Chief Secretary Should Not Be Chief Clerk

by Bakri Musa

Judging from the gushing praises, Chief Secretary Sidek Hassan is performing miracles with his Special Task Force to Facilitate Business (Pemudah, its Malay acronym) committee to streamline the civil service. A reality check is in order.

It reflects how out of touch our top civil servants are from the realities on the ground that it took Sidek and his Director-General of the Public Service Department Ismail Adam to make an unannounced visit to a District Office in Selangor for them to realize how difficult it is to pay one’s “quit rent.”

Then they were shocked to find that the District Officer was out of his office. Again that reflects their naivety and ignorance of the current sorry state of the government machinery. Perhaps they put too much faith on the recent glowing report of IMD’s World Competitive Yearbook that placed the Malaysian government ahead of Japan and Germany in terms of efficiency. The Malaysian public knows better.

It is pathetic that these top civil servants are reduced to being chief clerks checking on the keranis (junior clerks) to make sure that they are at their desks attending to their customers.

Sidek’s unannounced visit is now fast becoming a legend, of a meticulous and diligent top civil servant paying attention to the smallest of operational details. Even previously cynical commentators are now heaping praises on the man. This chorus is repeated by the seasoned corporate figures co-opted into Pemudah.

If those corporate figures were truly impressed, then it does not say much of the crispness of their own management. Alternatively, they had such low expectations that any improvement would impress them. My hunch is that their praises are nothing more than shrewd maneuverings to be on the good side of the government. In a country where the nexus between government and private sector is fuzzy, this is expected. It would not surprise me that their companies do substantial business with the government.

Interestingly, although Sidek had been interviewed umpteen times, no one asked what disciplinary actions (if any) he took against that errant District Officer and, more importantly, his immediate superior.
If past experience is any guide, the poor underpaid kerani would bear the heaviest punishment, with the District Officer reassigned, and his immediate superior left untouched.

Misplaced Emphasis on Process Instead of Policy

Pemudah’s emphasis has been exclusively on administrative processes. It reflects the deep rot that a simple procedure that would have been simple only a decade or two ago would today be tortuous and drawn out. Nonetheless that does not stop Pemudah from trumpeting its easy victories. These administrative details should have been streamlined at the mid management level; they are essentially staff work.

What Sidek should be doing is to teach those middle manages how to identify, analyze, and solve their problems. That would have been far more effective than surprise visits and issuing edicts from high above. Sidek could not possibly know the operational problems at the various land offices; the issues in Ulu Selangor would be very different from that at Petaling Jaya. With the urban and more educated clients at Petaling Jaya they could try on-line payments, for example. That would not be possible in Ulu Selangor.

Tun Razak hired the American consultant Milton Esman in the 1970s to spruce up the civil service. Esman’s personal accounts are highly illuminating. For example, during his first meeting with our top civil servants, he was confounded that they behaved like little school kids. Their attitude was: “You are the expert; you tell us what to do!”

At Treasury, he asked them their major issues. Their immediate response: “Overworked and understaffed!” They could also have added, “Underpaid!”

They complained of the volumes of vouchers they had to scrutinize. Esman suggested that they study the bills they had already processed and group them by their face value. To their surprise, a substantial portion of the vouchers were under a certain amount, and those were routinely paid without further auditing. Esman suggested if they were to henceforth make a policy that all such bills be routinely paid or better yet, authorize the various departments to pay them without referral to Treasury, their work load would be reduced considerably. They would then have extra time to scrutinize the important big bills. As for the smaller vouchers, all they need would be to do random checks for quality control.

Through such exercises Esman taught those civil servants how to isolate and solve their problems. It was far more effective than lecturing and making surprise visits. Oh yes, Esman did not spend his time giving press interviews!

On a more substantive matter, by the time civil servants reach the top, certainly at the Secretary-General and Director-General levels, their concerns should not be staff, administrative, or operational details rather with policy analysis and policy making.

Consider the government’s recent decision to restrict the sale of subsidized essential goods to non-Malaysians. Such policies should first be vetted by senior civil servants, addressing such issues as their practicality and cost of implementation. Does that mean that we now have to show our passports or identity cards to shop? What about citizens buying for their non-citizen neighbors?

Similarly with the graduate employment scheme; what are the social, economic and other consequences for the government to assume the role of employer of last resort? Egypt has such a policy; it now has one of the most bloated and inefficient civil service, as well as a university system totally unresponsive to the needs of the marketplace.

Sidek Hassan and his colleagues should be studying and recommending solutions to the cabinet on the impact of the current American credit crunch and impending recession, not checking the time cards of clerks in a district office in Ulu Selangor.

Ambrin Buang, Not Sidek Hassan, The True Hero

Sidek need not look far to find examples of excellence; he could find it within his own civil service, specifically in the exemplary performance of Auditor-General Ambrin Buang.
Ambrin could have reduced himself to simply doing the traditional “bean counting” activities, of making sure that there are receipts for expenditures and other accounting minutiae. Make no mistake, those are essential details. The greater fallacy would be to assume that those are the only or even major duties of an auditor.

It reflects the diligence and professionalism of Ambrin that his Annual Report regularly grabs headlines. It also says much about our politicians and civil servants that they do not read those reports. He is not at all bashful in commenting on such boondoggles as the Sports Ministry’s planned facility in London as well as the RM50 screwdrivers.

Ambrin’s report gives a far more accurate (and depressing) picture of the sorry state of the government machinery, certainly far more realistic than that depicted by the IMD Yearbook or Pemudah’s too frequent glowing press releases. It is also revealing that Ambrin is not a member of Pemudah.

An insight on organizational behaviors is that public institutions, in particular the civil service, are not there to serve the citizens. Instead these institutions serve their own self interest while attempting to put a public face to it.

Recent policy initiatives as restricting the sale of subsidized items only to citizens and graduate employment scheme serve nothing more than to expand an already bloated civil service. The currency among civil servants is the size of their respective departments as measured by the number of employees and budget allocations, not whether certain policies would ease poverty or improve the education system.

The wisdom and success of President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was their recognition of this essential truism. The folly of the Abdullah Administration is its naivety in believing that what is good for the civil service is good for Malaysia and Malaysians.

  1. #1 by kaybeegee on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 12:28 am

    Sidek, your officers are out playing golf. Probably equipment and golfing charges and meals paid for by Chinamen businessmen.
    Corruption has been legalise by betting in the golf course, big money involved.
    Ask Petrones whether their officers go overseas to play golf all expenses NOT from their pockets.

    Ask why golf clubs give free memberships to government servants and Judges? sec 8 Corruption Act?

    Tan Sri Sidek can you declare that you do not have free golf club membership? If you do not have than start going after those who have accepted free golf club memberships.

    Start with Police officers……

  2. #2 by dawsheng on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 12:37 am

    Chief Secretary Should Not Be Chief Clerk, but under BN, it is Chief Slave!

  3. #3 by undergrad2 on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 1:09 am

    An aspect of our civil service that we should work hard to preserve, which has been all but abandoned, is its political neutrality. Over decades of authoritarian rule or misrule, civil servants are seen as agents of the political party that runs the government. Director-generals heading the various government departments are treated little more than errand boys by their political masters. Indeed the line that separates the political party that runs the government and the government itself is so blurred as to be almost non-existent that government departments are viewed as little more than the party apparatus.

    This is a serious erosion into the doctrine of civil service neutrality. Civil service neutrality is not just an academic concept that academics address in their lectures to senior civil servants and debate in classrooms, but it is a concept that has important practical implications to the working of the country’s civil service.

    The attempt by YB Kit to address the same issue but from a different direction would be his recent attempt to get the BN to adhere to the caretaker concept of government once Parliament is dissolved. Just like the doctrine of civil service neutrality has been chipped away stealthily and steadily over the years, this attempt to instill in all of us and in the ruling party, the sense of how important it is to use the nations resources which belong to the people, during a time such as the general elections when Ministers continue to be Ministers only in name, when no new policy decisions are supposed to be made, no treaties and agreements be signed and no contracts be entered into etc is, in my opinion, doomed to fail.

    We have seen how constituencies which have voted for the political opposition during general elections tend to be neglected economically. Some are little more than islands of economic neglect surrounded by a sea of rapid economic development. How else are we to look at such lopsided economic development if not as punishment for daring to vote for the political opposition during general elections.

    But as U.S. Sen. Barack Obama who could be the next President of the United States says, “The time has come for change, and the time is now!”

  4. #4 by Loh on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 4:54 am

    ///Recent policy initiatives as restricting the sale of subsidized items only to citizens and graduate employment scheme serve nothing more than to expand an already bloated civil service. The currency among civil servants is the size of their respective departments as measured by the number of employees and budget allocations, not whether certain policies would ease poverty or improve the education system.///– Bakri Musa

    The need to subsidize consumer items was to enable the government to contain inflation until the next GE is over. After the election, subsidies would be withdrawn, and the temporary restrictions will no longer be necessary. The government can again claim that BN received the mandate to rule. And the standard of living of the general public continues to decline. The low earning capacity of Malaysians in Malaysia has the BN government to thank for.

    Government graduate scheme is the result of NEP which have been changed to serve Ketuanan Melayu objectives. The idea that race cannot be linked to occupation has been interpreted that it is not acceptable for the master race to be engaged in manual jobs like rubber tapping, construction work, as driver for Chinese (TDM’s justification for NEP continuation), or jobs that do not need paper qualifications. Education was supposed to help alleviate poverty through empowering the people to be employable. But because the government considered that it would be unacceptable for the master race doing manual jobs, it chose to reserve places of higher education for even unsuitable candidates of the master race, and denied qualified and deserving non-Malays their rightful places. Further, to ensure high passing rate of the master race, special tuition/classes akin to a pre-examination rehearsal were conducted for selected students. When graduates of the particular made show their true colour working in the private sectors, their degrees ultimately received appropriate evaluation. The number of unemployable graduates equal those who should not have been put through university in the first place.

    Absorption of unemployable graduates into government services helps to ensure that BN will retain not only the votes of these new government servants, but also the votes of their immediate families. It will no doubt cost the government more in terms of salaries and wages. But these are funds not out of the pockets of the Cabinet ministers, but the current workforce in government services might have forgone a higher increase in their salaries. After all, there is a limit the government can afford to waste public funds, even though they are not known to be judicious in its management. Possibly the powers-that-be had fewer jet fighters to purchase because of the extra expenditure. Is the defence of the country at risk?

    The extra hands in the unemployable graduates could have been better utilised if they had not been put through tertiary education but through trade schools for art and craft. We would then not have the dilemma of having unemployable graduate citizens when at the same time we have to depend on legal and illegal immigrants. That is one example of how NEP is undesirable for the country.

  5. #5 by cemerlang on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 5:13 am

    A surprise check is good. It brings you down to reality and makes you think whether you should add on to the existing number of public servants, whether you should increase salaries, whether you should give away excellence awards blindly, whether you should grant leave without pay, whether you should depend on gossips alone, whether you should believe the one who is only pretending in front of you ; in fact whether you should continue the old ways of doing things. However you can only spotcheck once in a blue moon and make one out to be the scapegoat because you know that a lot of the government servants are behind you, supporting you. You would not dare to expose the influential, trouble making ones or Little Napoleons. It all depends on who the Pengarah or Ketua Jabatan or the one in charge is. Most of these people are too preoccupied to care what is actually happenning to the unit. Do they really know the performance of one who is given an excellence award ? They don’t know. They just depend on some written report and think that they can trust the report and base on that and on some quota or some criteria, they just give away the award. It is wrong. It is unethical. It is demoralizing. And that is the kind of excellent civil service that Malaysia has. So you cannot say that Malaysia does not have an excellent civil service, since many public servants are given the excellent award. Why do you still need to check on them ? If the District Office has the title of a Dato, do you still need to distrust him ? From the broom to the boots to the spotchecks, you should add another. Take away the title, take away the award and take away the recognition from the one who actually does not deserve it at all.

  6. #6 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 7:11 am

    I have worked with government in many places and let me tell you I have seen the best and the worst (communist and dictator system). Even in the best system (Japan, Switzerland, Singapore), there is always something wrong and inefficient about it. The Republican adage that unless its absolutely necessary, government should not be involved is a wise one even to this day.

    The idea of the welfare state even a modicum is a bad idea. The best thing a civil service can do is to either get out of the way or allow the private citizen to do what is best for himself and his fellow citizen. Civil service and government should never be about power and influence. Its public service i.e., the public is the boss.

  7. #7 by Jimm on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 8:29 am

    Only because of political advantage to placed accountable voters into all these portfolio are the main agenda to BN Government.
    These civil servants also smart to capatilized on the given opportunities in holding the task. Can’t blame them at all as human are normally blinded by greed.
    For the top downwards, every level will consist their own corruption gameplan and stake. As they are only basically wage-earner with benefits mostly provided for, their livinghood have not reaches any boiling point and ‘extra’ income always abundance in their course of duties. Why ? Because we need them more than they need us to get things done. So ? We need to pay them ‘token’.
    All these, after so many years, after so many leadership, it’s okay to continue the culture as it’s Malaysian future that at stake and not only them.
    Upwards authorities also have been practising all these methods and became very rich without being ‘caught’. Why not ?
    Ask many of those that living beyong their earning means, they can tell your that they are sincere and committed to their duties without blinking their eyes eventhough we knew they are lying through their nose.
    Malaysia Boleh.

  8. #8 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 8:33 am

    “IMD’s World Competitive Yearbook ..placed the Malaysian government ahead of Japan and Germany in terms of efficiency. The Malaysian public knows better.”

    Sidek and Adam should now travel incognito through the length and breadth of the country and see how ordinary folks have had to suffer inconveniences of every type and description in coping with government strictures. Actually, years ago, I spoke to many UMNO politicians and they said that they were aware. Even they had to sometimes go through such inconveniences unless they bribe their way too. So, it is simply this – all those delays and obstacles placed in front of the Rakyat is to create opportunities to grease the palms of the civil service.

    Sidek and Ismail Adam must now see how they can simplify government so that corruption can be minimised or elimnated! Even foreign investors r disgusted with the rules and stupid obstacles they face!

    Sidek and Adam should try applying for a hawker’s licence incognito in any town council in any major town; then they will understand how in even the smallest thing at the lowest strata of society, the BIG NApoleons rule!

  9. #9 by peanut king on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 9:57 am

    This is so common in govt offices that whenever I visited it and found all the staffs arround I find it very abnormal.

    The next time Sidek want to spot check , go straight to the canteen you will find the whole gang there smoking away preparing for happy hours.

    With these type of productivity how can they face inflation? How to increase their salary to coup with rising cost of living?

    I have the answers for them.. Be corrupted ,accept bribes, gifts and give favours to those who bribes them.

    Is this part of malaysia boleh or malay bodoh.

  10. #10 by raven77 on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 10:20 am

    Sidek is a chief clerk. The civil service is a case of the blind leading the blind.

    There is just too much government. The civil service should have been chopped up and corporatised, privatised, outsourced or farmed out..take your pick….but it has to be reduced. Sidek may engage in some micromanagement….but apart from the many interviews….he is yet to lop off an underperformer for which there are no shortage of candidates in the civil service…even Khir Toyo will tell him that.

    Perhaps Amrin Buang should be allowed to audit the financial wastage these civil servants commit at the expense of the tax payer and recommend them to Sidek for execution…… If Sidek doesnt get rid of underperformers……he is just playing futsy with both the media and his political masters……

  11. #11 by sheriff singh on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 10:40 am

    But yet the government gives them fat bonuses every now and then to reward them for the brilliant and loyal services. Will they now adopt a more equitable and performance based system of reward? Why are non-performers not punished or dismissed but instead are merely transferred to commit further incompetence elsewhere?

    And soon, Pak Lah might announce a retirement age of 60 to fish for votes for the coming GE. And we will all “enjoy” their further 4 years of incompetence.

  12. #12 by jus legitimum on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 10:54 am

    In order to rid the civil service of corruption,inefficiency etc,use your votes to dump the idiots that help to form the 50 year hegemony into the Strait Of Malacca,the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea.

  13. #13 by undergrad2 on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 10:57 am


    Barack Obama wins three more states tonight – Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC.

  14. #14 by undergrad2 on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 10:59 am

    Ahead of Hilary Clinton both by popular votes and by delegates for the first time. Can the Opposition in Malaysia follow his victory?

    “The time for change has come, and the time is now!!”

  15. #15 by oknyua on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 10:59 am

    “The staffs are as good/bad as the boss” – remember that saying? I have been working with various races; there is no such thing as one race lazy or stupid (bodoh) as compared to another. I have worked with good Indian, Malays and Chinese. But I have sacked them as well.

    One incidence I remember where this Malay girl kept on berating the licensing department. According to her, no one was at the counter; they were busy doing direct selling behind. “We are doing business and where do I have the time to wait until they completed their sales before attending to me.” Our frustration is also their frustration.

    In the early years of Mahathir/Musa team, Musa used to drop at govt depts unannounced – those scenes captured in Lat’s cartoon. Mahathir work habit became the standard for govt servants, things like no tea-break. YB Lim should remember those years as he then, I think, was in the same wavelength as Mahathir. I used to deal a lot with the land/district office and the Majlis Perbandaran. There was a feeling of enthusiasm.

    What do you get when the PM is perceived as sleeping? What is a PM that the youngster sent bolster and pillow? Who is he that tried to explain himself using God and God’s mandate? The little Mullahs arise, of course. Being complacent and taking bribes are the standard simply because there is no alternative standard to follow. In fact sometimes I pity the govt servants – they are so uninspired.

    Yes, UMNO knows this, but their core political support comes from these govt workers. In their businesses the password is UMNO, so why should they care?

  16. #16 by valt76 on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 11:05 am

    all is very true…I just don’t get your last reference to Regan and Thatcher, that have been some of the darkest pages in the life of citizenes in their countries.

  17. #17 by jus legitimum on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 11:30 am

    When TDM became PM almost three decades ago,the stupid and cynical slogan ‘Cekap,Bersih,Amanah’ was parroted round the length and width of Malaysia.Now after wasting almost one generation of 30 years,we are still being haunted by corruption and inefficiency in the civil service.The present pathetic situation of our boleh land should irk every right thinking citizen.

  18. #18 by Jong on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 1:01 pm

    Winning the states of Florida and California makes more sense. I hope to seew Obama, in the White House, one Clinton in the White House is enough.

  19. #19 by Jong on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 1:02 pm

    oops typo error – should read “see Obama”

  20. #20 by undergrad2 on Wednesday, 13 February 2008 - 6:02 pm


    History is in the making in the United States. I wish I could be a part of that. Unfortunately I will have to wait a little longer.

    A lot of people who saw and heard Obama spoke for the first time in front of a crowd of some 16,000 people at the beginning of the campaign had their hairs stand on end! Because this is not just a candidate for the U.S. Presidential elections but a movement – and you cannot defeat a movement!

    He is looked upon by many as the black JFK. He is unstoppable! Sorry, but I hate the idea of a woman being in the Oval Office especially when she is a Clinton.

    History could be in the making too in Malaysia. We need a Malaysian Barack Obama to help make history!

  21. #21 by Jong on Thursday, 14 February 2008 - 1:57 am

    Yep, you may be right undergrad2, even Caroline Kennedy has endorsed Barack Obama.

    A Malaysian Barack Obama? I have not seen one yet, keep looking.

  22. #22 by boomingray on Thursday, 14 February 2008 - 11:23 pm

    actually these pemudah is wasting public fund!

    take for instance,DBKL is a very efficient enforcement department!
    i will tell you a “half- inch ” story!
    i remembered about 10 years ago,i went to jln.tar’s dbkl office to apply for a signboard license,immediately i saw two malay counter staff,their eyes were just staring at a gorgeous lady,i m just like invisible infront of them,never-mind,i asked them for an application form and the required documents,they said:’you sendiri baca,dalam ada tulis!”
    so without further delay,as soon as the documents were completed,i sent it to them,it was later approved!
    my contractor then installed the signboard to the facade accordingly,everything was fine,untill one day (about 1 month later),i received a ticket from dbkl!fined for rm120!
    i angryly went to dbkl,the officer in-charged was a malay madam,talking thru a phone,i supposed with her ex-colleague,chitchitchatchat,dingdingdong,blablablabla for about 20 minutes!i was also like a transparentman infront of her!i couldnt tahan and scolded her directly!her male’s colleague(malay too,the staff inside almost 100% malays!) was trying to quarrel with me too!i said :”u mau gosip u balek rumah gosip sampai malamlah!i ada urusan ini!parking kereta i taruk setengah jam,kena saman u bayarke?”,reluctantly,she asked me to sit,i said”apa pasal u punya (i purposely being rude to her,i rily mad at her the way she ignored me just now)staff kasi i saman?kan u dah lulus?”
    she took over the ticket and read,”ini salah you!itu perkataaan alat-alat komunikasi kalau gantung tingkat bawah,kena 3 inci,kalau
    tingkat 1,kena 3 1/2 inci!”,i stunned for a while,”mengapa tak tulis terang-2 di borang?tinkat 14 berapa inci?tingkat 28 berapa inci?u punya staff tengok makwa pandailah,tak bagi taupun!u ingat kita hari-2 pohon ke?saman ini bukan salah saya,salah u orang!”,she replied”ini macam,you buat satu surat rayuan,i kasi setengah,habis cerita!”,i looked at her ,dont know wanted to smile or cry,bcos got another appointment,i have no choice to settle it,right on the spot!

  23. #23 by lopez on Tuesday, 21 October 2008 - 9:24 pm

    As officers posted outstation, they are paid an aloowance, but quite normal the rental is paid by supporters.

    So is this true civil servants get perks like that and drive hond accords around and no need to sign in for work….and when under pressure uses their position and influence to make trouble to other honest living souls.

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