06 February 2009

GOVERNMENT IN ACTION: Civil service must play forceful role


THE shelving of the low-cost carrier terminal (LCCT) project at Labu, Negri Sembilan, was the right decision by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. The entire episode, however, raises a lot of questions about our planning and development procedures.

The most important issue is the flip-flop nature of the decision-making process of the administration. And this is not the first time it has happened.

We all remember the issue of the windfall tax on independent power producers. It went through the same cycle. We can go on adding to the list but it would serve no purpose.

Second, the LCCT episode highlighted the role given to key government central agencies, in particular, the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), and the Implementation and Coordination Unit (ICU) in the Prime Minister's Department in dealing with issues of national importance.

What transpired reflects the failure of such agencies as well as the Ministry of Transport to perform their appropriate roles effectively. As the national planning agency responsible for the overall resource allocation for national development, the EPU should have studied the proposal from the vantage point of national interest, objectives and priorities.
The Ministry of Transport should look at it in terms of the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of the total transportation system for the country. They must work in concert and come to a common official position before sending it to the cabinet.

This, in a nutshell, was the process followed during the 1960s and 1970s when the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein was prime minister. There was then strong central control and coordination by the central agencies, particularly the EPU and the ICU, both of which come directly under the prime minister. There was no minister put in between as there was no necessity for that.

Every major proposal, whether by the government or privately initiated, came under the scrutiny of the central agencies. There was no room for any party or sectional group to exercise undue influence by pushing or lobbying for their case by "going upstairs", as everything had to be done professionally and in a transparent manner.

The result was that the government was not only firm and decisive in making decisions, but, more importantly, it made the right decisions. And because of that, there was no wastage of national resources as we have seen in the last two decades. Above all, there was no corruption to speak of during that period.

Today, the role and importance of the central agencies has been somewhat sidelined.

The powers once vested in them have been dissipated or taken away by the emergence of other more powerful institutions created for the purpose by the previous administration. But whatever the rationale or reasons behind such moves, more often than not they became venues of convenience for promoting vested or sectional interests at the expense of national interest.

We must restore the original roles of the central agencies. The civil service culture, too, has to be reinvented. The hallmark of the civil service, in terms of neutrality, integrity and professionalism, which was almost destroyed during the previous administration, must be restored.

The civil service has become too politicised. The underpinning "service" philosophy and the motto "to serve" has given way "to serve and make money at the same time" culture.

We cannot blame the civil servants entirely because they are the product of the system itself and they, too, benefited. Integrity was sacrificed and corruption became even more rampant.

We would like to see the civil service play a more effective and forceful role in the government decision-making process from now on. The civil service should not be manned by people who are merely yes-men out to please their political masters, but by courageous and professional proactive individuals who are committed to serve and to give their professional and objective advice, without fear or favour.

For this to happen, the government must create the environment and confidence that once existed in the civil service. Admittedly this is not an easy task as it takes at least a generation to produce such people in the civil service because the top and the second echelons of the civil service to-day are products of the system and still very much embedded in that culture. But a beginning must be made and appropriate actions taken by the new leadership.

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