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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.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Decoupling Governmental Appointments From Party Positions

First posted on Malaysia-Today.net August 6, 2007

The recent cabinet decision to have ministers and other politicians in government give up their leadership positions in sports organizations is good for the government as well as the organizations. It is also good for those politicians and our country.

I would go further and decouple all governmental political appointments from party positions. Ministers as well as political appointees to statutory bodies and government-linked companies must give up their party posts upon assuming office. Party officials cannot simultaneously hold government appointments.

With all the problems facing the country, being a minister would challenge the skills of even the most accomplished executive. To do justice to the position would consume all of one’s time and energy, with little left for family and friends, let alone for such extraneous activities as heading the national Silat Club or leading the party’s division.

Such decoupling would also diffuse power and simultaneously create some semblance of checks and balances. Cronyism and corruption are less likely to happen when power is not concentrated.

In a similar fashion, I would discourage members of the royalty from heading public organizations such as universities and the Football Association, except as patrons and symbolic heads. A few may be eminently qualified to lead these bodies, however, because of the still strong feudal influence in our society, they cannot be fully effective. Those under them are unduly deferential and would be consumed with royal protocol.

Even highly educated academics cannot escape this feudal mindset. Nearly all our public universities have sultans or members of the royalty as chancellors. I am surprised – and appalled – to see otherwise confident and authoritative professors genuflect and become excessively deferential in the presence of the royalty. A board meeting chaired by a sultan would have minimal meaningful, much less robust discussions. Everyone would be concerned with being “proper.” Little would get done.

Reforming UMNO Through Decoupling

In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I suggested that decoupling of governmental from party positions would be one effective way to groom new talent and in the process rejuvenate UMNO. The current concentration of power within the party not only contributes to corruption and the party’s rot but it also unnecessarily constricts the development and grooming of new talent.

Decoupling would immediately open up many more channels and opportunities for junior leaders to ascend the party hierarchy and to prove themselves. Currently, a minister can be the head of the party’s wing as well as being a member of the Supreme Council. Additionally he or she may lead some governmental corporations or civic organizations. Similarly, a chief minister is not only the state’s chief executive but also chairman of the state’s development corporations, UMNO state liaison, as well as chair of the capital’s municipal council. Each of these positions, properly executed, would demand the fulltime attention of a seasoned executive.

At the federal level, if ministers were not members of UMNO Supreme Council, that body could serve as the party’s oversight committee for ministers. This would give yet another level of accountability, apart from Parliament. The Supreme Council could also be the training ground for future ministers, or be a place where former ministers (provided they get voted by the delegates) could advise their successors. If party leaders could demonstrate their talent running the party, then they could be trusted to run the country.

At present, the concentration of power and positions among few individuals limits the upward mobility of young talent. As a result, there is much Machiavellian scheming among junior leaders for the limited leadership slots, giving rise to unhealthy competition. In such an environment, cliques and warlords develop, to the detriment of the party as a whole.

Ministers cannot fully commit themselves to their ministries if they have to worry about maintaining their party positions. Nothing gets done in government in the year preceding UMNO party elections; the ministers are too busy campaigning and giving speeches to divisions. It is also the season for money politics, and for ministers to utter idiotic statements, all in the pursuit of party votes.

With ministers and chief ministers wielding too much power, corruption is inevitable. With the diffusion of power through decoupling of government and party positions, ministers would be answerable to party leaders. For corruption to take place in such an environment would require the collusion of many individuals. One of them may squeal if he or she does not get a fair share of the loot. That is the best deterrence against corruption.

Value of Sports

What triggered the recent cabinet decision was the abysmal performance of the national soccer team. The rot however is not restricted only to that sport. Malaysians yearn for the glorious days of yore when the national badminton team was the perennial champions.

As in many countries, soccer is a national obsession in Malaysia. Consequently, the Football Association is headed by luminaries like the Sultan of Pahang, his crown prince, as well as assorted political hangers-on and wannabes. There is also a cabinet minister. The only talent lacking, and what the organization desperately needs, is someone knowledgeable about the sport and its business.

The nation loses out in multiple ways from such amateurism and incompetence. For one, the nation misses the opportunity for collective pride when the national team fumbles. Two, such organizational and team failures discourage the development of the sports. When our national team excels internationally, such victories inspire the young to participate in the sport. I remember the 1950s when our badminton squad ruled the world. Every village had its own badminton courts and leagues. Such grassroots participations are important in the discovery and development of new talent.

Three, sports, like music, transcends race, class, and culture. The rich as well as the poor, blacks as well as whites (also brown and yellow!), and natives as well foreigners adulate sports heroes. This aspect alone should inspire Malaysia to ensure that its sports organizations function well. Sports are powerful instruments to enhance national unity as well as international peace. The Iraqis may be at war with each other, but when their soccer team won the Asian Cup, all Iraqis celebrated. It was a rare and much needed display of unity and communal celebration for a nation in turmoil.

Sports also provide major avenues for the talented poor to escape their economic lot. In America and elsewhere, more poor minorities become millionaires through sports than through any other pursuits. Sports could do the same for poor Malaysians.

The economic benefits extend beyond the athletes. Professional sports in any country are multibillion-dollar industries and major contributors to the economy. There is no reason why soccer and other sports cannot do the same for Malaysia. Such economic benefits accrue even when the “stars” are foreigners. Consider Formula One’s impact on the local economy, specifically tourism.

Before we can reap these benefits, our sports organizations – professional and voluntary – must be competently run. They are just too important to be made into playgrounds for ambitious politicians and members of the royalty.


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