TAN Sri Ramon V. Navaratnam is no stranger to Malaysians at large. A member of the MIM Court of Fellows and the Council, he is one of the few consistent voices championing social and economic causes.
His 30-year career in the public sector and 15 years in banking and business enable him to offer both a broad perspective as well as an insider’s view of management practices in these different sectors.
Here we draw lessons from this wise veteran’s sixth sense of management excellence.
Then and now
Management excellence entails being able to deliver good quality service to one’s customers. As such, the Government has rightly recognised the need to improve the delivery system of the public sector under the 9th Malaysia Plan. In the words of our Prime Minister, “The idea is to facilitate, not to frustrate.”
But why, in the first place, has the delivery system of the civil service deteriorated, or is perceived to have deteriorated, compared to about three or four decades ago?
“In the early days, the Malaysian Civil Service (MCS) was the best employer in the country!” Nava reveals.
“Essentially, there was no domestic private sector to talk about, except for the retail and wholesale trade. The public service then was almost entirely in the hands of the British. In any case, the civil service was much more prestigious as we were taking over from the highly regarded colonial civil service.
“Of course, there were a few large companies in the plantations and trading sectors, but these were mainly foreign-owned.
These mainly colonial British-owned entities were reluctant to hire Malaysians. So for Malaysian graduates, there was no attraction to the private sector.”
“Consequently, most bright young Malaysian graduates wanted to join the MCS. Firstly, they were better paid compared to locals in the private sector. Secondly, once they were hired as junior officers, they were destined to become someone.
“In an environment where there were not many local professionals in the private sector – save a minority of doctors, engineers and lawyers – a member of the MCS enjoyed high esteem. To most, it was the best job available soon after Merdeka.”
Winds of change
As the private sector developed, it gradually became a more attractive sector to work in. Today, a promising young Malaysian would more likely aspire to join the private sector for better prospects of career advancement.
The more competent and entrepreneurial-minded would seek business opportunities for unlimited income generation. Not many express a desire to join the civil sector as their first choice.
“The more politically minded tended to join the Government service. In those days, many teachers became political leaders. But today at the Cabinet and other top levels, we have very highly qualified professionals who assume political leadership,” Nava explains.
“However, some leaders in the public sector believe that they are well-positioned to tell senior civil servants what to do and make decisions on the latter’s behalf.
Unfortunately, a number of these leaders who are very politically inclined do not necessarily show much professionalism. If leaders are more preoccupied with getting by the next election, they rarely have a long-term strategic perspective, and this comes through in their long-term planning.”
Nava says these days there appears to be inadequate in-depth analysis during policy formulation.
“Too little time is given for discussion and debate on the potential policy. There seems to be a lot of hurry to introduce a certain policy. In the end, an ill-conceived policy will show up during its implementation. Implementers are then blamed when in fact, the policy makers share the burden of responsibility.”
So where do we go from here where the public sector is concerned?
“We have to start now to compensate for the weaknesses of the past. We can’t change so suddenly. Let us start building up the pace of paying a higher premium to quality and competitiveness, and increasing meritocracy.
“If we go for anything short of that, then we can expect a third-rate ‘delivery system’ that cannot match a first-rate planning system, for therein lies the gap between policy and implementation,” Nava asserts.
“In the private sector, we always ensure that we get the best talents because we have to compete with multinationals in the context of globalisation. But this is not necessarily true in the public sector where there is no bottom line to worry about except for the key performance indicators (KPIs) for Government-linked companies (GLCs).
“Here, too, we seem slack in our will and determination to make KPIs really work. The Client Charters in many Government departments have become the butt of jokes!
“To make matters worse, corruption is so widespread today. A weak and corrupt workforce makes an organisation easy fodder for competitors. Corruption can also undermine our NEP and cause major social problems in future.
“Multiracial Malaysia must also have a more multiracial civil service. Malaysia’s management capacity must be strengthened through the hiring of more competent managers from a wider multiracial mix.
“We must have zero tolerance for inefficiency; we must reward deserving people; we must weed out the bad from the good. Civil servants should not be mollycoddled. After all, they are paid from the people’s hard-earned income from the rakyat’s taxes. The people thus deserve a better deal.
“For too long, civil servants have been protected – let them come out of their cocoon and evolve into butterflies,” Nava exhorts.
Unique learning ground
So does Nava recommend that young graduates today join the private sector rather than the public sector?
“Despite its many weaknesses, there is nowhere else that you can get the breadth of vision and the depth of understanding as in the public sector; the Government is the biggest employer in the country and offers a unique learning experience,” he says.
“Only in the public sector does one have the opportunity to deal with all kinds of national issues, where you are required to be involved in social, economic and political issues, not merely business-related profits. Hence your vision is long-term, not as a politician or even an employee in the private sector (who frequently switches jobs), but as a civil service professional.
“So join the public sector by all means, but if you feel weary, use the experience and expertise you have gained to move on into the private sector. Your experience in the civil service would stand you in great good stead as I have, for which I am thankful to God.”
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