While politicians come and go, the civil service remains the engine of a nation’s administration. How does Malaysia’s current bureaucracy compare with its former self of decades past?
The Malaysian civil service had been accused of many things over the years – suffocating preponderance of a bloated bureaucracy, inefficiency and overly pandering to politicians. Is the quality of the administration really declining? KINIBIZ talks to former Ministry of Finance boss Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim for an inside perspective.
You have been in a unique position to have some perspective on how things have developed over the years since independence – the civil service may be different, the education system may be different. Maybe we start with the civil service. As a former secretary-general of the Treasury, how did the civil service operate in your time and what do you see as the difference in the way the civil service operates these days?
Of course one of the big differences is that the civil service today has grown so big it is almost difficult to manage. I would prefer to see a leaner, more compact civil service where you go for quality rather than quantity in the ranks of the civil service.
As far as the institutions under which the civil service operates, it is basically the same as it used to be before. But I think we had – as far as the areas I was involved in – a very strong legacy of reporting to what we called NDPC or the National Development Planning Committee which consisted of the topmost civil servants in the country.
This committee used to meet regularly and its recommendations would go to a higher body called the Economic Committee of Cabinet. And there the EPU (Economic Planning Unit) would submit its recommendations in front of the prime minister and the committee together with the top civil servants present.
The result of this process is that when a decision was made, almost every branch of the administrative system is aware why that decision was made. I think that was the great strength we had in those days. So when it came to implementation, it went smoothly.
Is there a lot of interference from politicians in terms of policies that were adopted and how they were implemented?
I think there is more now because the cabinet has grown very big. And there are a lot more political appointments at the top. The impression I get is the public is being overwhelmed by the political forces on top of them.
Almost seems like everybody has got an opinion which is different from others.
Yes. I’m not saying politicians should stay out; they have a role to play. But they should recognise that government policies should be based on professional inputs and there should be more time allowed for the central agencies in the government.
In my day the central agencies were a very powerful group. By central agencies I mean Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning Unit, Bank Negara Malaysia and the Statistics Department. We would have regular meetings, doing consultations with each other to look at the economy, to look at the problems with the economy.
And we would come to a consensus about what recommendations to put forward to the higher authorities.
I believe that system still exists. But whether it is properly presented at the higher level, that I’m not sure. If the civil service is given the time to do proper research, proper study, and come up with a consensus among themselves of what are the best proposals for the government to consider, then I’m quite sure that the politicians will make the right decisions.
But what I hear very often is that everything is rushed. Many civil servants tell me they do not know why that decision was made and they have to implement a decision which they do not understand. That’s bad. That should not be the way.
You were managing director of Khazanah for nearly a decade. In the case of 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), here is a company which sort of became a renegade among government-linked companies (GLCs) and which did not seem to operate under the GLC transformation manual and so on.
How did such a situation arise and do you think things would have gotten to this stage if 1MDB had been properly administered like other GLCs in terms of accountability, transparency and governance?
That is very unfortunate. I think since the GLC transformation programme started, all the major public operations have adopted high standards of governance. In fact if you look at the shares of Tenaga Nasional, Telekom Malaysia, there is very clear evidence that once you began to adopt the global standards of governance, the share prices improved.
That is because more and more foreigners are coming in to buy those shares. Their confidence increased. So good governance is important for a company to attract the confidence of the investors and lenders.
But this is something which 1MDB didn’t have. Why did things happen that way? This is the million dollar question. This is what we expect to see from the investigation. Maybe it’s time they explain to us. And that will help to stop all the rumours and speculation.
Back to the civil service and the expanding bureaucracy, the indication seems to be that there has been a general decline of talent quality over quantity and also in the softening of the top leadership in the civil service in terms of standing their ground to the politicians elected to ministerial positions. How do you see the situation?
G25 also made the point in our statement. It is the responsibility of civil servants to stand up to politicians where they are right. Civil servants must also know when they are right and when they are wrong.
Did you have occasions when you had to stand up to the government while you were there? Any particular incident you can tell us about?
Yes, but I don’t think so (laughing).
From your experience, how can we start improving the talent pool in civil service?
Well, ensure there is better recruitment but also I think this question of carrot and stick should also be applied in civil service. Those who do well should be quickly rewarded, not just properly rewarded. And those who make serious mistakes should be quickly punished.
And the civil service is notoriously slow in that aspect, as a result sending the wrong message down the line – that it is alright to (commit mistakes).
I mean, take for example the annual auditor-general reports which have pointed out many (instances of) financial mismanagement. There are a lot of question marks on whether those who are responsible have been punished for the wastage and the leakages of government expenditure and how fast have action been taken on ensuring that the same problems do not crop up again.
I think there is a feeling among the public that not enough is being done.
Link to the original article in Kinibiz
This is part 5 of 5