Technocrat MBs strike a balance

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  • Sunday, 09 Jan 2005


There is a new breed of Mentris Besar in the making. They are politicians at heart but also technocrats in thinking and action, writes JOCELINE TAN. 

TAN Sri Dr Abdul Hamid Pawanteh seems to have slipped quite effortlessly into the high-backed chair of the president of the Dewan Negara. At 60, he still cuts a striking figure with his silver mane, elegant manners and well-spoken ways. 

But reporters on the Parliament beat find him a bit of an enigma or as one of them described him, “a cat with nine lives”. 

“I find it strange how he has ended up here,” said another reporter. 

INFORMAL AND ENERGETIC: Idris is aiming for a more transparent and friendly administration.

Dr Abdul Hamid entered politics as an MP, then as an assemblyman before being made Mentri Besar of Perlis. He served two terms and decided to retire. 

Some attributed his early exit to concerns over his family life but, as he has often explained: “Two terms is enough for anyone trying to do a good job.” 

And that is perhaps why he remains an enigma for many – he actually walked away from power. 

No other Mentri Besar has been as voluntary as him since. 

The office of Mentri Besar is still a powerful and much coveted post despite the way power has become centralised at federal level. 

Apart from Penang and Sarawak, the post of Mentri Besar/Chief Minister has always been the purview of Umno. 

He (there has never been a female among them) is picked by the Prime Minister/Umno president and as such is expected to be answerable not only to the rakyat in his state but also to his boss. 

Dr Abdul Hamid: Walked away from power

Dr Abdul Hamid has often been likened to being an early technocrat among the ranks of Mentris Besar. 

It made him an anomaly of sorts. They are less of a rarity these days. 

In fact, there is now an ascendant class of technocrat Mentris Besar. 

Datuk Idris Jusoh in Terengganu and former corporate figure Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan in Negri Sembilan are among the latest additions. 

Datuk Mustapa Mohamad, with his first-class honours in economics and long experience in government financial management, would have been another technocrat Mentri Besar had Umno won back Kelantan last year. 

Johor's Datuk Ghani Othman, Sabah's Datuk Musa Aman and to some extent Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo of Selangor were earlier predecessors of this mode. 

These people are in their late 40s and 50s, been to university, garnered work and real-life experiences and have little or no political baggage to their name. 

“They don't rely overly on their wit and charm but on their reputation as people who understand economics, the workings of the government and who can get a job done,” said think-tanker Razak Baginda. 

Traditionally, Mentris Besar have been appointed for a number of reasons, chief of which was they had to be “accepted by the people”. 

The acceptability clause may sound deceptively simple but is loaded with political significance for it also meant that the candidate had to have some sort of senior ranking in Umno and to be acceptable to the state Umno leaders. 

Other qualifications or actual management ability came further down the list of requirements. 

“I'm afraid that sometimes you just have to take the best from what is available. We haven't got around to grooming people,” said Datuk Shahrir Samad, the straight-talking Backbenchers Club chairman. 

Still, there were certain people whom the Umno leadership had its eye on. 

Negri Sembilan’s Mohamad was approached as early as 1999 but he was then the high-flying managing director of Cycle and Carriage and did not feel ready for the career shift. 

One of the first things he did after taking over was to initiate a long-term development blueprint for the state. 

“A clear development policy makes things more transparent and professional. I wanted state officers to be able to make decisions based on something specific like a development plan. You also need that if you want to invite investors to the state,” said Mohamad. 

He admits to being the new kid on the block but said he encouraged his officers to speak up and generate feedback and ideas. 

In his first months in office, he also ticked off some of them: “I had to drive home the point that an 8am meeting starts at 8am, not 9am, and that documents and papers have to be studied before a meeting.” 

His commitment to the Prime Minister was simple. He told Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi: “I won't promise you anything fantastic but I intend to lead a clean and honest government. 

In Terengganu, Idris, 49, has tried to introduce more contemporary management skills into the government. He is also energetic, open to ideas and often dispenses with protocol. 

His state was apparently the first to introduce the key performance indicator in assessing state exco members. And he insists that his key officers are in contact 24 hours a day. 

“It’s a transparent and friendly government,” he said. 

Idris also stunned many of his party colleagues last year when he decided not to contest the Umno elections but it is said that his sincerity impressed Abdullah. 

“Had I contested, I would have to go out and meet people. It was a crucial time and I needed to concentrate on the state government instead of my federal image,” he said. 

Some Umno politicians scoffed at his decision but Idris had set a very important example in separating his own political priorities from that of his state duties. 

“Datuk Idris has qualities that I think Pak Lah would like others to have,” said Kelantan Umno member Juhaidi Yean Abdullah. 

The new emphasis on managerial and administrative skills is something that is to be expected, given the complexities of modern living and development. 

Umno sources said former Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin was a prime mover in introducing technocrats at the Mentri Besar level. 

For instance, many believe that he had a say in the appointments of Johor's Ghani and Selangor's Dr Khir. 

He thought that Johor being an advanced state would be more receptive to a technocrat and a non-political warlord as CEO. 

Dr Khir's appointment was such a shot from out of the blue that Umno people had asked “Dr Who?” when he was named Mentri Besar in 2000. 

Umno Selangor was then ravaged by political camps and Dr Khir's edge then was that he was not aligned to any clique, had no ACA file and was a professional to boot. 

It took Dr Khir years to get Selangor under his control because of the long shadow of the charismatic Umno strongman Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib. 

In Ghani's case, Umno people used to complain that he was not as accessible as they would have liked. Unlike other Umno politicians, he does not encourage party folk strolling into his house at their whim and fancy. 

An economist by training, he also did not believe in an over-cosy relationship with the business community and frowns on the habit of Umno middle-men bringing him the proverbial brown envelopes on behalf of business figures. 

His stand is that business ought to be “conducted on the table and not under the table.” 

His supporters describe his style as “upright, diligent and un-flamboyant.” 

But the role of the new CEOs, said World Economic Institute head Nungsari Ahmad Radhi, remains highly political. 

There is no way a Mentri Besar can separate politics from state affairs. 

“In fact, they have to be more politician than technocrat because they have to deliver the state for the federal government in a general election. They have to look after the politics of the state,” said Nungsari. 

Their political role, said Shahrir, could not have been better illustrated than during the Umno debacle of 1987. 

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad won the fight against Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah because the Mentris Besar, who are also state Umno liaison chiefs, rallied support for him on the ground. 

“It was made clear that they were answerable to him,” said Shahrir. 

Hence, every Prime Minister and Umno president would want to appoint Mentris Besar whom they can work well with and who can take orders. 

At the same time, said former Kedah politician Rosnah Majid, the Mentri Besar of the future has to understand a balance sheet. 

“The economy is the engine of society. If you can’t make it work, you are in big trouble with your electorate,” she said. 

But, said Shahrir, Mentris Besar now and in the future will have to seriously deal with the question of honesty and integrity. 

“These issues will increasingly define how well they do as the CEO of the state,” he said.  

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