Home 2007: 1 The fools in developing societies

The fools in developing societies

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Syed Hussein Alatas shows that mismanagement, corruption, dowdiness and incompetence are not something new but have been with us for decades without any meaningful remedy or lessons being learnt.

The following are excepts from his book Intellectuals in Developing Societies:

•    The essential characteristics of a fool are that (1) he is not able to recognise problems; (2) if told to him he is not able to solve them; (3) he is not able to learn what is required; (4) he is also not able to learn the art of learning; (5) he usually does not admit he is a fool.

•    It is usually in times of crisis that the fool is exposed.  We are not here speaking of ordinary simpletons but the covertly disguised fools, the member of parliament, the cabinet minister, the lawyer, the physician, the historian, the economist, the sociologist, and others, whose membership of the species of fool is somewhat camouflaged by the training and education they receive.  It is these fools who require a crisis to expose them.  Our concept of the fool is relative here to the functional assignment.  A military commander may be a good photographer but on the battle-field he may be a fool.  A minister may be a good golf player but in his ministerial work he may be a big fool.

•    In the developing societies four types of administrators and political power holders can be found.  They are (1)the intelligent and honest; (2) the intelligent and dishonest; (3) foolish and honest; (4) the foolish and dishonest.

•    In 1963, crockery and cutlery for the Malayan Students’ Hostel in Cairo were bought in Kuala Lumpur at the cost of $6,342.10.  The freight charges to Cairo were $3,389,90.  It was discovered that these items could be obtained in Cairo for much less than in Kuala Lumpur.  Who but a fool would buy such things and pay more than 50 per cent of the cost for freight when they were available on the spot at a lower price?  Furthermore, 350 place settings were purchased but the hostel accommodated only 150 students.  Somewhere along the line of the decision-making process a fool engraved the imprint of his brain.  The result, the Malaysian government lost a few thousand dollars at the stroke of one fool’s pen.  

•    In 1956 it was revealed that the piling estimate for the construction of a Post Office in Malacca, $35,000, was inadequate.  However, in 1961, a contract for the piling work was entered into for the sum of $26,000 without reference, apparently, to the technical information previously obtained.  In March 1962 two variation orders for a total of $49,557.77 were issued for the purpose of extending piling work from 40 to 80 feet.  Two further orders were issued in February 1963 to extend piling work from 80 to 95 feet for a further sum of $22,017.66 by the Director of Public Works.  The contract, scheduled for February 1962, was completed in May 1963 at a total cost of $97,575.43.  Thus this building was piled three times because the initial piling work was based on a wrong estimate.  The cost for piling could have been reduced if the correct estimate had been drawn up in the first place. As in previous cases the hand of the fool showed itself somewhere along the line of the decision-making process.

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•    In December 1964, the Malaysian government entered into a contract to construct a dredger at the cost of $1,893,316.13.

    The dredger was received in April 1967 after a delay of almost a year because of the late arrival of equipment from outside Malaysia. Two officers and 15 men who did not possess the necessary qualifications or experience were recruited to man the dredger.  Three months later, the builders reported that the dredger had been subjected to considerable strain, and that further damage would result if operations were continued. They also disclaimed responsibility for any damage arising from handling by inexperienced personnel.  Since July 1967, the dredger is lying idle for want of an experienced dredge-master.  The services of the crew are being retained at an approximate cost of $3,700 per month.  Since August 1966, the Department has sought the services of foreign experts to train the staff, but so far as I am aware, there has been no progress. (Laporan Juru Odit Negara Kerajaan Persekutuan 1966, pp 140-141) – LJONKP.

•    An expenditure of nearly $1.9 million, one might have expected, would be properly appraised.  Only a fool would allow unqualified personnel to man the dredger to the point of considerable strain.  The question here is, who should be held responsible?  Somewhere along the line the fool appeared.

•    Another remarkable instance of the working of the fool was the Police Field Force five-storey building in Tanjong Rambultan.  To begin with, payments for piling works were made in excess of the actual lengths of piles driven in.  ‘The investigtions have now been completed and overpay-ments totalling $255,179.40 together with the test expenditure of $16,166.90 have now been recovered from the contractor.  The tilted five-storey building was strengthened with additional piling at a cost of $228,800.  Although this work was completed in October 1967, the building was not occupied until June 1969 as the building was apparently under observation by the Public Works Department during this period for any further tilting.’(LJONKP 1968, p.165)  Somewhere here the mind of the fool was at work.  It miscalculated the work to be done, resulting in a tilted five-storey building.  Thereafter the Public Works Department found it necessary to engage in building watching for twenty months.

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•    During the years 1965, 1966 and 1967, the Telecommunications Department lost 1,662 cases of copper wire, weighing 598,556 pounds, valued at $926,844.20.  No government officer was considered responsible for these losses. Preventive steps taken by the department were not entirely successful.  This again shows the working of the fool.  The losses started in 1965. If adequate preventive steps had been taken, it would have been possible to reduce the losses if not to prevent them entirely.  Here the situation appears to result from the cumulative effect of anonymous fools along the path of the decision-making process.  Cases of this sort are numerous in the government where fools collectively influence the state of  affairs.  The loss arising out of inefficiency is great.

•    The Auditor-General’s reports contain many other instances of inefficiency and bad planning.  In a number of them one can suspect corruption at work.  But even here, the fool and the intelligent person each leaves a different imprint.  The corruption of a fool can easily be detected.  It is true that we should not attribute everything that happens to the fools.  Nevertheless they do exert considerable influence.  When a cabinet is dominated by fools, it cannot function as an effective body.  Similarly, when a ministry is dominated by fools, it cannot function effectively.  Problems multiply without solutions for them being sought.

•    In many developing societies the problem of developmental lag is often due to the combined effort of the fools and the corrupt.  We are here concerned with the fools.  It is their predominance in the developing societies that blocks the emergence of a functioning intellectual group.  The fools decide what should be of interest to the nation.  They are found in the different levels of administration.  They occupy seats in parliament in those countries with some representation.  They control the press and invade the teaching institutions.  They do not exert creative pressures.  They do not create a higher standard in their respective undertakings.  They write but they do not think.  They follow the line of least resistance, and they imitate because imitation is easy and does not require critical selection.

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•    The growth of other groups would have to be stopped for some time until more Malays participate in commerce and industry.  The Plan does not tell us whether this is to be done.  It  does not tell us when a review would be conducted.  Hence the Plan bears the trace of the fools whose characteristic is this inability to size up the complexity of the whole situation – their desire for something without knowing its implications.  The fools have penetrated the nerve centre of planning.  With this accomplished we may speak of the revolution of the fools.

•    The fools proclaim they want an efficient administration but they get a bad one.  The fools proclaim that they want to eliminate poverty but it spreads.

•    An intelligent administration not bogged down by the retarding influence of the fools could have performed much better.

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