More Perspiration, Less Inspiration Required
Co-written with Din Merican
(Re-posted from Malaysia Today February 18, 2006)
Prime Minister Abdullah finally had his ilham (inspiration) to shuffle his cabinet. His “new” team, despite the hype, remains anything but new. Had he exerted greater effort in scouting for fresh talent instead of relying on his ilham, the results could have been, well, inspiring.
Now more than ever, Malaysia needs a crisp team to propel the nation into its next trajectory of development. Malaysians desperately need quality leadership at the top, leaders who lead through personal examples, and who empower, not control, the citizens. We need ministers who can execute, meaning, perform as executives, and not be content with being mere mini sultans of their bureaucratic fiefdom. We certainly do not need ministers who wait for directives.
Abdullah’s cabinet has two major problems: size and personnel.
Imagine a cabinet meeting with all 33 ministers present. If each were to speak for only a couple of minutes, the meeting would last well over an hour. And that would be just enough time for each to make the obligatory salutations, “Yang Berhormat Tan Sri….!” There would hardly be time for substantive discussions or robust policy debates.
The results showed. The recent unprecedented move by ten non-Muslim ministers in presenting outside of cabinet what essentially was an ultimatum to the Prime Minster over provisions of the Islamic laws is reflective of this dysfunction. Then there were the frequent conflicting statements made by various ministers, including the Prime Minster, over many issues. The most recent – coming right after the cabinet reshuffle – had Rafidah Aziz claiming that she still had control over the controversial AP permits. The very next day Abdullah had to correct her. These contradictory remarks make a mockery of the principle of collective cabinet decisions.
Incapable of Innovations
Unlike many, we are not surprised with Abdullah’s latest performance. He has neither the talent nor the temperament to make major changes, despite the strenuous efforts of his apologists and loyalists to portray him as otherwise. His experience was in the civil service, as an administrator. He conforms to the tradition of “Saya menunggu arahan!” (I await the directive!)
His “don’t rock the boat” approach served him well when he was in Mahathir’s cabinet. Mahathir was strong and decisive, and had no shortage of ideas. Now that Abdullah is in charge, there is no one above him to give him directions. This is an uncomfortable role for him, and he is lost and rudderless. His recent personal loss adds to his distraction.
The performance of Abdullah and his team has been anything but cemerlang (excellence). It would be hard to have a straight face in referring to them as gemilang (glorious). Only they fantasize terbilang (distinction). This new team, with its core members securely ensconced, is nothing but temberang (bullshit).
We are not disappointed as we do not expect much of Abdullah, but we do feel for the millions of Malaysians who gave him their overwhelming mandate. Malaysia is entering its pivotal Ninth Malaysia Plan period. It cannot be business as usual. We have to re-examine our assumptions, explore novel strategies, and have more effective executions. Otherwise this Plan will repeat the same mistakes of all earlier ones, with their incomplete projects, funds not expended, and the nation further away from its Vision 2020 aspirations.
Abdullah inherited Mahathir’s team. It is the same tired crew that gave us the loss-ridden MAS, Proton and other GLCs; the ugly AP scandals; decline in foreign investments; continuing blatant corruption; and the rapidly deteriorating education system. Good luck in expecting them to undo their own mistakes!
Securing Fresh Talent
The Prime Minister must be willing to exert himself and cast his net deep and wide to secure fresh talent. That is, more perspiration and less inspiration. By restricting himself to the same stagnant pond, he nets the same lethargic ikan bilis (anchovies) with pretensions of ikan pedang (swordfish).
His landslide electoral victory of 2004 presented him with a much wider and deeper talent pool. He did not seize that opening, another one of the many great opportunities he squandered.
A man of greater conviction and confidence would not hesitate in going out of the political arena in search of talent. Tun Razak used the Senate appointment route in search of new talent, as did Mahathir. Abdullah did that do, but his choice for the Senate was one Muhammad Taib, a man found with millions in cash in his back pocket, at an Australian airport.
Malaysian ministers are too preoccupied with and distracted by their non-cabinet duties. We would have thought that with all the pressing problems facing the nation, being a minister would consume one’s total energy, and then some. There would not be time to be in UMNO Supreme Council or be Chairman of the Football Association.
Decoupling party from government positions would solve this problem. Ministers would not then be in perpetual campaign mode to protect their positions in the party, and thus in the cabinet. Decoupling would have another salutary effect: it would diffuse power. This concentration of power is the prime factor for its abuse and corruption.
This does not mean that ministers should or could insulate themselves from the political realities. Make them answerable to party leaders and use the UMNO Supreme Council as an oversight committee to monitor the performances of ministers. That would keep them sharp.
The other constraint with Abdullah’s cabinet is its unwieldy size. Get rid of the five ministers in the Prime Minister’s Department. There is no need for a Minister of Information, Tourism, Sports, Women’s Affairs, Federal Affairs, Culture, or even Entrepreneur Development. Combine some ministries like Home Affairs with Internal Security, and have only one Minister of Education. That would reduce the cabinet to a manageable size.
With fewer ministers, Abdullah could spend more time vetting them, and he would be spared of a Kasitah Gaddam or Isa Samad, men implicated with major corruption. Abdullah would also be spared a Shafie Salleh or Leo Michael Toyad. Shafie briefly headed the Ministry of Higher Education, a new portfolio now in the midst of a major policy review. The change could only be disruptive, and avoidable had Abdullah been prudent with his initial selection. There is no assurance that the Prime Minster has learned his lesson.
We agree that Shafie Salleh was an inept choice. He clearly demonstrated this in his dealings with the Vice-Chancellors, and his appointing Nordin Kardi, a man with the slimmest academic credentials, to head Universiti Utara.
It was disconcerting the manner with which the Prime Minister announced his new cabinet. Shafie Salleh learned of his dismissal only through the media. At the very least, the Prime Minister owed both Shafie and Toyad the courtesy of a personal call ahead of time. Better yet, Abdullah should have met with his old and new cabinet members individually, apprising them of their strengths and weaknesses. That he did not, showed his lack of personal courage. Abdullah simply had no class.
As for keeping Rafidah Aziz, the Prime Minister obviously has not learned anything from the AP mess. That apparently is the kind of “experience” Abdullah values. Rafidah’s retention mocks his commitment to clean government. The arrogance of her to claim that it was God’s wish that she remains in the cabinet! Tomorrow she will claim to have daulat (mandate from God), just like a real sultan. Such hubris could only come from someone who has been in government far too long.
In a similar fashion, the collapse of our flyways and the shoddy executions of major public works projects contribute to the “valuable experience,” and hence the retention of Samy Vellu as Works Minister.
Abdullah pays a steep price for retaining these deadwoods. He deprives the nation of the services of competent talent. Abdullah should be encouraging and grooming the likes of Mustapha Mohamad and the Wharton PhD, Awang Adek.
Abdullah and his “new” team is prepared only to coast along. It is the same old tired crew, being led by an equally tired skipper who is clueless and rudderless. We would be lucky if we were not swamped in these turbulent times.
Din Merican is Visiting Professor (Business Strategy) and Advisory Board Member, Asia Economic Forum, at University of Cambodia, and Senior Research Fellow, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.