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New Straits Times, 2 February 2008
The man who oversees the largest group of personnel in the country has made promises few would dare to make: telephone calls answered by the third ring, payments made within 14 days, queries answered within three working days and an end to the government red tape runaround we’ve all had to surrender our sanity to. ANIZA DAMIS and ELIZABETH JOHN speak to Chief Secretary to the Government about the civil service, and the brisk pace he sets for it
Q: The promises that you’ve made are very daring, because you are making promises on behalf of the 1.2 million civil servants. What makes you confident that your promises will come through?

A: I have a lot of confidence in all the people being fair to me. But I need all the support I can get. Because the intention is to improve.

I made the announcement but the commitment is from all of us. None of them said: “This is lousy.” They said: “This is a good idea; we want to change.”

This is their commitment, too, because however good someone is, there is no way that he can do it alone.

Q: So, the announcement that you have made is based on strong trust that everyone would do his job?

A: Yes. But, I’m not going to pretend that all is going to be perfect. I’m pretty sure that out of the 1.2 million, not every one of them will be putting all his weight to the task.

We should be proud of what we are. And I believe we in the public service are proud. For example, when the prime minister acknowledged that the public service had improved, we were proud. We are proud of the service we give, and we think there is a real improvement, not just a perception, but a real thing.

For instance, you can make a passport very quickly, and when you go to the government offices, people are smiling. And when you promise payment within 14 days and people are paid within 14 days or even five to seven days, people appreciate that, and you want to improve further.

I believe the morale is good right now.

Q: What was the problem last time? Why was there such a delay?

A: I think people should work to meet a deadline.

Imagine if you don’t have a deadline. You feel like doing, you do lah. You don’t feel like doing, you don’t do. You can’t do that.

So, we are trying to acculturate the civil service to that — working to meet a deadline.

You must do your best. You must take pride in your job.

Just like when I answered my phone just now. You must respond fast. And if you cannot respond, you must explain why.

The telephone is but one example, but the principle applies to everything. You do it fast, and if you cannot do it, then you must explain why. And thirdly, you should call back.

All of us must be like this. Everyone must move in tandem. And there must be pride in the work.

Q: Do you get any complaints at all about rude or indifferent staff?

A: Ada (there are complaints). When there are 1.2 million civil servants, surely there’d be times, even for me. If you catch me on the wrong side of the bed, don’t you think I’d scold you? Of course, I would! What more when you have 1.2 million staff.

But, generally, things have to be good. Generally, the civil service has to be good. That’s the point, to get everybody to behave.

Q: How are you trying to achieve this?

A: You have to lead by example.

And when people like you write good things about us, don’t you think that civil servants will respond to that positive feedback by maintaining that level of service, or improving on it? I think they would.

It is because we feel appreciated. It doesn’t matter whether you give us more pay or not. The pride in doing a good job is itself a motivation.

Q: Do you think this motivation is going to attract a better quality of staff?

A: Yes. As of now, there are more applicants than posts.

And they are of good quality. But it is only at the point of entry.

I am sure many of us are enamoured of graduates from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge , or people with First Class Honours and all those things.

But that’s only good as a first point of entry. Because after that, no amount of Harvard training can help you.

So, we have a good crop of applicants. But, more important is to make sure that the people we recruit to join us are trained to be the way we want them to be.

How do you McDonald-ise them? How do you get the same consistently good service everywhere?

It’s the training. And the manual.

All the different sectors have their training institutions.

All this is supposed to be building that culture.

So, beyond just attracting the best to join, the training is important.

But beyond training, because you can only train a person for six months or one year at the most, it is on the job itself that this person will learn. Mentoring by the bosses and peers, and people like you (reporters) not abusing them so much, will really help them.

Q: How are you going to retain the best talent?

A: What is the reason people stay? Satisfaction, challenge. And we have improved the salary.

When people like you appreciate us, that is satisfying.

And we ourselves know it — that we can make payment in 14 days.

In December 2007, alone, 96.9 per cent of payments by federal ministries and agencies amounting to RM8.455 billion were made in 14 days, and 70.4 per cent of the amounts paid were made in seven days.

Q: So, everyone must be really happy.

A: I would say so.

The same standard must be applied to all. It’s easy that way.

The same thing about payment. Treat others the way you would like to be treated.

How would you like to be paid? How would you like to be treated? You want to be paid fast; you want to be served fast.

So, when it’s your time to serve, please serve fast. And if you can’t do it, then please tell why you can’t do it. And please tell nicely, lah.

Q: Has the one-stop-centre changed people’s view of local government?

A: Datuk Fuad (Datuk Ahmad Fuad Ismail, Housing and Local Government Ministry secretary-general) tells me it’s working well.

But what is government to you, what is public service to you? It’s the local authorities.

They are the largest form of government — not the federal government, nor the state government. So, it’s very important they give good service.

Q: Since local government is so big, is it difficult to modernise and change attitudes?

A: What are the issues at local authority level? Cleaning drains, collecting garbage — easy, isn’t it?

But it can also be the most difficult thing, when people refuse to work.

So to answer your question:

Yes, it is very difficult because there are so many of them.

Yes, it is difficult if you choose not to do it.

But no, it’s easy, because those are easy issues.

When someone asks you to clean the drain, you clean it! Because that’s what you’re paid to do.

Even payment, you know. What’s so difficult about making payment in 14 days?

But I must admit, a few of them will still fall through the cracks.

But I promise you, if you come to me, or email me, I promise you it will be cleared within 24 hours.

Q: So what’s the consequence now for a civil servant who doesn’t measure up? Doesn’t do the job?
A: What do you think?
Q: Isn’t it the case that once the Public Service Department hires you, it’s pretty much impossible to fire you?

A: You cannot simply fire anybody. It depends on the offence.

It’s very clear. You must follow the rules.

The problem is, perhaps, in the past, you didn’t follow the rules.

Q: If secretaries-general on contract don’t perform, will they get a renewal?
A: There are rewards and punishment.

If you perform you get a reward, if you don’t perform you get punished.

The rule is already there. The question is whether you are enforcing or not.

You must implement the rules. You must monitor, and then you must enforce — on any subject.

Q: Has action been taken against anyone who hasn’t performed?
A: Yes.

I don’t have the number here but I’m sure it has come out before.

Why are you only interested in blood?

Q: Because, there’s the incentive to do well, that’s the carrot. What about the stick?

A: Of course, there is a stick.

If they are found to be corrupt and charged, that is action. That means, while awaiting the decision of the court, he would have been suspended.

If the charge is proven, then we sack him.

Some who didn’t perform didn’t get a pay rise. And some even got demoted.

I want to be fair. The integrity of the system depends on fairness.

You must be especially fair when you punish, because when you punish unfairly, it’s a bad thing and quite difficult to get out of.

But after some time, you don’t have to punish any more because they don’t do it.

The fear itself is enough to discourage people from doing it.

Q: What is the value of Pemudah (Special Task Force to Facilitate Business)?

A: What is important about it is the idea of close collaboration.

Consultation should begin at home. Because, however good you are, you aren’t good enough on your own. Two heads are better than one.

Pemudah is about consultation and the consultative process between the government and the private sector.

It’s mostly to handle issues in the corporate sector but it is not necessarily confined to that.

More and more now, Pemudah is taking on others issues. Not just pure business issues.

For instance, traffic and security.

What has security to do with business? If you are an investor, you’d like to feel secure.

So, new issues have arisen.

This idea of interaction must go beyond the private sector, to your customers.

For example, if you are in a local authority, you must consult the people in your area.

But having said that, if you go to the Pemudah website, you can ask any question and Pemudah will direct the issues to the relevant department.

That’s what we mean by the “No Wrong Door” policy.

That notion of no-wrong door doesn’t only apply to Pemudah, but also any government department.

Even in my office, if I don’t pick up the phone, someone else must pick it up.

Q: You advised civil servants to stop wasting their time on politics? Do you have that problem?

A: Did I say that?

I think what I meant was, like with children who want to watch TV, you can. Go ahead. But what is your core business? It is to focus on your studies.

What is your core business? Government servant? So, focus on it.

If you are in the business of cleaning drains, clean the drains.

If you are in the business of collecting the garbage, please collect the garbage.

If you did things last night and it affects your collecting the garbage this morning, that is not acceptable.

Did I say you cannot enter politics?

Follow the rules, whatever they are.

Q: How do you intend to achieve ethnic diversity in government service?
A: The public service is about merit.

How do you define merit? Whoever is the best.

Q: So why is it that the public service, at the moment, seems to be mono-ethnic?

A: I don’t know, search me.

I think for far too long our society has been so biased.

We are gender blind and colour blind. We go for the best.

So if the best happens to be all women, does it matter to me? So long as they all don’t go on maternity leave at the same time, lah.

Or if all of them happen to be Chinese and they are the best, the most deserving, does it matter to me?

Or all of them happen to be Indian, does it matter to me or to you?

When you have a serious illness and you need an operation, do you insist on a Malay or a Muslim doctor?

I don’t care. I want the best doctor. The best surgeon.

So does it matter? It doesn’t. It really does not.

For example, the KSN (chief secretary to the government). Must you insist on having a Malay KSN for Malays and an Indian KSN for Indians? No.

You want a KSN who is fair. And how many times have you heard me say the word fair today?

He has to be fair and based on merit and all that.

Therefore, it doesn’t matter what colour you are so long as you are being fair.

Q: So that means any Malaysian can apply, and as long as that person is well-qualified, he will get the job and not get any flack for being different?
A: Yes. Ad nauseum I say that. Until I get fed up sometimes. Just saying it to different people but the message is the same. It’s a merit-based public service.
Q: That’s at the entry-level. What about promotions?
A: Yes. Didn’t I say the same thing just now? KSN or sec-gen or whatever.
Q: What is your message to young people who are thinking of joining the civil service?

A: Do you know my youngest child who is now in Form Four wants to join the public service. Only one!

But I told him: “It’s not the money lah.”

And I keep telling people that when I was 40, I was only drawing about RM4,500.

My friend, who joined the private sector, who was my classmate from primary school and went to the same college, same faculty of economics — when he was 40, he became the general manager of IBM Malaysia, earning RM40,000 at that time. But I didn’t care. I enjoyed my work.

Of course, I never dreamed I would be secretary-general of a ministry, let alone the chief secretary!

That’s why this is a calling.

So, I keep telling young people that it’s not for the money.

If you want it for the money, the public service is not the place. Forget it. It’s not.

Q: It’s not going to be an easy job either?
A: It’s easy for me. Depends on the person.

But they shouldn’t assume they are going to have an easy time.

Q: Since giving out your email address ( to the public, have you gotten a lot of email?
A: I get less now.
Q: What?

A: Yes. Initially, I got a lot of emails — in the hundreds, I think. So, what I did was, I sent one “thank you” to the guy or girl who wrote to me, and one “thank you” to the officer I CCed for taking the matter up.

After that, everyone (department heads) gave out his email addresses, so I got less.

But, you must really respond. To respond does not mean writing back “I have received your email” — that’s not responding, that’s acknowledging.

So, you must follow the matter through to the end.

And if you cannot do it, just tell why.

Obviously if people ask for RM20 million from me, I’m not going to agree, and I’ll tell them why — because I didn’t even give that to my grandmother!

You must explain.

Q: What kind of things do people ask for?

A: Sometimes, they ask for petty things. These things may be petty to us, but not to them.

For example, if you live in Selayang, and because it’s Hari Raya Haji your drains don’t get cleaned, your garbage doesn’t get collected, you’ll get angry, right?

It may be very minor to the person receiving the complaints, but to you it’s very smelly.

I have a group of special officers. When I want to forward something, I sometimes don’t even have time to specify who among the five has to deal with the matter, so I address it to all of them.

And, they will decide who among them will handle it because they have an understanding among themselves on who is supposed to do what.

This is what the prime minister was talking about — this is electronic government.

Q: So, our readers will know that if they email you, you yourself will read it? It won’t be vetted first?

A: I read the emails on my Blackberry and 02 (personal digital assistant). They are my love letters, why should I let anybody else read them?

Actually, I like reading the emails. I read the emails as and when they come in.

I was with the PM in Sabah , in a boat. While he was talking to the chief minister of Sabah , I was attending to my email. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

Actually, I’m excited about getting email. This is like a phone call –an email is a phone call. Do you let your phone ring and ring?

Q: Do you clear your email everyday?

A: Yes. At 11 o’clock at night, and when I’m travelling.

This is the “modern technology” that the PM is talking about.

This is my office (lifting up the Blackberry). It’s a virtual office. You don’t have to be at your desk to do your work. You don’t have to be in your room to do your work.

This is all 19th century (pointing around the office). The office of the 21st century is about the virtual office.

This is the concept the government wants everyone to have.

Except, I suppose, if you need to clean the longkang, then you have to clean the particular drain, lah. Don’t say: “I’m going to clean it virtually.”

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