Another Promised Change!

by M. Bakri Musa

In a recent meeting with media representatives, Chief Secretary to the Government (its topmost civil servant) Sidek Hassan assured the public that civil servants must now “perform or face the music.” He also revealed the demotions of senior officers, including a few in the “super scale” grade and a Director-General.

Sidek’s assurance was undoubtedly in response to the damning indictments in the recent Auditor General’s Report. (What else is new?) The Chief Secretary went on with promises of more actions. Let us hope that his pledge is for real. We have been through all these promised changes before, so citizens’ cynicism is understandable.

The civil service cannot be improved merely through edicts from high above. No less than Prime Minister Abdullah had made many similar pledges before.

As the top civil servant, Sidek cannot effect meaningful changes until he knows the details of the various operations under him. Not all of them; he needs study only two or three processes in some detail, identify the problems, and then solve them. With that he could teach others and replicate the success elsewhere.

All too often our top civil servants and ministers are content only with mere utterances: “Be productive!” “Compete with the best!” Unless they know the details of the operations of their departments, identify and eliminate the redundant processes, they could not hope to improve their services. These senior officers should not expect their overworked line workers to come up with innovative solutions. Besides, they lack the necessary knowledge or skills.

Leadership Through Ignorance

When I came home as a surgeon in 1975, the top honchos at the Ministry of Health and the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur took me around trying to impress me with their facility. After an hour or so of this dog and pony show, I was fed up with the fluff thrown at me.

We were standing overlooking the busy road in front of the hospital when an accident happened. I asked the hospital director to imagine the driver sustaining a life-threatening ruptured spleen and thus needing my service. How would I be contacted?

From there I was able to find out about the ambulance service (haphazard), the quality of paramedics (untrained), and the Casualty Room capabilities (erratic system of contacting on-call specialists). The two top officials were embarrassed because they could not answer my basic queries.

I suggested to the two that on-call specialists be equipped with beepers so they could be readily contactable. Sensible enough solution, except that neither the Director nor the ministry official could authorize such an expenditure! They would have to submit that first to Treasury! So calling surgeons remained a haphazard affair when I was there. It would not surprise me if it still is, thirty years later.

If the hospital director (or minister) had been familiar with details of the operation of the hospital, he would be less likely to criticize the doctors on call for not responding timely and instead supply them with beepers.

A few years ago I was home to renew my ID card. I was told that it would take months. Fortunately I knew the department head, and between the two of us we had an exercise of going through every step of the process. After that I told him how we could cut down the redundant steps, like having the forms available (and filled) online instead of lining up just to get the empty form. We tried it with my application as a test, and I was able to get my new card within days.

Then the department head told me why he could not do what I suggested. It would mean laying off thousands of unneeded clerical staff; not politically acceptable. Like it or not, our civil service is not for providing service, rather a massive public works program for those with liberal arts degrees who otherwise would not be employable.

As head of a surgical unit at GHKL I was fed up with the large and unruly crowd at the beginning of my clinic day. So I introduced staggered appointments, with follow-up patients (who are within our control as we made their appointments) to be seen at 3PM while patients referred from elsewhere and others (who are beyond our control) be seen at the clinic’s opening hour of 2PM.

It worked wonderfully. At least now we could reduce the crowd by half and thus be more manageable. Our patients loved it.

All went well for a few weeks, and then the crowd began coming back. Puzzled, I decided to investigate. It turned out that the front office clerk was telling everyone to come early and to ignore my advice about the scheduled appointments. She had a very simple and remarkably effective rebuttal for my patients. “Yes, I know the doctor asked you to come at 3, but better lah to come early. The doctor is a busy man; it is better for us to wait for him instead of having him wait for us!”

I could not help laughing at the clerk’s ingenuity in circumventing my orders. To her it would be easier if all the patients were to come at the beginning, as that would mean going to the record room only once.

Instead of getting angry with the poor overworked clerk, I gathered my staff and explained to them my rationale for the staggered appointments. Something about respecting our patients by not having them wait. I also made sure that the poor clerk had additional help in securing the charts. After that I had no more problem. Simple solution, but it required my active intervention as a department head to study the problem, implement the solution, and get my staff on board.

My clinic was one of the few that was orderly. One consequence to my successful arrangement was that people began whispering that I was not a “good” surgeon as my clinic was not crowded! Luckily my patients, colleagues and staff were happy with our service, so that bit of rumor had no traction.

My point is this: Simply saying you must improve your service will not do it. Sidek and the other top civil servants need to do more, like analyzing and re-engineering the various processes. If the solution you prescribed does not work (or no longer does), examine the reasons why and try to overcome them.

Incompetence, Insularity, and Lack of Integrity

Our civil service is afflicted with the terrible triad of incompetence, insularity, and lack of integrity. I am not referring to the rank and file union members, rather the managers and officers, those in the “superscale” category. Each of these afflictions by itself is quite crippling; combined their destructive powers are amplified considerably.

Ask a senior civil servant what management journals he subscribes to or reads regularly, and you would draw a blank. The standard response is that these journals are expensive, but those officers have allowances. The more valid reason is their lack of professionalism and sense of self-improvement. Their low English proficiency is also a contributor.

I would make it a condition for promotions for these officers to demonstrate their competency in English. We did something similar in the 1960s when civil servants had to be proficient in the national language to be confirmed.

As for competency, the government spends little in the development of its staff. Ask a civil servant when was the last time he or she attended a formal continuing education session, and you would also draw a blank.

A major contributor to the lack of integrity is of course pervasive corruption. I need not write more except to note that instead of tackling it head on, the government establishes yet another bureaucracy, the National Integrity Institute. A simple move that would not involve spending more money or hiring additional personnel would be to make the Anti Corruption Agency independent, answerable only to Parliament or the King.

Lack of integrity is also tied to lack of professionalism. How many times have you seen senior civil servants bring their work home? They may be in upper management, but their mentality is still the clerical nine-to-five. I have yet to see senior civil servants on extended overseas trips carry a laptop. Meaning, when they are away, they are cut off from their offices.

When asked why they do not have a laptop, these officers tell me that the government does not provide them with one, and they are too cheap to buy one on their own. If they were to travel business class instead of first, the government would have more than enough funds to supply each member of their family with a super laptop.

Query a Secretary- or Director-General, a ministry’s top civil servant, what innovations he or she had instituted within the past few years, or the challenges facing his agency and how he or she would solve them, and you will also get a bewildering look.

The civil service is hampered by its insularity, with promotions strictly from within. There is no infusion of fresh talent other than at the entry level. To make matters worse, recruits are overwhelmingly local graduates in the liberal arts. Apart from their abysmal English proficiency, they are also severely mathematically challenged. There is also minimal specialization. An officer may be posted in Sports Ministry one year and be in the Foreign Ministry the next.

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I suggested getting fresh talent at the mid and senior levels. The next time a vacancy occurs at the Director-General level, open up the recruitment to applicants from academia and the private sector. I also suggested having four or five broad areas of concentration with officers rotated only within one area so they could develop some specific skills and knowledge. This was also the recommendation of Milton Esman, the American professor hired by Tun Razak in the 1970s to spruce up the civil service.

Yes there will be the exceptional talent who could be an accomplished academic, an effective CEO the next time, and then capping his distinguished career as a seasoned statesman. For most however, especially those in the mid level, they are better off staying and learning within a limited sphere.

Sidek Hassan should go beyond simply warning his officers to “perform or face the music,” I would have been more assured had he asked them to subscribe to at least three professional journals, attend 25 hours of formal continuing professional education courses annually, pass an English competency test, and require them to have a laptop

  1. #1 by ktteokt on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 10:23 am

    After 50 years, the people of Malaysia knows what the public service is like, so stop giving all sorts of excuses and making promises of improvement. Remember our motto for one of the National Day celebrations many many years ago? What “bersih, cekap dan amanah”? It has been years since this motto was used but look at the civil service today, has it improved?

    Despite pay rises and all the lucrative incentives given, these people do not even understand the meaning of “Public Servant” and think they are kings in these government departments. They do not help the poor citizens to overcome their problems but they even create problems for them so that they can earn a little extra income by solving them “over and above” the call of duty.

    I have had many experiences with such public servants and what Sidek Hassan had said cannot be taken seriously. Perhaps all civil servants should undergo “re-training” at the Public Services Department and Lesson #1 should be to emphasize to them “WHAT IS A CIVIL SERVANT”.

  2. #2 by Jimm on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 10:31 am

    Please be informed that you must know who first in the government offices before things can be done. This same goes to those who eventually seated the the top seats in their structure.
    Do you think this clown can control the civil servants department with that kind of statement ?
    It’s the normal speech from someone sitting right at the top and getting paid enough to perform public PR effectively.
    This clown (suddenly) have some many ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister’ that constantly ‘entertain’ him with wonderful ‘happenings’ and ‘event’, do you think he have the time to walk the talk….

  3. #3 by Jimm on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 10:34 am

    Can someone confirm this for me, his brother happens to be the IGP ?

  4. #4 by Libra2 on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 10:38 am

    One reason why the civil service is that it does not reflect the racial composition of the country, more so as we look at the managerial positions. The civil service is in such a sorry state because it is the refuge of last resort for unemployed local graduates who are Malays.

  5. #5 by sotong on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 10:38 am

    How could you run a country without competent, efficient and effective civil servants?

    Decades of gross neglect from bad leadership and governance of the country are doing enormous damage with no quick fix.

  6. #6 by Jimm on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 10:46 am

    Please share the same facts about our civil servants existance, their vote counts here. Each and every single vote are dedicated to their ‘bosses’ in order to keep their jobs.
    And because of that, they only required to give 110% effort and attention when GE approach.

  7. #7 by sheriff singh on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 11:09 am

    1.2 million “civil” servants to abuse its citizens.

  8. #8 by Jimm on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 11:18 am

    And mind you here , these 1.2 million are ‘transferable vote’ to ensure all results are favorable to ELITE group with acceptance of the majority.

  9. #9 by Jimm on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 11:22 am

    Member of the Public have seasonedly accept these facts about civil servant service level and civil servant knew that their existance are not so about rendering civil services.
    Those that were in civil services that found to be supporting oppositions are marginally ‘marked’ or ‘removed’ to keep the entire network healthy. Afterall, civil servants are not supposed to get themselves involved in politic scenes as they have only one party to vote for.

  10. #10 by sotong on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 11:35 am

    After decades of better education, wealth distribution and job opportunity, very little has changed with the Malays which make up the bulk of the civil servants.

    A radical reform of the government is urgently required to ensure the best interest of the country is protected.

  11. #11 by Bigjoe on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 11:40 am

    Improving service is a constant dilligence. I have first hand knowledge of many government agencies does it and fail to do so including in US, HK, Japan and Singapore.

    It must be a complete system but one bad idea can wreck an entire system and that one for us its meritocracy – you can’t run away from it.

    I have seen how a talented head of a department came up with system after system of improvement but in the end failed because he could not hire and fire as he please. Hampered by this criteria, they always found away to excuse themselves no matter what. For example, if he could not fire because of family issues, the bad staff found a way to make that family issue an excuse. If he could not fire for medical reason, bad staff found away to document medical reasons.

    Our public service is plagued with excuses. If they really want the best, then the only best standard is – no excuses…

  12. #12 by chloo on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 11:42 am

    Gov servant…ahhahahahahahhaha dun make me laugh…wait another 50 years also will be the same…even GLCs are not spared, try getting good service from companies like Tenaga, Telekom….in fact, the bolehland culture has crept into places like Mc Donald’s as well, try ordering in English……

  13. #13 by k1980 on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 12:06 pm

    civil servants must now “perform or face the music”

    But their English proficiency is so poor that some of them might think that “facing the music” means they would be rewarded with free tickets to musical concertos

  14. #14 by Jimm on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 12:09 pm

    Employment rate have be to checked rapidly by government to shows that they are doing enough for the rakyat.
    Eversince the 70s – Family Planning program that discouraged families(non-Malay) to have more childrens which coincided after 0513 and the ‘importation’ of instant Malays from neighboring country, the ratio for Malay populations have command around almost 66% here. With the effort from government to “just give” them enough knowledge and also having tough time to bring them away from their own mindset, makes up the bulk of the nationa issue.
    Look at employment today, we have hypermarkets that easily got licence to open up new store everywhere as long as there are enough employment opportunities for the majority job seekers to ‘considered’ employed.
    The employment mindset are basically brought into the Malay culture that the employer MUST provide for them the comfort of working and salary that they can survive on. They don’t have to strive to grow. Anything not able to handle, just change job.

  15. #15 by iStupid on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 12:55 pm

    “Then the department head told me why he could not do what I suggested (computerisation). It would mean laying off thousands of unneeded clerical staff; not politically acceptable. Like it or not, our civil service is not for providing service, rather a massive public works program for those with liberal arts degrees who otherwise would not be employable.”

    Yes, modern technology is the No.1 Enemy of the unemployable liberal arts graduates.

    Ever wonder why, in spite of long queues at toll booths on important festivals like the Hari Raya, the government has not made Touch-and-Go cards and Smart Tags compulsory? Why do we pay cash at toll booths and create kilometers long queues?

    If we abolish cash payments at toll booths thousands will be laid off instantly. Where do we relocate these otherwise unemployable workers? Making Touch-and-Go cards and Smart Tags mandatory is politically very incorrect.

    So learn to live with the long queues, fellows.

  16. #16 by Godfather on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 1:08 pm

    “We are not in the business of cheating the people.” AAB, 2006

    Can someone make the Sleepy Head accountable for this promise ?

  17. #17 by k1980 on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 2:36 pm

    “We are not in the business of cheating the people.”

    simply means

    “We are in the business of cheating the country.”

  18. #18 by Jimm on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 3:10 pm

    “We are not in the business of cheating the people.”

    Actually, what he meant is true as the business of cheating people started way before he even got a chance t ostep into political world. What he tried to clarified at the point of answering that question : Malaysian have been cheated all along and he and his team are only carrying out what was passed on to them. He has the right to claimed that no more new cheating have been carried out after he took over that seat.

  19. #19 by Jimm on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 3:13 pm

    As for the 18 sharks that managed to swam away to the ocean and untraceable proof, he also meant that all investigation have been throughly carried out by the respective agencies and since all the proof are unable to convict anyone of them, they are released.

  20. #20 by Jimm on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 3:14 pm

    What he tried to explain here meaning these 18 shark have cheated and now they are not cheating, therefore we have to let them go.

  21. #21 by Godfather on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 6:42 pm

    “We will investigate….we must investigate everything.” Imam of Islam Hadhari, 2007

    Somehow, investigations under the Imam usually go into a black hole. Just like his promises.

  22. #22 by undergrad2 on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 9:01 pm

    For years a career with the civil service has been looked upon as security by those who are insecure! Malays have always looked towards a career in government for the security it affords upon retirement. On the other hand, the political leadership has always looked to the civil service as a source of employment for the Malays- and votes.

    Nothing much has changed. What has changed is that government officials now have on name tags. I find it odd that Mahathir as head of the executive branch and members of his Cabinet felt the need to put on name tags. The sloganeering and the labelling goes on. The objective which is employee productivity is all but forgotten.

    What I find alarming apart from the issue of worker productivity is the fact that the government no longer observes the doctrine of political neutrality. Ask a senior government servant from pengarah and above what “Civil service neturality” is to him, and he could only look at you like you are some lunatic!

    We talk all the time of the rot from within the nation’s judiciary, it is time to address the long standing rot in our civil service.

    Not too long ago, I was fortunate enough to accompany a group of senior government servants in their mission abroad to promote investment. They stayed at the New Otani, Tokyo – a five-star hotel reserved for the very senior government officials when in Tokyo, Japan. On the eve of the seminar, instead of refreshing themselves on the objectives of the mission, the most senior government official called me to his hotel room to brief me on government protocol – who sits in which car and with whom! He did this while his wife has taken the day off to go on a shopping free.

    That is the average profile of a government officer holding the position of ‘Pengarah’ and above.

  23. #23 by limkamput on Monday, 29 October 2007 - 11:07 pm

    I think you people have said enough of government servants. Please bear in mind that the whole country, from politicians, ministers, civil servants, the GLCs and increasingly those from the banking sector and the private sector are getting incompetent, inapt, and irrational, and not just the civil servants. It is no longer pockets of inefficiency here and there. It is fast becoming a pan-Malaysia thing. Why so, you may ask.
    Here, I disagree with some of the observations highlighted by Bakri Musa. It is not about whether we read management journals or not. It is not whether the doctors are given beepers or not. You see, if we take care of the fundamentals, all the peripheries will fall in place.
    In this country, the fundamentals are not right. We practise racism to the core, we discriminate, we have no tolerant for any dissent, and we completely obliterate open debate and discussion. So we breed third rate leadership (let’s face it, all the important ministers including the Prime Minister are chosen from a sub set), corruption, abuse of power, cronyism, nepotism and the culture of sweeping under the carpet. And as I have alluded earlier, this culture is far becoming the national ethos, no longer just confined to civil service.
    No matter how many civil servants we have sent for courses in Oxford or Harvard Universities, no matter much how many consultant studies we have conducted, and it does not matter whether we wear name tags or otherwise, the impact on efficiency and effectiveness will be minimal.
    To put in the nutshell, the malaise inflicting this country, including the civil service, is essentially due to hopeless people in the helm. We can debate and say all the political correct things we want, I urge all of you to think deeply and trace back to the origins of all the problems we face presently in this country.

  24. #24 by undergrad2 on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 - 4:21 am

    What can I say?? Lim Kam Put is right.

  25. #25 by Jimm on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 - 8:55 am

    Let us be proud that most of us feed them and their children in the course of them claiming to provide services back to the public.
    We all know that Malays to gained top post in government agencies are also closely ‘gifted’ by the ELITE group.
    It’s a form of incentives for these ‘Pengarah’ and family for a good performance in assisting the government in GE. These ‘Pengarah’ also act as eyes and ears to make sure that their staffs are voting the right party in any GE.
    Moreover, it’s also government policies to have only Malays to hold the highest post in any agencies to control the entire network of civil servants.
    Even the SIL whom eventually the next PM will be busy planning all those ‘replacements’ to make sure that his power can last all weathers.

  26. #26 by Jimm on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 - 9:08 am

    Lately, those old dogs ‘dogs’ are starting to feel the ‘heats’ from their seat and can sensed that their time is almost up. Some of them went the big way to ‘compile’ their wealth before being replaced.
    Those ‘replacements’ are eagerly ‘ready to go’ attitude to mark their opportunities.
    Such attitudes brewing around the civil servants environment with massive high power office politics surging daily, do you all still think that they are interested to render their vowed services to the publics ….
    Dream on.

  27. #27 by cancan on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 - 9:38 am

    When the top part of the pole is crooked,then the bottom part will also be crooked.
    This is the current state of the Malaysian government.
    Leaders will talk and talk.
    Downline people will just listen and listen.
    There is a severe lack of implementations and enforcements.
    As such,who cares?
    And the people suffer.

  28. #28 by k1980 on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 - 10:23 am

    We get 365 Promised Changes each year, which will be conviently forgotten with the arrival of the new year

  29. #29 by megaman on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 - 11:51 am

    Second limkamput’s opinion …

    We can tok n tok n suggest n suggest … but unless we replace the ppl at the top wif capable ppl tat can make a difference … nothing will change …

  30. #30 by AhPek on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 - 2:37 pm

    Bakri Musa’s prescription is certainly first class and it can ‘cure’ any patient diagnosed with early stage cancer.But limkamput is saying that this patient called ‘Malaysia’ is having terminal cancer,so I wonder whether the good doctor’s prescription can work. Can the good doctor from Silicon valley enlighten us, please?

  31. #31 by shaolin on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 - 5:22 pm

    Who MUST face the music?? I suggest the person said it
    Must go first because he is NOT performing!!

    Do not try to cheat the countrymen again!! Look at
    Zakaria and his PALACE, what has been done to it???
    Anti-Corruption Dept(BPR), Custom, Tax Dept, PM
    Dept, MPKlang, Port Klang Authority??? None has acted
    to take him to court!! Why?? Is he above the LAW???
    Is he AlMighty??

    It is a very clear case of Corruption!! So who should be
    arrested first?? All the above depts are SLEEPING!! Even
    the Police force is NOT functioning!!

    We MUST invite Uncle Lee Kuan Yew to charge all these
    IDIOTS and throw them behind bars!!!

  32. #32 by richardkam on Tuesday, 30 October 2007 - 11:12 pm

    Malaysians have to change their mindset when it comes to voting in the general election. Presently people are voting either for the BN or for the opposition no matter who the cadidates are be they clowns or imbeciles. We have to follow other countries like US or UK where most people will vote for the candidates whom they think can represent them. If we vote in the same manner, all parties will then have to field the best candidates not like now going to the cronies. With this, top civil servants would then be appointed also from the best. This may be wishful thinking but I hope that in my lifetime it can happen.

  33. #33 by helpless on Wednesday, 31 October 2007 - 3:33 pm

    “…. department head told me why he could not do what I suggested. It would mean laying off thousands of unneeded clerical staff; not politically acceptable. Like it or not, our civil service is not for providing service, rather a massive public works program for those with liberal arts degrees who otherwise would not be employable…”

    Ask crazy stupid Nasti…..(…. zri…). He will said this is a personal narrow opinion rather than public view.

    Denial…. and the person to be arrested under ISA for touching sensitive matter.

    3 men panel to be setted up to investigate the statement.

  34. #34 by ktteokt on Wednesday, 31 October 2007 - 10:19 pm

    Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in his “Origin of Species” has stated that the human brain needs time to evolve from its primitive state. Just how long ago was the Malaysian (Malayan) civilization compared to the other great civilizations of the world? Do you think there is a short cut to achieving what evolution can do?

    Great civilizations of the world have been around for thousands of years, but for Malaya, the earliest known civilization was the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century, just a couple of hundred years back. Think what these people were doing when people in the other great civilizations were already having properly organized societies.

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