Change In Malaysia – Please, Just Fix The Saddle!
Reform – Separation of Executive – Legislative and Judiciary. These are some of the current buzz words in our political discourse in Malaysia these days. In the last three weeks since my country installed a new government with a new political party, after 61 years of the same, we have seen many revelations, many changes. We have witnessed heartbreaks, sighs of relief and breaths of hope all in one. Yet there is an undercurrent of cautious optimism for many with the new government – who are trying to get the country back on an even keel.
Optimism, I would conclude.
The cautionary tale – in this cautionary sentiment – will hinge on how it implements long-term structural reforms. Whilst there are councils of many, magnitude of ideas for change anew – there is yet a clear roadmap on HOW the change will be implemented; or at least one that the man on the streets can simplistically understand. We just know change of some form is on its way. No one knows the how yet.
Early days, some may argue.
Whilst ideas flow from gilded vases, note to self – the people who will be implementing these ideas and plans are the same – the 1.6 million civil servants. They were there in the reigns of the 4th, the 5th, the 6thand now the 7th prime minister bar those who left for natural reasons. The civil service culture that was censured during the recent election campaigns by the then opposition (now government) remain the same, because the people are simply the same. Yes, they have moved a few people here and there, but that does not culminate cultural change. It does not change the belief system and it most definitely has not remoulded the existing and prevailing value system. What has happened thus far is the riders have changed.
On a text book level culture is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes, and behaviours shared by a group of people. These behaviours on an institutional level is usually moulded through how one is measured. People behave the way they are measured. The way they are rewarded. Hence a quote that says – “Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave”.
Why was Aung San Suu Kyi so inspiring to many as was Barack Obama? Why did South Africa see a President Jacob Zuma after the reign of a great leader like the late Nelson Mandela? Why? Because we built a pedestal of expectation for these people. We thought Suu Kyi would do wonders for the less privileged and persecuted, for she was persecuted herself. But her silence in the face of thousands of persecuted Roghinyas left the world aghast and she was severely criticised. We could not understand her failure to act. Why?
When Barack Obama started his Egypt speech with “Assalamualaikum” – (peace be upon you in Arabic) – in Cairo in 2009, promising a new beginning between the USA – Muslim world relations, the world and especially the Middle East was thawed and mesmerised by him. Simply put – in awe. The world could not get enough of him and yet, eight years later when he left office, US military forces have been at war for all eight years of Obama’s tenure. He launched air strikes or military raids in at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan (see here). He was said to have recorded most numbers of wars with Muslim countries compared to other US presidents and, yes, even compared to George Bush junior. It was during Obama’s reign that we had the 1% Movement, large bail outs of American Too-Big-to-Fail companies and the African American issues with law enforcement officers.
All of this somewhat culminated to a succession of a president like Donald Trump today. The same could be said about Mandela who was subsequently succeeded by the likes of Jacob Zuma, who was mired in corruption. How can such leaders who inspire awe in us be succeeded by leaders who many despise? Perhaps this is a rhetorical question. They inspired just that – AWE! And we were so awestruck by them that we did not closely scrutinise their on the ground action until it was perhaps too late.
Change is a mind boggling phenomenon. We want change, we call for change and then we list the kinds of laws and regulations that need to be implemented and/or repealed to ensure that change – yet the one thing we do not change are the people who are key to that change. We do not transform their skill sets, their thinking, their aptitude and really their abilities to execute the lasting change. The current leaders in Malaysia have ordered civil servants to buck up. But how can they buck up when the skills are the same, the tools are the same and the means are the same? How can they buck up to compete with international players when all parameters remain the same?
Today, we have high-level panels formed to review policies, laws and regulations that require changing. I am certain and know without a doubt the end product of all these councils and meetings will result in a gold gilded documents of great plans and strategies. But there is a real chance of these invaluable work being decimated if the mindsets of the people who will ultimately be implementing them are not concurrently changed, not synchronously upskilled.
I liken my argument to a beast rider. Without the beast we will not be going anywhere, without the rider we don’t know where we are going, and without the saddle the rider will fall off the beast and there is no journey to ride. We have a new rider today and a healthier beast. But we need to fix the saddle. The civil service is the saddle in this analogy. In these stack of separation of powers – i.e. executive, legislative and judiciary – where exactly does the 1.6 million civil servants sit and exactly what are the separation of powers between them and the executive (politicians and law makers). That remains unclear and it is different to each democracy around the world. The General Orders for Public Services need to be reviewed. The structures of talent building and up skilling needs work. The whole agenda of integrity and work culture needs to be reawakened. Tracking of governance needs to have a place in this new environment.
Malaysia needs a strong and independent civil service that will function regardless of who takes the government tomorrow. The UK has successfully operated in the face of many changes in governments and referendums. The same can be said about many Western democracies. No matter the government, the civil service remained solid enabling the country to run smoothly. When President Trump took on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, they had officers there who stood up to him and were undaunted by his challenges – the President of the United States – the most powerful man in the world. They stood for what was right by their job. In 2011 during the tenure of Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary at Downing Street (chief secretary in the context of Malaysia), decided that Whitehall’s most senior civil servants will be given rights to inform the cabinet secretary and the prime minister if a minister ignores their advice on procedures in their department The tightening of the rules was accepted by Downing Street after O’Donnell found a series of breaches of the ministerial code (see here).
During the campaigning of the 14th general elections in Malaysia, some civil servants and members of government-linked companies were clearly on the campaign trail. This was a clear breach of the General Orders for Public Service and yet they went ahead. It is acts like these that erode trust in our government. When trust is eroded, no matter what programmes and actions the government takes, there will always be an element of doubt on the part of general public.
When we have a culture that is driven by fear and favour, and not by honour and pride, trust naturally erodes and the trust deficit in our civil service today is not at its highest. It needs repairing. It needs fixing. The civil service and all the government-linked companies need repairing – in its culture. There is clearly two ways of doing this – one by order and the other organically. The former can be done fast but will only last to the next elections and eventually destroy the service altogether whilst the latter will build a robust service, even if it takes a bit longer to implement.
No amount of strategy to fix the country will work unless you fix the saddle – the civil service – failing which you risk degenerating and falling. As writer Peter Drucker famously said – Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch –, this will most certainly come to fruition for us here in Malaysia if we do not conclusively fix the culture and value system in our civil service at all levels. The strongest legacy this government can leave behind is giving Malaysia back its strong and apolitical civil service again failing which we will be left as awestruck towards as many leaders who have come and gone, with not much to show on the ground and our perennial problems continuing to haunt us for generations to come.