Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #62

By M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 7: Enhancing Human Capital

Competition in the Public service

There should also be competition in the public service and society. Today for example, admission into the public administrative service is almost exclusively from the liberal arts stream. Widen the talent pool to include anyone with a degree; actively sought engineering and science graduate. With their quantitative skills they would make excellent managers.

Promotions within the civil service are exclusively from within, hence its present intellectual and professional insularity. Revamp the personnel policies that state you must have five years seniority before you can be promoted to a senior management (“superscale”) position. This unduly restricts the much-needed infusion of fresh talent at the upper levels. When one examines the resume of the heads of ministries (Secretaries General), they are almost always liberal arts graduates even in those ministries with high technical component like the Energy, Public Works, and Transportation. I would have thought that an MBA in finance would be the necessary qualification for a senior position at Treasury, but few in that department have this qualification. Thus this embarrassing response from a former senior Treasury official I met recently when we were discussing interest rates, “An interest rate hike of 5 to 6 percent represented only a 1 percent raise!” To those with even the minimal understanding of simple arithmetic, that represented a massive 20 percent hike!

Instances like this make me recommend that the next time a senior position in the civil service becomes vacant, the government should open up the recruitment process. Consider candidates from the private sector and academia, instead of relying exclusively from within.

Malaysia has gone a long way in its privatization projects. But unlike Britain and America where these projects are awarded based on competitive bidding, in Malaysia they are awarded solely at the discretion of the minister. He or she alone presumes to know who would be successful in running the new entities. Unfortunately the track record thus far has been abysmal, from MAS to sewerage water treatment facilities and steel plants. No surprise then that many of these projects have been abject failures, costing the taxpayers a hefty bundle.

Had the government awarded these projects based on open competition, not only would the government have received considerably more for its valuable assets, but those projects would more likely end up in competent hands. Even if the government were intent on giving them to Bumiputras to satisfy its NEP goals, it should still have open competition to pick the best candidate, albeit the competition would be limited only to Bumiputras.

Preferably I would open the competition to all, including foreigners. If in the end the government were to award the project to its favorite Bumiputra, at least it would have known how much more of a premium that decision would have cost the government. This would also keep the winning Bumiputra from being smug and acquiring a highly inflated sense of his or her capability.

Lastly, if Malaysia is to be competitive, it must reward those citizens who have proven themselves successful and competitive. Earlier I alluded to the royal honor lists, but there are many other ways in which to reward successful citizens. For example, every year the nation continually laments on the lack of Malays in science, and every year yet another novel scheme introduced to induce Malays to pursue the subject. But the results remain disappointing. The reason of course Malaysia does not reward those Malays already in science.

Suppose instead of endlessly exhorting young Malays to take up science, our leaders instead visit the universities and pick those Malays with outstanding PhDs in the sciences and appoint them to the board of directors of the multitude of government-owned companies like Petronas, Pernas, and Renong. For one, these PhDs would be, as a group, a lot smarter and faster learner than the usual civil servants and politicians currently appointed to those positions. These smart individuals would also better protect the taxpayers’ interest. Two, the nation would be sending an important message to these Malay scientists and engineers. The nation cannot pay them extra as professors (the history professors too would want similar treatment) but it can reward them financially by appointing them to these boards. That message would later filter down to the young. That would prove to be a far stronger motivator than all the endless fiery rhetoric.

When I examine the boards of many government-sponsored companies that have failed, invariably they are made up of mediocre Malays from the civil service and political establishment. The most spectacular corporate failure was of course Bank Bumiputra, the very symbol of Bumiputra participation in the modern economy. Look at its board. Had the authorities appointed brilliant Malay scientists and engineers, the fate of that institution would be far different.

Thus to create a new breed of competitive Malaysians, they, especially Malays, must be exposed to greater, not less, competition. Competition must be a regular event in their lives. I can use the example of picking the best athletes. First there would be competition at the local village or school level. At school, there would be competition within, as between classes and houses. Then the winners would move on to the next level, between villagers or schools. From there the winners would go on to the state level, and then on to the national and international levels. At every level we should not be surprised with upsets or new stars being born. It would be presumptuous for a coach or athletic director to earmark someone from the village and immediately groom him for a national meet, no matter how promising the candidate looks. He has to prove himself in a real competition first. And only if he shines there would he then be taken to the next level.

Competition does not simply mean gauging one’s performance against another competitor. One can compete against oneself. Take the example of the track athlete. He may not win or be the first in his league for the 100-yard dash, but by taking part in the competition, he would find that his time this year would be better than last year’s. And if he continues with his training and competition, his personal time the following year would again be better. The object of competition is not necessarily to be to first or to beat the next fellow, rather to bring out the best in each one of us.

To enhance this competitive habit, the social institutions and culture must also be geared to encourage and reward this trait. How that can be achieved would be the subject of my next chapter. Before proceeding to that, some final thought on the flip side of competition. Invariably in any competition, there will be those who would fail. Society must address this inevitable consequence. A society’s attitude towards failure and those who fail will have a significant bearing on encouraging risk taking and success. Failure is the other side of success. You cannot have success if you do not have failures. The remarkable aspect about America is that failure is not looked upon derogatively. Even a financial bankrupt will have, after a few years, a clean slate. Thus failure is viewed not as a permanent state, rather a stage. He or she is given every opportunity to pull out of it.

One of the wonderful aspects of the American educational system is that every school has an adult program to cater to those who have missed out or failed earlier. Universities too, as mentioned earlier, have extension or “General Studies” division to cater to non-traditional students. The typical American undergraduate could (and indeed many do) take a year or two off to travel or work, without losing their academic credits. Similarly, failing students could retake their courses, change their major, or take time out to rethink matters. The system is very forgiving. There are many second chances.

At the social level, the various social safety net programs are meant to take care of those dislocated or who stumbled. As Malaysia enters globalization, one thing is certain, many of her citizens will be dislocated. The state must do its part to take care of them. Malaysia already has an excellent pubic health care system. It is not luxurious but is adequate. The waiting lines may be long and the service often wanting, but no one is turned away. Similarly, Malaysia has the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF). I would extend that to include all workers including those self employed in the “informal sector” (hawkers, fishermen) by making it attractive for them to participate. I would also extend EPF beyond being simply a retirement fund to become a disability and unemployment insurance program.

In weaving an adequate social safety net however, it is important that Malaysia does not copy the examples of Western Europe and America by making it too comfortable or generous. As one wag had put it, the surest way to ensure unemployment is to have unemployment insurance! The safety net should take care of only the basic needs. Too comfortable a safety net, and you will have a hammock.

With a safety net in place, citizens could have peace of mind; then they would more likely take on challenges and risks. But the greatest safety net of all is the support of close family and friends. One danger of a generous social security program is that it breaks down familial ties, as is happening in America. Adult children, knowing that their parents would be taken care of by the state, abrogate their filial responsibilities. In the next chapter I will expand on the influence of the family on society and vice versa.

While Malaysia must strive to increase competition among its citizens by rewarding those who succeed, it must also ensure that those who fail be given ample second chances.

Next: Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership

  1. #1 by k1980 on Wednesday, 27 April 2011 - 7:57 am

    //The typical American undergraduate could take a year or two off to travel or work, without losing their academic credits. Similarly, failing students could retake their courses, change their major, or take time out to rethink matters. The system is very forgiving. There are many second chances.//

    Malaysia’s is even better. Look at saifool the lubang, who was kicked out of universiti malaya for low academic achievement, and yet could go to the PM’s office to apply for yet another scholarship to further his “studies”

  2. #2 by waterfrontcoolie on Wednesday, 27 April 2011 - 8:08 am

    What we need are capable ‘students’ whether arts or science graduates. I see that down south, graduates from all fields are employed by their banks. To go up, just prove yourself in the sector you are good at; otherwise try somewhere else! Here you are signed up for life!!! Short of you are caught for corruption, even then you are likely to be reposted; unless you are on the wrong political divide. Just ask another ho have been in negotiations with civil servants; you always start from Lesson 1; a Ting-ting man at every meeting on the same subject!
    Though, the chances of getting a thinking-man with PhD are a lot better than the current Ministers, there is no guarantee that those egg-heads would be very practical in their approach, based on those we came across in our dealings; many just repeat their course works!!

  3. #3 by dagen on Wednesday, 27 April 2011 - 9:05 am

    Stupid umno is still stuck in the fifties. Those formative years when umno fought (then, genuinely) for the malays. Today, umno is still talking about the very same thing – figthing for malay rights (but much much less genuinely for malays to umno today means umnoputras, a new and truly supreme race).

    And mca too. After so many decades, mca is still stuck to the same chinese primary school issue. Likewise, mic. Not that this issue is unimportant but that the party ought to have moved on to new grounds. But hey, if you think about it, this issue is also being prolonged by umno – by their constant demands for ban of such schools, their ridiculously and heavily lopsided treatment of such schools, etc etc. Another fine example of umno’s time-defying perversion. So we have, again, umno to thank for keeping mca stuck to just one issue for so so long.

    Meanwhile DAP, being free of the stupid umno shackle, has moved on. DAP is now talking about good governance, transparency of administration, fundamental rights and equality, environment and, yes, natives’ rights. Umno and gang were left to play catching up.

    There is another “new” issue DAP may want to take a good look at. This one, I suspect, affects (or will affect) the malays more than the rest. There are noticeably more foreigners in the city these days. I am referring to mat sallehs of course, to those mat sallehs who are working here. They are here, I suspect, because life must be bumpy for them, back home. Anyway. And whatever. Now, after 5 decades of brain washing by umno and 4 decades of dependance on clutches, the common malays today generally (just my own general perception ok so no insult intended) felt inferior to the rest, particularly the chinese in malaysia. (Do you see where my comment is heading?) What more now, and certainly more so in the future, when they see more mat sallehs about the city? Feeling threatened by the chinese is already enough to send perkasa into a wild and mad public orgy. The presence of mat sallehs would only worsen their fear and inferiority complex.

  4. #4 by sheriff singh on Wednesday, 27 April 2011 - 10:04 am

    The poor talent pool, the internal promotions of mediocre, ill-educated people, lack of talent and initiative etc etc is the result of 55 years of ‘in-breeding’ where the genes are now of very poor quality. It is also a reflection of our education system where our university factories churn out dungus who cannot think and speak even.

    This is deliberately done so that the feeble minded civil servants will always be dependent on their political masters (who are no better actually) for everything and can be controlled easily.

    Further, these pencil-pushers are an obedient, non-thinking lot who can be counted on to put a ‘cross’ in the right place on the ballot papers.

    For their obedience without thinking, they will be rewarded with pingats and largesse.

    Notice how many of them live very comfortably and are excessively obese? Why combat obesity in schools when they should be combating them in the civil service?

    Have you seen how overweight all our ministers are? Many of them already have health problems from the good life and not from inheritance. No doubt they have already passed on their health problems to their next generations.

    With such poor quality pool of incompetent staff, (some called it a cess-pool), is it not a wonder that all the real thinking are out-sourced to the many ‘consultants’ who earn tons and tons of money? They are all laughing all the way to their banks and silently laughing at the goons who run the government who literally outsource everything because of their incompetencies.


  5. #5 by tak tahan on Wednesday, 27 April 2011 - 10:30 am

    En Bakri,in order to put your ideas into practical action,it’s totally Mission Impossible to implement it with umno’ admistration after these donkey or monkey years.On top of that,the actual global competition doesn’t even have space or kind consideration for your alternate proposition of the most capable malays within the community itself.Are we going global or malay era of competttition?

  6. #6 by hallo on Wednesday, 27 April 2011 - 2:08 pm

    The word ‘Ma_lay’ in the link

    The baby boy name Malay comes from the Indian word which means, “Unknown.” Sanskrit word which means, “Meaning of MALAY is slowly flowing wind..” Bengali word which means, “Breeze.”

    Is that any further explanation we can find?

  7. #7 by waterfrontcoolie on Wednesday, 27 April 2011 - 5:33 pm

    It would be interesting to read the World Bank Report on Malaysia for its edition on Competitiveness:
    ” Malaysia drops two places to 26th position this year [2011] with a relatively stable performance since last year. The country has a ell-developed financial market [7th], Malaysia also does relatively well in complex categories, which matters the most for advanced economies, namely buisness sophistication [25th] and innovation [24th]boding well for the future.
    The 4 year declien in the quality of institutions that pushed Malaysia from the 17th to the 43rd has finally come to a halt, with the country remaining stable at 42th place this year.
    The main drag within this pillar remains the security situation [ 80th, up by five]. In order to improve competitiveness further, Malaysia will need to improve its higher education system, with particularly low enrollment rate at the secondary and tertiary levels”.
    The little DOt south of the Causeway did 3rd position overall!

  8. #8 by k1980 on Thursday, 28 April 2011 - 9:25 am

    Pay RM2,000 for the right to punch and kick any HM you dislike

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