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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, July 06, 2008

Rationalizing The Role of Government

M. Bakri Musa

Prime Minister Abdullah and his civil servant accountants delude themselves into believing that the government could actually “save” RM2 billion merely by reducing ministerial allowances. The only way to effectively and substantially reduce the cost of government is to first rationalize its function.

As for any savings, Abdullah would achieve considerably more by getting rid of his luxurious Airbus corporate jet. If he were to do so, the jet would become a revenue producer instead of at present, a costly expense item. He would effectively move it from the liability to the asset column.

The British Prime Minister does not have a private jet, despite leading an economy and nation considerably larger. To think that this Imam of Islam Hadhari, only a generation away from the poverty of the kampong, having such an obscenely extravagant taste, at public expense!

In the wisdom of the kampong, Abdullah, his ministers and senior officials are tak sedar ekor (lit: not aware of their tails; fig: oblivious of their greed).

Proper Role of Government

The government should focus on doing only those things that are properly within its purview, and do away with extraneous activities. This would streamline its machinery, reduce its size, and trim its costs. We would also have a more efficient government that could serve the citizens more effectively.

In this Age of the Internet, the government has no business owning a television station or news agency. Dispense with the Ministry of Information. Likewise we do not need a ministry trying to produce athletes or encourage sports. About the only champions that ministry could produce were profligate spenders of public funds, as evidenced by the ministry’s recent debacle over its training facility in London. That now-abandoned project cost the government hundreds of million of ringgit.

Then there is the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development. The pretensions of these civil servants to think that they have the competence to select or train future entrepreneurs! Get rid of that ministry and we would see a blossoming of entrepreneurial activities.

In the same vein, do Tourism Ministry officials really think that they are responsible for tourists visiting our country? The operators of Club Med and Hilton hotels do a far more credible job. They have to as the success of their businesses depends on these tourists. As for those civil servants in the Tourism Ministry, all they can think of is their next posting abroad, or when they would undertake a “promotional” trip overseas.

I have taken many vacations in Malaysia and have never found the Tourism Ministry or its many agencies useful. Canvass foreign visitors, or better yet, stay at one of Tourism Malaysia’s facilities, and you would reach the same conclusion. Abolishing the ministry would have no negative impact on the industry. On the contrary, freed from bureaucratic hassles, the industry would grow even faster.

Those impressive statistics the ministry puts out are uninformative. Millions of the “tourists” coming through Johore Baru or Padang Besar are nothing more than aunts and uncles visiting their relatives across the border.Eliminating these ministries and combining others would reduce by half the number of ministers, together with their accompanying Secretaries-General, Directors-General, and hordes of Deputies and Assistants. These savings would be instantaneous as well as cumulative. Think of the future savings in salaries, medical costs, and pension liabilities.

Bloated Public Sector

By any measure – relative to the economy, population, or labor force – the public sector in Malaysia is bloated. Being primarily a Malay institution, the impact of the civil service on the psyche, labor dynamics, and cultural values of Malays is disproportionately huge.

Young Malays are conditioned not to look beyond the civil service for employment. Our universities and colleges too are unresponsive to the demands of the private sector as most of its graduates are Malays whose career horizons rarely extend beyond government service. Perversely, the obsession with Ketuanan Melayu makes the civil service’s hold on Malays even more tenacious.

Civil servants enjoy considerable subsidies, from subsidized car loans and home mortgages to below-market rents on government quarters and paid pre-retirement vacation packages. Children of civil servants are also over represented among those admitted into our residential schools (again highly subsidized) and recipients of government scholarships. This makes ridding of the subsidy mentality among Malays that much more difficult.

To these civil servants, gyrations in interest or foreign exchange rates will not impact them. Insulated from the realities of the marketplace, it is no surprise that the policies they design and implement are similarly far detached from reality.

If we reduce the public sector, Malays would be forced to look into the marketplace. They would then have to prepare themselves adequately. That could just be the needed incentives for them to pursue relevant subject matters in schools and universities. Instead of looking forward to being a kerani (clerk) at the land office, they could instead take up auto mechanics for example, and in the process contribute more to the economy.

The public sector is nothing more than overhead, and a very expensive one at that. It does not add to the economy; on the contrary it is a burden. It is people, individually or through their enterprises, that produce the goods and services. Reducing the size of government would also discourage corruption and influence peddling. Plot the size of government (adjusted for population and economy) and incidence of corruption, and the correlation would be startling.

A large public sector inhibits the development of a vibrant private sector. The many government-linked companies (GLCs), far from stimulating new independent contractors and entrepreneurs, actively compete with and stunt their development. These GLCs have not nurtured their share of entrepreneurs. How many employees of GLCs leave to start their own enterprises?

More important is what the government does with its size and power. The Scandinavian countries all have large governments, but they use their power and resources to emancipate their citizens through providing superior education and healthcare. Mothers, for example, enjoy subsidized affordable government-run childcare centers.

In Malaysia, the government uses it size and power to snoop on citizens, making sure that they do not hold hands in public. Significant government personnel and resources are diverted to controlling what citizens read and view, all non-productive activities.

There is however, one good thing about Abdullah’s reducing his ministers’ holiday allowances. They will now know how much those fancy vacations cost. If Abdullah goes further and dispenses with his Airbus jet and uses Malaysia Airlines instead, he would experience firsthand the type of service it provides. Apart from saving the government a considerable sum of money, it would also help disabuse him of the “sultan syndrome.” Anything that would bring him closer to the real world is a good thing.


Blogger de minimis said...

I fully subscribe to your obervations. There is a tendency to pay lip service to values. But we witness later that, in implementation, such values are completely absent.

There is a dire need for a complete change in values by political leaders in M'sia (and, all Third World countries). This includes both those in power and, those who covet power.

Our fear is always that the "nakhoda" may change. But the "kapal" will still chug along in the same direction.

Engendering value-change is our biggest challenge. Is the M'sian polity ready to make this push for value-change? You have assiduously and diligently written on matters such as this for some time now. I salute your effort. All M'sians need to get on board bandwagons such as yours.

5:38 PM  

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