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The Sun, 29 January 2008
R. Nadeswaran and Terence Fernandez
Over the past year, Pemudah – the high level public-private panel to reform the delivery system – has brought hope to an apparently incorrigible bureaucracy. panel member Westport executive chairman Tan Sri G. Gnanalingam tells R. Nadeswaran and Terence Fernandez why things can only get better in the civil service.

IT has been a year since Pemudah’s inception. What have you to say to the skeptics?

As you can see, a series of things have already been done. We are announcing a few more of them now, and there will be a lot more in the pipeline. We remain confident that things will change and we will do it. You can see for yourself when you walk into most government departments.

Could you outline some of these achievements?

You can see some changes in the speed of income tax returns from 30 days to two weeks. Approving work passes for expatriates has also been expedited with a maximum seven days for approvals. The speed in doing business is also very significant. The CCM (Companies Commission of Malaysia) for instance has reduced the time it takes to register a new business from three days to just an hour!

So you see, we have plucked the low-lying fruits. Now we will go higher up the tree to pluck the fruits up there!

How do 24 people set out to change the mindset of 1.2 million?

Changing mindset is not the issue. If you get the system in place, then you create the opportunity to work within the system – not around it!

Another way is simply not letting them perform like they did before.

To me corruption is the function of time and discretion. If you have the time to delay and the discretion to deliver, then you breed corruption. If the time is shortened and the discretion removed, then you also remove risks of corruption.

If you can get your passport in one day as is the case now, who do you want to pay money to, to expedite your application? Those days, one week. If you pay someone you will probably get it in three days!

You tell me, who’s going to corrupt people if you can get your passport in one day?

We are changing mindsets also by making procedures that are clear and transparent for everybody.

We need to cut the gravy train. If we can get local councils to cut time for CF (certificate of fitness) approvals for instance, it would help reduce the instances of those who will take advantage of the flaw in the system.

Why did Pemudah succeed when previous initiatives failed?

We are blessed to be led by an ex-civil servant. Pak Lah (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) is from the system and understands the problems. He wants to attack this on two fronts – he owes the citizens of this country a good delivery system, and he wants the civil service itself to regain its self-respect.

As far as I am concerned, I 100% believe in such reasoning and another 100% I believe in is that we have the right team of people in Pemudah to implement these policies and measures.

I have to say that the KSN (Chief Secretary to the Government) Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan, Tan Sri Ismail (Adam, director-general of public services) and the KSUs (secretary-generals) … all those guys are quite keen. They themselves are tired of this (negative) image of the civil service of which they are a part of, and they think it is not very difficult to overcome these issues and they should be given the credit for that. As far as I’m concerned the public sector is only a catalyst – they only expedite the decisions that have been made at the top.

Like I had said previously, why not give the coffee shops licences for five years, for 10 years…. Why not for life?

Then the approving authority will argue that they won’t be able to get revenue …

Yes! But they have to be very open-minded about these things. I have dealt with civil servants all my life. I tell you this bunch of people (in Pemudah) are very committed and Pak Lah had done the right thing by extending the KSN for another two years. So we have two very good ingredients – an ex-civil servant leading the government and the right civil servant leading the service.

The top is of a different wavelength from the ground. Is there resistance to change (in mindset)? They are so set in their ways. This is a decades’ old system.

There is no reluctance at the top level. Absolutely no reluctance! The D-Gs (director-generals), the KSUs, no reluctance whatsoever. The problem is down the line.

You mean the ones who are actually dealing with the public? Why? The message does not trickle down to them? They refuse to adhere?

We have to get the message to them. That’s why we are publishing notices (in the papers), that’s why the KSN spoke to you, why I am talking to you now!

Every citizen is informed and every civil servant is also informed. We owe it to both the citizens and the civil servants. That’s why we are coming up with these advertisements in all papers so that they get the message. Our commitment is to every citizen and civil servant. If we mean it we should just do it!

Rehabilitate or terminate? Carrot or stick? Which are more effective? The KSN has demoted top officials even!

Down the line is much easier to punish! If you take action against a KSU, for instance, the minister might want him, but the KSN can tell the prime minister: “Look, that guy is not performing, we have to move him”. And I don’t think anyone will go against the PM!

OK. What are the causes of the decline in our competitiveness?

The world is becoming more competitive. There are countries emerging which are becoming more attractive. For example the US is losing to China in production. People are going to China because China is arbitraging on the indices of the world in terms of production. It’s not only Malaysians, you know! People are going to India for IT because Indians are arbitraging on the whole world!

As Ismail Adam says, “it’s not business as usual”!

We have to become more competitive. And when we become more competitive we find there are more issues – how many work permits can you get, how long does it take to get a licence for this, a licence for that … these are factors which will decide how competitive we are and we should try to improve.

Are our protectionist policies part of the reason why we are a less favourable option?

What protectionist policies are you talking about? IDR (Iskandar Development Region)? We say “100% all of you come”, Eastern Corridor, Northern Corridor, Sabah Corridor … we say “all please come”, so who are we protecting?

The one’s who want protection are the ones grumbling (not competitive enough). They are screaming their heads off asking for protection! It’s not protection policy. We were never protective!

Well, we were protective until now. Protectionism is the first casualty of globalisation.

No! Even the last 20 years, what were we protecting? The (national) car?

As a businessman yourself, what do you tell your foreign counterparts and partners?

I tell them in spite of what you call “protectionist policies” the government was still able to achieve 6% growth.

You are optimistic that we will improve on the World Bank’s Doing Business Report from the current 24th place to 10th by the end of the decade.

The reason why we have improved is because we have highlighted to the World Bank all the improvements we have made, and they were quite impressed. For example, our infrastructure: in Malaysia we have excellent infrastructure. These are important considerations. I highlighted to them our roads, our ports, airports. We have won awards every year for our infrastructure. We have enough electricity, enough water, enough power, enough communications systems, enough multimedia … what else do you want?

But the infrastructure alone is not enough if you don’t have the right systems and people in place to operate the infrastructure.

No … when you compare (in this instance), you must compare with say, Thailand. You cannot say Thailand is better than Malaysia in terms of infrastructure … that they are more competitive than me?

The Bangladeshi prime minister once said, instead of bringing 500,000 workers to Malaysia, why don’t you just move your factories to Bangladesh?

How do we move there, where there is no power, no fax machine, no telecommunications, no roads, no ports … ?

I have a story to tell you: One day I was woken up by a phone call at 2am! The guy was screaming his head off, complaining that he had been waiting two hours to berth his ship.

I asked him if he was within the window (i.e. if he was on time) … and of course he was not. So I asked him, where were you coming from? He said Bangladesh. How long did you wait there? TEN DAYS. And he is screaming his head off over two hours! And I said: “Dey! What’s wrong with you? There you can spend 10 days, here two hours you cannot?

That’s the expectation of people. It is the norm to wait for 10 days in Bangladesh, but not two hours here. So, in a way it is an indication that we are so much better than most countries.

Now, issues with most MNCs and even local companies concern visas and permits for their foreign workers. But how much of these are the fault of the system and how much of it is the fault of the applicant?

Ninety per cent is the system, but of course the applicant is also to blame.

This comes down to the middle-man. He wants to squeeze as much as possible, so delay here, delay there unless you pay something …

About RM2,000 to RM7,000 (to get a work permit processed). The KSN was shocked when I told him that this is how much it takes to organise visas and permits.

But why pay? The private sector also contributed to the rot! Doing business in Malaysia is expensive due to the hidden costs, the various approving agencies, not to mention the existence of agents, rent-seekers and patronage. What is being done to eliminate these unhealthy components which have become part and parcel of our commerce?

KSN has said it: “Don’t go to middle men, don’t use touts”.

That’s why we are encouraging and initiating online payment and online applications to eliminate these middle men.

Time is money. As long as the system is not improved, businessmen will be willing to pay the middle-men to expedite business.

To me there are three things – timing is one, discretionary powers is one and the third one is, I think it is about time we praise them (the civil servants) so that they are motivated into doing more and being better.

What about benefits, the “carrot”?

Look at Singapore, the public sector is as attractive as the private sector, so you get the best people in both the private and public sectors. You give graduates and the best brains an option to join the civil service. As far as the administration is concerned, this is being addressed. You must also look at the Key Performance Indicators (KPI), then rewards and punishment will follow.

But the system must be clear about everyone’s role, and then there will be no ambiguity. Everyone will know what their responsibilities are. Then he will know his job, but if he still doesn’t want to do it, then murder him! If he doesn’t know, then why murder him?

Getting information is among the main issues affecting the public. How do we improve on the disseminating of information?

The One Stop Centres (OSC) … the building approval plans … I don’t think you can have a better communications system than that.

About 500 civil servants, every MB (mentri besar), half the federal ministers, all the top civil servants were on stage (during the launch of the OSC guidelines booklet) and Pak Lah read it (the policy) out and (Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Seri) Ong Ka Ting outlined what needs to be done. Pak Lah handed the booklets to all the mentris besar and said don’t blame the postal service … and every District Officer was also given a booklet.

That’s why a lot of them are crying now. They have lost their source of income with the establishment of OSCs. The old system: health department, planning department … all can collect. Now only one fellow collects, so there is still resistance to implementing it.

You have to remove people-lah. Ismail Adam and Sidek, have moved people, demoted them.

Little Napoleons are still the bane of the civil service. How do you suggest we get rid of them when they are acting at the behest of powerful politicians?

Little Napoleons do exist but to be fair to the KSUs and the KSN, they need concrete evidence to take action. They need the time, the place, the name of the person and the issue. Until then, it is all hearsay.

Like what we told Tan Sri Sidek (in a previous interview), at the Federal level, he will have little problems. In fact you can see the improvements at federal level, IRB, NRD, Immigration. But the problem is at the local level. This is where the big issues are, politicians, warlords …

But he has gone down to Ampang, Shah Alam… he has identified the problem areas and is going down to try to improve things hands on…

But the question is this: Do we need the chief executive to go down to the ground? They (the civil servants) must realise what it is expected of them to deliver!

You see, every chief executive in the world has gone to the floor. And things don’t happen unless the chief executive goes down to the floor. They will do it but if you improve the system, you’ve solved 50% of the problem already, the other 50% is (changing) the people themselves (mindset and/or physically).

It’s not as easy as that. You look at some of the poor council heads, even the State Secretary; they’ve got Sidek in their left ear and the MB (mentri besar) in the right!

That’s not the issue…

That’s the biggest issue!

I know! What I am saying is sort out all these things first, and even if that civil servant is an MB appointee (but is) not following the rules, then we remove him. But like you said, remove him but then the guy gets appointed elsewhere …

On promotion!

Then what’s the point? As far as I’m concerned, removing someone is one issue, what happens to him after is the real issue. We want to resolve an issue. We don’t want to transplant a problem.

There’s also no point if the guy replacing him is of the same stock and does the bidding of the politicians.

You think Pak Lah does not know what’s going on? He is serious about cleaning up the system, improving it. What do you think Pemudah is all about? We have achieved so much in one year; can you imagine how much more we can achieve by next?

Miti (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) should be a benchmark of an excellent service and system, and like we told Tan Sri Sidek (who was Miti secretary-general), the Miti culture must be contagious. This culture must spread to other departments.

You know there are seven ex-Miti guys in Pemudah? That’s why I told the Prime Minister: “These are the best civil servants you can ever have”. These are the people – the men and women who want to and can change things.

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