IT is hard to imagine Yeo Bee Yin - engineer, Cambridge University graduate and politician extraordinaire – as a “problematic pupil”.
Writing in her personal blog, Yeo has described how as a pupil in SRJK (C) Seg Hwa, one of the best schools in Segamat then, she used to feign stomach ache and even chased after the school bus once to beg the driver to take her home.
Today, however, any chasing related to her is only that of reporters trying to catch up with the Bakri MP, who, as the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister, has been very busy in the past two months learning the technical nitty-gritty of her new portfolio.
While Yeo thinks she is fortunate to head a ministry where the “terms, jargons, graphs and calculations” are familiar to her, she does not believe that prior training in a ministry’s particular field to be essential.
“Because what ministers eventually do...is to drive the direction for the ministry.
“It’s good if you’re an engineer or a scientist to lead a ministry like this but I think I have as much faith in an accountant and anybody (else) to lead, as long as the person can learn quickly and have a direction,” she says.
Indeed, Yeo has shown, through a series of media interviews and press conferences in the past two months, that she is more than capable of driving a new direction for the ministry under the Pakatan Harapan government.
Soon after being sworn in, she told a room full of energy stakeholders that four “hastily awarded” Independent Power Producer contracts under the previous administration have been scrapped, warned them against name-dropping, railed against the country’s dependence on coal for energy, and even confirmed to the press later that plans for a controversial nuclear plant were off the table.
Clearly, Yeo means – and knows – her business.
However, with a portfolio as extensive as her ministry’s name – Mestecc, for short – she is only too keenly aware of the huge challenges she faces.
In a frank 50-minute, fact-filled interview with The Star, Yeo confesses to not merely having to grapple with the lack of manpower and equipment – the climate change unit only has five people while the Department of Environment has no vehicle to carry out enforcement against open burning – she also has to wrestle with a fixed mindset from the academia and civil service.
An issue, Yeo thinks, is that while many government officers are good and professional, they are not given the opportunity to build up their capacity in a particular field, with “generalists” going to serve in one government department to another. And for those who do actually get to pursue their Masters in a particular field, they are often eventually assigned to another ministry and to a task completely different from their interest or field of study.
“Because my ministry is a technical ministry, a lot of things that we study need to be in-depth and (so they) need to be more than just generalists.
“You need people with deep capacity in one particular subject and so, it’s difficult at this moment (to find talent),” says Yeo, adding that there are still two or three more vacancies to fill at her ministry.
She is hoping to attract people of top management quality with mid-management pay but admits that “the problem is that the skills level needed is high but the pay is low.”
“What we are looking for is people who have relevant knowledge and yet are willing to do national service,” said Yeo.
In fact, she is hoping to focus on capacity building within her ministry, pointing out that the previous administration had been too reliant on outside consultants who were paid millions to make policy decisions.
“What happens is that people who execute it are not those who actually come up with the plan themselves.
“If you’re not the one who actually think the plan will work but it’s the outside consultant who are paid millions and millions of ringgit to tell you what to do, do you think you will do it passionately?”
The challenge now, Yeo feels, is for the ministry to come out with its own plan because it is what the government of the day, the stakeholders and the civil service think is the policy that matters.
“It’s time for us to shift our money paid to consultants to the training and skills development for our civil service,” she says, hoping that this would also get more talented young people to join the Government.
Another uphill task that Yeo is adamant about tackling is the current disconnect between much of the funded research in the country and the industry’s needs.
Researchers in Malaysia, she insists, should actually be solving society’s problems or building up demands of the market, describing any technology that does not create value as “fluff”.
The ministry will be embarking on a reform of its funding for research and development from next year, with half of this having to go to demand and industry driven areas.
“This is so that we don’t spend money on useless, syok sendiri (self-fulfilling) research. We will spend money on what the market needs and research that can generate jobs and money for our economy,” says Yeo, pointing out that currently, only 8.6% of Malaysia’s research funding goes into experimental research.
On the contrary, that figure is 45% in Singapore and 60% in Japan.
“We cannot afford it. We are a middle-income country,” Yeo notes, stressing that the emphasis has to be on research and development that in the near or medium term would be able to generate jobs, economic growth and wealth for Malaysians.
Another area of concern for Yeo is the severe understaffed unit for climate change, considering Malaysia’s vulnerability to any rise in sea levels and extreme weather patterns.
“We will start with 20 people this year and slowly build up the numbers,” she says, adding that two years after the country signed the Paris Agreement, “nothing much has been done”.
“We really need a plan on mitigation and adaptation,” Yeo stresses, revealing that at the moment, Malaysia neither has a plan nor capacity for proper carbon accounting.
The ministry also lacks negotiators and a team to pitch for international funding, she adds, underlining the ministry’s intention to pitch for international funding for its plan on climate change.
“But first of all, I really need a plan – a data driven plan, not a fluffy one. We have lots of plans but those are not data driven,” she said, adding that most were also not practical at all.
“As a minister, I really want to do this,” says Yeo, assuring the public that the new government remains committed to the Paris Agreement.
Eventually, Yeo hopes to institutionalise the plan on the climate change in the ministry.
“So that this will be carried out, even after I leave, and regardless of the results of the next general election.”
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