next: Selecting Ministers


Blogger Michael Chin said...

You are right that Malaysia is left wanting when it comes to education. I also agree that this comes from being devoid of imagination and ability.

However, when it comes to the idea of corruption, I have still yet to come across a country, system, business etc that does not practice it. In many ways, corruption (a word I rather see replaced by opportunism) in this country makes the wheels spin easier.

Maybe Mr. Bakri, you could get the ball rolling in the reconstitution of our education system. All we got from Hisham was a lot of loud words.

5:24 PM  

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