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The Sun, 12 December 2007
R. Nadeswaran and Terence Fernandez

PETALING JAYA: The top civil servant has vowed to end the days of politicians, their cronies and “Little Napoleons” acting as puppet masters of heads of local councils. With the full backing of his boss, the Chief Secretary to the Government will start cutting off lifelines to those who have been lording over local authorities as if they were their own private kingdom.

By identifying problematic local authorities, Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan aims to not only improve on the councils’ public delivery service but to also ensure that lopsided planning, unlawful development of green lungs and open spaces and the hijacking of playgrounds by those with political connections are things of the past.

With support from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mohd Sidek advised council presidents and heads of department that they take orders from the federal leadership and not politicians.

Those who are defiant or refuse to carry out their responsibilities out of fear of politicians will face the music. “We will pull them out and deal with them,” he told theSun in an interview at his office recently.

Mohd Sidek has taken steps to improve the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council (MPAJ), rated by many as among the worst local authorities.

“You think I don’t know in MPAJ, the clerks, the directors and the deputy directors are more powerful than the president?

“You think I won’t be telling them that after this that I will pull them out if they don’t change? I am very firm with this,” he said, vowing that MPAJ will see marked improvement in six months.

Mohd Sidek said the problem needs to be addressed on a few fronts, including the training, support and rehabilitation of councillors, and to have them engage with interest groups and stakeholders.

“We need to have councils and councillors who can work effectively with residents groups and NGOs to support them in their roles,” he said, adding that ensuring local authorities adhere to the principles of consultation under Local Agenda 21 is consistent with the spirit of Pemudah, the high-powered committee he chairs which is tasked to improve the public delivery system.

He said every person in the local authority – including politicians – will now have their roles and responsibilities.

Mohd Sidek said although he has “adopted” MPAJ, he will also be heading to other parts of the Klang Valley as well as the country to fix problematic local governments.

“I am going to Klang, you complained about the coffin shop in Petaling Jaya, we are going to all of them,” he said, adding that the Anti-Corruption Agency is a partner in efforts to eradicate graft and clean up the service.

“It is going to happen. Not just to MPAJ, MBPJ (Petaling Jaya) or MPSJ (Subang Jaya), whatever ‘J’ it is, it is going to happen across the nation.”

He said it was time rules were adhered to and not bent for the powerful few. He advised council presidents and department heads to cease being pawns of these characters and implement the law, assuring them the protection of the federal government.

“The rules are written by the government. This government of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi wants you to follow it with full integrity!”

Acknowledging that the knives are being sharpened for him, Mohd Sidek said he is confident of being able to carry out his tasks as he has the backing of Abdullah.

In the public service

Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan and Director-General of the Public Services Department Tan Sri Ismail Adam tell R. Nadeswaran and Terence Fernandez that where the civil service is concerned, it is not business as usual

Facilitate not frustrate. This was the advice of the prime minister to government departments. Do you think government servants of late have lived up to the PM’s expectations?

Sidek: The PM’s expectation is clear: strengthen the public service delivery, get people who can make this happen, reward performance and punish detractors.

What is more important is to ensure we have the tools to make people attain their fullest potential. This is a challenge for any organisation. We must inculcate a culture of men with values and conscience. It is through this that all successes can then be derived.

What is key to a change of mindset to cater to the public service of the 21st Century?

Sidek: Having the right people and leadership ensures the internalisation of the mindset change needed. It has to be from top down and bottom up. There is a push to focus on implementation and enforcement. Over the last 50 years, we have accumulated enough strategies; many regulations. Where we need to strengthen is to put this at work.

The leaders we select to effect the change in mindset must be ones who are able to create a culture where we deliver what we promise and we deliver this with pride and integrity. We don’t have to be at a certain position to effect change. We don’t have to abide by status quo if it means frustrating everyone. Anyone anywhere in the service with a great idea of progress must be empowered to effect change with integrity and pride.

The adage: “always change processes and structures while they still function” is not said for nothing.

Ismail: Efforts to ensure enhanced delivery have started. It is not up to us to assess if we have met expectations. That is the role of the public. The best gauge is the rate of public complaints and dissatisfaction. Less means more!

Complaints registered may not represent satisfaction totally. The rakyat may think that it is not worth reporting hence we need to encourage a dialogue-based society. We need to place the faith back into the public that the service wants to be stood accounted.

Sidek: Take Pemudah. Looking at many of the improvements we have made thus far, we recognise that this process will require constant effort, we cannot become complacent. In the interest of time and efficiency Pemudah is focusing on the shortcomings, such as those highlighted in the World Bank Doing Business report. For this, Pemudah has established five focus groups to follow up on enforcing contracts; trading across borders; registering property; paying taxes; and closing business.

Ismail: There is a push to responding to the public through various engagement models at council levels. This is perhaps not where it should be yet, but we have started the ball rolling! Currently there is a focus on programmes that publicly declare standards that are expected of agencies. An example is the 14-day payment deadline by the Prime Minister’s Department.

What is important in the long term is that these are not a front but that they are inculcated, communicated and monitored both internally and also by the public whom are after all the customers that we are in the service of.

Sidek: The Public Complaints Bureau is also moving swiftly in partnership with our stakeholders to ensure that we are not frustrating our clients. We will ensure resolution will be faster from the current one-two months to sooner. The public has a role to play too. If we do not take up this responsibility and acknowledge our role in society, then we must recognise our complicity and guilt in allowing for the deterioration to standards of accountability.

Now, you see more letters of complaints, as people think it is worthwhile writing to the authorities or PSD. When I publicised my e-mail address, I received about 300 e-mails a day – I may not necessarily respond to all (but I read all of them) or act on them myself, but I will pass them to my colleagues to act upon them.

The departments responsible have responded very quickly.

That morning I went to MPAJ, I saw only two letters in the suggestion box. Is it because there are no complaints against MPAJ? No! It is because people feel it’s not worth complaining as no one will bother to address the complaints.

At federal level, it works very well because of the fear of the PM but at the local, state level it is different.

Sidek: I agree with you, the problem is not in KL or Putrajaya, but further into the provinces and that is where the people think the government is. The government is not the District Officer, it’s the chief clerk! That is why we need to go into the local level. On a scale of 1-10, where would you put MPAJ now?


Sidek: I’ll take a bet with you. Within six months, MPAJ will get higher than Six! You are going to lose your bet!

That’s a bet we are willing to lose but our fear is that you will be facing the warlords.

Sidek: It is going to happen. Not just to MPAJ, MBPJ or MPSJ, whatever J it is, it is going to happen across the nation. But you must remember this, there are 145 local councils; some are far from Rome. But we will do it!

Ismail: When you say about the facilitate or frustrate, you are missing out on the unsung heroes. You must not lose sight of the forest for the trees. There are a lot of other things being done by the civil service that people don’t know about. For instance, Sekinchan, Tanjung Karang is the rice bowl of Selangor. The irrigation system depends on a guy who is maybe Standard Six or at least SRP qualified. If he doesn’t open the irrigation on time, we will end up having lesser yield, but nobody writes about him!

Sidek: I always tell my brain the public service is lousy, the police must be lousy, corrupt … that’s the perception. I put myself a day in the shoes of the FRU during the Hindraf rally. Take their perspective. These are the people who are in the frontline. That day I couldn’t help but feel for the policeman. Is it necessary for Hindraf to be there? You write that the police were brutal , they take money… that is the one you media like to highlight.

It’s all about perception. We think it is changing slowly with the police for instance, but at the local level it is different. We keep getting reports of intrusion into open spaces and green lungs. Of course the perception is that we have an inefficient, corrupt public service.

Sidek: In your heart you think we can do any good in MPAJ?

We think so, as long as the politicians don’t interfere.

Don’t you think this is a reflection of previous administrations that allowed for it to fester.

Ismail: There is a big fire in the forest, all the animals are running away but a small monkey uses coconut shells to scoop water from the river and throw them into the fire. The other animals chide the monkey for its futile attempt, but the monkey replies: “at least I am doing something, what are you doing?”

Sidek: But unlike that monkey, he and I and the heads of civil service departments are carrying buckets! And we are carrying fire hoses.

I am going to Klang, you complained about the coffin shop in MBPJ, we are going to all of them. These are fires, and the ACA also brings fire hoses, it is co-ordinated.

Ismail: This is where the media also have to chip in.

The media have been disillusioned for a long time. We don’t get responses. If people are confident that their complaints will be attended to, they don’t need to come to the media. In our recent experience, we are getting immediate responses because our queries are copied to you! Will there ever come a time when we don’t need to copy everything to you before we get answers?

Sidek: I have a grouping that includes the secretaries-general and heads of departments. This is what we are trying to inculcate in the service to have their own grouping. And now it is happening – not in trickles but a downpour! No doubt they respond because it is copied to their bosses but after awhile, it will be ingrained in them and this is what I am trying to encourage. This is what we learnt in Miti (Ministry of International Trade and Industry). I am pretty sure, God-willing, there will be changes.

This Miti culture must be contagious and to get things done you must invoke fear!

Ismail: It is the right culture but don’t say fear-lah, say discipline. I am sure when you were little you were caned by your father, it is to inculcate discipline.

Sidek: This is also about being appreciated. You also must have good things to say as encouragement. It is not about money. It is about passion! There are so many of us in the civil service who are doing this for the love of the job. There are 1.2 million civil servants. Not all of them are lousy. There are the majority who thank us for cleaning up the image of the civil service! There are so many who are dedicated and do work for passion. Then there are those we take to court!

Is the welfare of the civil servants adequately taken care of?

Ismail: Yes!

No complaints?

Sidek: No complaints tak bolehlah. Not everyone will be happy lah. Salary increment was introduced this year, which is competitive.

Ismail: There are some people at level three, you give them level seven, they will ask why not level 10?

Sidek: We want people who know what the rakyat wants and we are heading there! We are trying to fix it.

The problems that you are trying to fix are not new ones. What was lacking in the implementation mechanisms that these issues are being addressed only now?

Ismail: Many of these issues are the result of lax enforcement or failure to adhere to standard operating procedures and rules laid down by the government, its departments and agencies.

What has been lacking can be addressed on many fronts: consultation with the public and interest groups has not been effective. By this I mean we don’t understand the needs of the public clearly. Our actions appear to be one-dimensional.

Engagement with the press has also been ineffective. This has resulted in a perception of non-performance as information of our achievements are many, but the media have no access to most of this. Thus the media tend to, and fairly so in some instances, write only on what they know.

Sidek: Follow through – these are very basic. You have homework and deadlines. Complete them!

I go back to earlier points made. The public too has a major role to play in reminding us of their rights. Malaysians have a moral responsibility to ensure that our society develops as we would want it to.

Where past administrations are concerned, different time, different approach. Then the focus was being developed, Vision 2020, we were moving from commodities to manufacturing base but because of that, we get better roads and infrastructure, better buildings … I suppose in the process of developing speedily and catching up with other nations, we were not giving emphasis to enforcement. It’s like building a house in time for Hari Raya. You just build to meet your deadline, and then you make amendments as and when necessary.

The mantra here is let us implement the rules – traffic, roads, building by-laws. Look at road safety, now we are implementing Ops Statik around the clock. Why should we just enforce during festive season? And we are going to be strict in enforcing.

Also bus operators have to take note. They say we are too strict in enforcing and threaten to strike, take the buses off the roads. You just try and see? If you take your buses off the roads, we will ensure you never put your buses back on the roads again!

Are people resistant to change, seeing that some government departments have been doing the same thing for decades?

Sidek: The Equation to Change that you learn in any management school is Strategy + Vision + Action >>> (must always be greater than) Resistance to Change. Change IS NOT equals to (TLC) Tender Loving Care or WLF (Warm Loving Feeling); So yes, there will be resistance. It is to be expected.

Is Pemudah a culture shock for many civil servants?

Sidek: Pemudah is not doing anything grossly different, or changing anything drastically. As such, I do not see what we are doing as shocking. Pemudah is a task force made up of business and government decision-makers. The impetus of the task force is internally driven. The only thing that is starkly different today that is brought about by the creation of Pemudah is that ministries, for the first time, are questioning the need for certain processes and workings. They (inter-ministries) question each other’s decisions, criticise each other’s decisions and we advise each other or the decisions that are being made. Also Pemudah has created a greater sense of urgency and accountability.

Punish or counsel? Rehabilitate or terminate? Which do you think is more effective to change the mindset of civil servants? Some say you need to put fear into them, others say use the soft approach.

Sidek: What’s important is to be fair in disciplining anyone. It’s important to counsel with a conscience. As leaders and managers we must listen, give opportunities and platforms for improvements and make sure the system does not fail them. Punishing and terminating is the easy part!

As Napoleon Bonaparte said, “the art of choosing men is not nearly so difficult as the art of enabling those one has chosen to attain their full worth”. Reforming and rehabilitating is the challenge and if you can do this to one or two main agencies, you would do the tipping-point effect.

But yes, you put fear where fear needs to be placed; rehabilitate where that needs to be done and terminate where no further rehabilitation can be done! The most effective way to change the mindset of civil servants would be a combination of all the approaches in the following order – counsel, rehabilitate, punish and terminate. That’s fair play; fair management.

Ismail: It is our responsibility as leaders to create the right environment for performance. By being firm and fair, we provide the necessary opportunities and encouragement for change. We must recognise and eradicate environment of non-performance that could lead to unethical practices. If we haven’t done this we cannot fairly blame our staff for non-performance. So it is an all-round responsibility.

Tan Sri Sidek, You are a stickler for time, but the “Malaysian time” phenomenon is entrenched in our culture. The pre-meeting/event “makan-minum” was in fact initiated to give stragglers a reprieve and to placate early birds. How can we address this disrespect for time?

Sidek: We will not tolerate this. This goes back to the change in mindset that we are pushing for collectively at the top. The makan and minum are being eradicated and eradicated fast. It is only allowed in specific functions and meetings. Meetings are to start on time! KSUs (secretaries-general) are directed to inculcate this culture.

There seems to be a fondness for meetings. How do we ensure meetings are actually productive?

Ismail: Meetings need to have a purpose and an outcome. There needs to be decisions made, actions taken, deadlines given. There must be a partnership between the service and the public. We must create a self-regulating society where the public must equally carry the responsibilities of working together to maintain the standards set for a developed society, adhering to rules and regulations; and being confident enough to report when wrong is done to the authorities charged with maintaining regulations and standards.

Regaining public’s trust

You and Pemudah encourage more interaction with the public. You are always seeking public feedback. But to many people, they feel giving their input is a waste of time due to the time-tested belief that their views are not important.

Sidek: While the skepticism of the public is understandable, it should not be used as an excuse not to provide feedback to the government. In fact, increasingly, members of the public are accessing the Pemudah website to forward complaints, and make suggestions. We welcome this and reciprocate with timely response.

The public service has to win back the trust of the people by reacting more promptly to complaints and feedback.

In the example of MPAJ, the officers in-charge of the complaints box were given “show-cause” letters for their inaction. This is the stern action that is needed to place fear which we spoke of earlier to ensure it doesn’t repeat itself.

Rest assured – civil servants are being told that “business is not as usual”. The public must hear and know that change is being introduced. My team and I are drumming into the civil servants the need to constantly improve processes and procedures. We are drumming a basic mantra of “Treat others the way you want to be treated”.

What are the exemplary government agencies which can be used as a benchmark?

Ismail: Miti in terms of service, discipline, speed and responsiveness; Inland Revenue Board in turnaround time; Ministry of Finance in new solutions for the financial industry and the strength of their engagement with their stakeholders; passport Department of Immigration for again setting new benchmarks; agencies within the Prime Minister’s Department such as Mampu for setting new standards, ICU for deployment of infrastructure to improve communications and delivery system across the services.

A problematic area is local councils where political interference is widespread. While it may be easy to improve counter service and day-to-day operations, one problem area is ensuring that the principles of Local Agenda 21 (consultation with the people and business community) are honoured and that planning laws are adhered to. This will be your biggest challenge – standing up to the politicians and cronies. How are you going to deal with this?

Sidek: We need to address this on a few fronts: Train, support and rehabilitate our councillors to be better councillors. To respond to the times. This we must as leaders.

Have them engage all interest groups and stakeholders, engage media effectively, understand what counselling really is. In addition, we need to have councils and councillors who can work effectively with residents groups and NGOs to support them in their roles. Local Agenda 21 encourages greater consultation in decision-making. This is consistent with the spirit of Pemudah.

When all this comes in together transforming the puzzle into a picture, it will not matter if they are politicians or not. Each will now have their roles and responsibilities.

The media also have a role to play. You must assist us to being better servants of the public. When we fail, you help us become better people and not just berate us to the point of no return.

As a civil society we all have a role to play in developing a better today for all of us.

Look at Port Klang assemblyman Datuk Zakaria Mad Deros, he has done everything wrong – no action. Now he has the cheek to apply for land next to his mansion – low-cost land! So people are not convinced.

Sidek: It’s about having a conscience. We are creating hadworking, conscientious officials with a conscience. There are 145 councils and as many districts. That’s why we have the council presidents. They are the viceroys of the Housing and Local Government Ministry and the Chief Secretary to the Government. Thay have been given the instruction to follow their conscience, to do what’s right. They function according to the book (law). You know the book, the PM says follow the book! But if you are the president and you have all these qualities and you have a Yang Berhormat who wants to develop buffer zones, you just say, “Yang Berhormat, cannot! Because it’s wrong and the PM spoke about integrity. Surely, you wouldn’t want to go against the wishes of the prime minister, your party leader!” And people are reasonable if you reason with them.

If you are the president and you cannot convince people of simple things like this, you are not worthy of the position. Explain why you cannot do it. Hopefully with the process of training and drumming this into them, we will see some changes and it will be contagious.

There are warlords in every municipality. And the civil service is afraid of them. What is the public perception – this whole government stinks!

Ismail: If ineffective, we change the top.

Sidek: Why do you think we have moved into MPAJ? You think I don’t know about these warlords? You think I don’t know that YDPs last only so long if they don’t cooperate. You think I don’t know in MPAJ, the clerks, the directors and the deputy directors are more powerful than the YDP. You think I won’t be telling them that after this I will pull this fellow out if they don’t change? And these are the rules! I don’t write the rules, they are written by the government. This government of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi wants you to follow it with full integrity!

That’s why there is another bet going around — how long is Tan Sri Sidek going to last as chief secretary.

Sidek: That’s not important. I think the PM is serious for change. Come on look, if you think if not for this PM, you will have street demos, you can write so openly like this? He really wants it. He doesn’t like that fellow from Klang (what he’s doing).

All I know is he wants me to go (down to the councils). You know what is government? When my family goes to the Land Office to pay cukai tanah … when he fumbles, you know who’s at fault? The prime minister! The buck stops there, which is why he is going all out to clean up the government.

You were given six months to show results. Obviously you have made the deadline in certain crucial areas of business and service. Our 24th place ranking in the World Bank Doing Business index is probably a direct result of Pemudah’s initiatives. The problem now is to maintain the standards. How will you go about achieving this?

Sidek: Firstly, improving standards must not be only to meet World Bank commitments and requirements. We as a nation must want to improve because it is better for you and me and our children in time to come. It cannot and must not be one dimensional approach of just the World Bank. Yes, World Bank has criteria that help us improve in some areas of our service. That alone must not be the goal.

The service’s target is for Malaysia to achieve a top 10 ranking in the World Bank Doing Business Report as soon as possible. I am confident we will achieve this soon. Hence, we have initiated five focus groups to concentrate on the five indicators in which we think Malaysia can further improve on her ranking as discussed earlier.

We will soon have the Business Licensing Electronic Support System (BLESS) implemented. The introduction of BLESS will enable the public to register their business licences on-line. BLESS will take off with the manufacturing sector on January 2008, followed by the property and hotel sector in March and May 2008 respectively.

How do we maintain standards?

Sidek: We do all the things we spoke about – change of mindset; create a customer-centric public service; solid enforcement, strength in leadership at all levels and a service offered with pride and integrity.

Ismail: We deliver what we promise the public and we treat others the way we want to be treated. A public service that is continually innovative and changing for the better in keeping with times. We recruit, train, promote and give due recognition to the best workers regardless of race, colour or creed and we need to set and deliver new standards for ourselves. We deliver a public service that will make Malaysia more competitive as a nation.

So constant supervision is how you are going to help change the civil service?

Ismail: If I tell them I am coming, they’ll roll out a red carpet. So we have to be always monitoring the agencies (spot checks and the like). You have to make time and effort for this, so they know you mean business and will always be on their toes.

Are there any tangible results in terms of increased business activities or Foreign Direct Investment from the progress Pemudah has made in addressing the woes of the business community?

Sidek: It would be presumptuous to assume a direct correlation between increased business activities and Pemudah’s progress. However, I am sure the improvements do provide a more conducive environment for doing business. This in turn improves investor confidence.

Making improvement is just not good enough as our competitors are doing the same. We must create our national competitive advantage and do quantum leaps in how and what we do business in. Incremental improvements are not good enough anymore. The whole concept of competitiveness must be understood properly by us.

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