By M Santhananaban
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s main challenge is that he inherited an extremely difficult situation on at least two levels – bureaucratic and financial.
The bureaucracy, bloated and burgeoning, was accustomed to some mollycoddling, praise and periodic salary revisions. It was not accustomed to strict disciplinary action or measures on performance and productivity.
Productivity, meritocracy and truthfulness became secondary to obedience, obsequiousness and the need to get along with superiors and political bosses.
Helplessness with bureaucracy
Anwar has not been able to sack or remove from office a single senior bureaucrat who would willy nilly be responsible for policy blunders and some of the disasters the nation faced.
- Sign up for Aliran's free daily email updates or weekly newsletters or both
- Make a one-off donation to Persatuan Aliran Kesedaran Negara, CIMB a/c 8004240948
- Make a pledge or schedule an auto donation to Aliran every month or every quarter
- Become an Aliran member
Take, for instance, the pensions issue on which the Federal Court has ruled clearly. It is somewhat clear the government is unable to execute or implement the court’s decisive ruling. Yet, the government has failed to explain the delay in implementing the decision.
Who was responsible for creating such an atrociously anomalous, embarrassing situation where salaries were revised in 2013 without considering the public sector employees who had retired before then?
Identify the senior-most officials of the Public Services Department, the Ministry of Finance or the Attorney General’s Chambers responsible for this fiasco. They do not have to be charged, but they can be easily identified and their titles withdrawn to show that officials who commit blunders of this nature would be held responsible ultimately. It is an unkind, harsh measure but an essential one. The Tunku, it would be recalled, stripped a close associate of his of the high ‘Tun’ honorific.
Civil servants, especially those sitting in government-linked companies that have lost millions of ringgit, should also be identified as toothless tigers who did not perform their fiduciary duties satisfactorily. Publish and publicise this list of civil servants who did not perform to expectations.
Identify those who performed, acknowledge what they did and give them a well-deserved place of honour.
For those government servants still in service, impress upon them that they are servants of the people with an obligation to perform their duties diligently with unalloyed loyalty to King and country. Their obligatory duty is to provide dedicated, impartial, efficient and ethical service to every individual and institution, including NGOs.
They must realise that their work is not for their immediate workplace environment or their tainted superiors or political masters, but for the entire nation. In this way, they too would be weaned away from parochial thinking about themselves and their immediate families, friends and relatives.
The Public Service Department, in its teaching, training and instruction manuals, must inculcate this spirit of loyalty and service to the nation.
It falls on Anwar, given the country’s weak finances, to raise this issue – to obtain the maximum benefit of every ringgit spent by the entire government machinery.
This is critical as the enormous allocation for the government’s operational expenditure – partly due to an unsustainable salaries and pensions bill – leaves only a paltry sum for development expenditure.
It is time to reduce the food import bill as well. We need to have conversations on how public sector salaries and and pension benefits can be capped in the medium and long term.
Currently, according to Khazanah Research, total food imports for 2021 cost about RM79bn. This is not an alarming figure, considering that our food exports, when palm oil is included, total RM93bn.
Producing more food locally will reduce the large food import bill, create jobs, and support local farmers and fisherfolk.
True, certain food items are produced more efficiently and economically in certain countries. But this does not mean we should reduce local production of these items. The cost of food produced abroad will rise, eventually.
So, the current administration must continue to allot land for agricultural activity. Land allotted for housing and industrial purposes that remains unused may offer scope for sustainable food production activities. We seem to have vast tracts of land lying fallow.
The PM has not come out with a plan to reduce the number of foreign workers either. Over the medium term, the number has to be trimmed.
Remittances by foreign workers to their home countries do not help Malaysia’s economy or society. So this has to be one of Anwar’s priorities.
The government, both in its internal and foreign policymaking, seems to be in a state of confusion. Far too much religion has been brought into government, affecting areas like education, healthcare, intercommunity relations, sports and cultural activities.
Apart from Sabah and Sarawak, the rest of the country seems to function like an appendage of some orthodox Arab Muslim nation with dress codes, use of Arabic terms, and an unscientific, unrealistic interpretation of events in West Asia.
Malaysia occupies a strategic place in the vibrant heart of Southeast Asia. The nation enjoys a harmonious and solid relationship with Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore.
Beyond these close neighbours lie Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea.
Except for the controversial regime in Myanmar, which is caught in self-inflicted invidiousness, all the other countries share the virtuous values of an abiding Asean outlook and solidarity.
In its domestic policies, Malaysia has to explore opportunities for closer bilateral and trilateral cooperation with these neighbours. The country’s primary focus should be on our nearest neighbours – to forge understanding and the economic development of our people in these border areas.
If the PM can be persuaded to focus more on Malaysia’s domestic socioeconomic situation, to expand the government’s revenue base and to reorder the nation to its immediate Asean environment, he will be on the right track.
Hamstrung by a relatively small foreign service, a much-depreciated ringgit, depleted monetary and material reserves, and pressing domestic issues, Anwar must make calls and show by example the need for sacrifices.
The PM can ask the people to decide if we need executive jets for the nation’s leaders. Do we really want more monstrous concrete-and-glass towers in Kuala Lumpur and other major cities in Malaysia? Do we really need more private vehicles running on subsidised fuel and producing more traffic jams, accidents and fatalities on our roads?
Can we continue to cope with more mismatched people for the nation’s workforce? We need a reasonable number of English-speaking locals, a well-rounded and educated workforce and enhanced mutual trust and understanding among the people.
Contentious issues of an international, emotional or particular nature deserve our principled attention. But we must remember such issues are of peripheral significance, not a matter of life-and-death for us.
In handling these peripheral matters, we can respond in a mature, measured way with meaningful and munificent language. We should not feel besieged or betrayed by the way these distant and disturbing issues develop.
On the Palestine issue, Malaysia has taken an unequivocal stand. We have to continue with this policy and engage more constructively with the sponsors and supporters of Israel and urge them to adopt a more humanitarian approach to the Palestinian cause.
The PM should not be perceived as exposing the country to new, novel and dangerous attacks and threats to the country on account of his overexuberant espousal of any international cause, including the Palestinian issue. It is better for him to err on the side of caution and care for our beloved nation. If it takes on Tel Aviv, it will not be on a level playing field.
Anwar must realise that the country is not in the same solid financial position it was in, decades ago. He cannot be a surly second Dr Mahathir Mohamad. We spirited away from that edge a long time ago.
If asked, I would just say: “Just hang in there. Reserve the best for the home ground, Mr Prime Minister. Wait, be patient and do the home run.”
M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience. He has no political affiliations