Behind the scenes at MOF in this extraordinary year


INTRODUCTION

While Azize, Adi, Shai, Nash, Thila, Sham and Chong might not be household names, they are among the many civil servants at the Finance Ministry (MOF) who have given their all for the rakyat throughout this unprecedented 2020.

Over the last nine months, I had the privilege to call them – and many others – my esteemed colleagues.

Reflecting on the intense year that has been, my year-end column will share some behind the scenes (#BTS) snippets of the tremendous role these bureaucrats have played in navigating Covid-19.

POLICY-MAKING IN TIMES OF COVID-19

Firstly, the unprecedented nature of the pandemic meant that there was no prior playbook or guide. Globally, policy makers and governments were continuously iterating the best approach to save lives and protect livelihoods. What was clear was that there was no magic wand.

In Malaysia, it was no different. The Health Ministry and security personnel, all our frontliners, were from the onset, in the thick of the war against Covid-19. Daily updates continue as the nation soldiers on.

The sheer magnitude of Covid-19 and its bizarre impact was a steep learning process at all levels of government. I was fortunate to be part of the discussions during the first roll-out of SOP formulation. Phew!

THE FOUR STIMULUS PACKAGES

At MOF, it was no different. Between March and September, four stimulus packages worth RM305bil were announced, namely Prihatin (March 27), Prihatin SME+ (April 6), Penjana (June 5) and Kita Prihatin (Sept 23).

The first was just 18 days after technocrat Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz's appointment as Finance Minister.

The second just 10 days later in response to SMEs that needed more support to stay afloat especially as jobs were at stake. For Penjana, we had just under two months to come up with initiatives to spur the economy's reopening. Every single day the movement control order (MCO) was in force, the economy lost about RM2.4bil. No pressure, right?

Different teams at MOF took turns to lead the stimulus formulation process.

Tengku Zafrul lead and was supported by the Treasury Secretary-General, first Tan Sri Badri Mohd Zahir (who later retired) and thereafter Datuk Asri Hamidon. The Deputy Sec-Gens, Zakiah Jaafar and Anis Rizana Mohd Zainudin were pivotal, and they, in turn, were supported by key bureaucrats such as the nation's Chief Economist, Dr V. Sivabalasingam, Head of Tax, Ma Sivanesan Marimuthu, and the Budget Director Johan Merican.

Everyone worked hard against this economic backdrop of global supply chain disruptions, limited revenue and yet the need for increased financial support.

Other agencies, including Bank Negara and the Securities Commission, GLCs such as Khazanah and EPF, as well as representatives of NGOs, industry associations and more, contributed immensely. The Corporate Communications team was on overdrive to create awareness.

MOF also set-up the National Inter-Agency Economic Stimulus Coordination and Implementation Agency, or Laksana, to monitor the implementation of the stimulus packages and soon, various Budget 2021 initiatives. 34 Laksana reports were published weekly in 2020 (with only one break during Hari Raya). Tengku Zafrul, via Facebook Live, would himself present some reports and this marked a first in Government reporting, transparency and openness.

CRAFTING BUDGET 2021

Normally, the tabling of the Budget is MOF's annual highlight. Not in 2020.

The stimulus packages were equivalent to mini-budgets. While they were being formulated, Budget 2021 preparation started late June (no time to waste!).

Every year, a special Budget Team is set up consisting of about 20 members of professionally diverse backgrounds from across various MOF divisions. There are also other teams that work in high levels of confidentiality concerning arenas such as taxes.

And as I shared in last month's column, over 6,600 recommendations, proposals and suggestions were received from across the country. The RM322.5bil Budget 2021 was tabled in November and passed by Parliament in December.

There were many sleepless nights and not so healthy snacks to keep the team going.

On Budget 2021 tabling day, I missed my ride to Parliament as I was still tweaking some infographics for TV with the team. Luckily, my wonderful colleague Suria Zainal, another instrumental individual, lent me her car.

BATTLEGROUND PARLIMENT

Speaking of Parliament, this year's sittings were blockbuster events.

The possible rejection of the Budget tantilised most minds, if not all MOF officers. There were 29 votes just to get Budget 2021 passed.

Notwithstanding political pressures, the MOF Parliament team exuded calm and focused professionalism throughout. They were on hand to assist Tengku Zafrul on his maiden Parliament appearance in July up to its closing last week.

Alongside Budget 2021, about 10 bills and various amendments were tabled this year, including the raising of the debt ceiling to fund Covid-19 stimulus packages and tax incentives to support industries (like tourism) and businesses.

Being involved in the Parliament beat was one of the most rewarding for me – thanks largely to the dedication of the team.

HITS AND MISSES

At MOF, we are aware of the criticisms over some stimulus initiatives or fund allocation. At ground level, there are grouses on delivery of services and support – from welfare to water, and education to employment.

Beyond that, there are acknowledged glitches in the civil service. This year, MOF was hit by the news of a licensing registration syndicate. Earlier this month, a purported 40-year-old meat cartel syndicate was uncovered, manifesting one of the biggest controversies the civil service has seen.

In this regard, improvement is a must.

Where there has been a transgression of public trust, there is a need for redemption and where service delivery is wanting, the civil service must step up.

Having had the privilege to serve in three ministries, it is not difficult to slip into complacency in the vast corridors of government. This is where leadership is vital. Getting civil servants to step out of their comfort zones with the niat (intention) to continuously improve will be crucial in taking Malaysia to the next level.

Empathy is key. The rakyat rely on the civil servants to deliver.

CONCLUSION

As an economy, we enter 2021 on firm footing despite the fluid environment of grave health concerns. First time minister Tengku Zafrul has led the Finance Ministry professionally these tumultuous months, working closely with the civil servants.

Continued improvement is of course predicated on managing the Covid-19 situation which has become slightly more worrying in recent days – so let us play our role.

Come 2021, I have full confidence that the team MOF will continue to do its best and deliver for the rakyat. Serving the MOF and my country has certainly been an honour.

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Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com.

   

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