One minister too many
Published: Fri, 01 Feb 2013
AT least once every five years, we elect a government to administer our country.
We expect this government to enact appropriate policies and provide an environment in which we can conduct our day to day activities with ease.
The government divides its many responsibilities among various ministries. For example, we have the Defence Ministry to protect us against external threats, and the Home Ministry in in charge of the police force which is tasked with keeping our domestic environment safe and secure.
Division of responsibilities is a normal practice in any organisation.
It facilitates efficiency, specialisation and accountability. However, in Malaysia, the reverse is true.
Prime Minister (PM) Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration at its peak had a whopping 31 ministers spread across 25 ministries. We have more ministers than ministries.
This is compounded by the fact that the prime minister’s department alone has six ministers while the Ministry of Finance has two.
The Malaysian Cabinet currently comprises 30 ministers and 38 deputy ministers!
In comparison, the United Kingdom and Australian Cabinets have a mere 22 to 23 ministers each.
It should be noted that:
The United Kingdom has a far larger population - 62 million vs our 29 million; and
Australia is a huge continent covering 7.7 million sq km vs our 331,000.
Our current Cabinet of 30 ministers is nearly comparable in size to the 33 in India.
However, the 33 Indian ministers administer over one billion people spread across 3.3 million sq km of land.
That is a population more than 30 times bigger than Malaysia’s, in a land 10 times larger than ours.
Also, the ministers in the United Kingdom and Australia head multiple ministries. Australia averages about two ministers for every three ministries whereas the UK average is five ministers for every six ministries.
We, on the other hand, have ministers that outnumber ministries, as well as a huge legion of deputy ministers!
The charts below tell the story:
Our tubby Cabinet is sclerotic
Many hands make light work, and indeed, compared to their Commonwealth peers, not only do our Malaysian ministers have fewer citizens to take care of and less ground to cover, they also have fewer ministries to be responsible for.
Yet, this light burden on our ministers does not seem to have resulted in efficient administration of the country.
Quite the contrary; given the all-too-numerous examples of inefficiency, wastage and incompetence, it seems too many cooks spoil the broth.
Effective administration of our country is hampered by lack of communication and overlaps between ministries and the bizarre allocation of responsibilities with some ministries being given roles in which they have no natural expertise.
Where does one ministry end and another begin?
With so many ministries in so many roles, there are bound to be many cases of overlap.
Also, the subdividing of government executive responsibilities into minutiae can result in each ministry operating in its own silo, and taking a narrow, short-term view of its role.
Take for instance the many housemen (medical graduates) being churned out by private universities.
While the Higher Education Ministry blithely licenses more and more medical schools, the Ministry of Health grapples with ensuring adequate clinical training for this huge number of aspiring doctors.
Or consider the fact that we have three separate science and resource-related ministries:
Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation;
Ministry of Natural Resources & Environment; and
Ministry of Energy, Green Technology & Water.
How do we determine where innovation ends and green technology begins? And how can we sensibly discuss water issues without bringing in the environment?
If, for example, a Malaysian scientist needs government support for an innovative, low-impact hydroelectricity dam, which ministry should he approach?
We also have three ministries covering agriculture and rural issues - Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities; Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry; and Ministry of Rural and Regional Development.
Why is the plantations sector not within the Ministry of Agriculture? And aren’t agro-based industries closely related to rural development? Which ministry takes precedence if a plantation developer requires government approval and support to plant in an undeveloped, rural area?
Even worse: The allocation of responsibilities is bizarre
The problem of overlapping jurisdictions can be mitigated by clear and transparent guidelines and communication, but the existence of the glut of medical housemen suggests even basic communication between ministries appears nonexistent.
More worrying is the bizarre allocation of responsibilities among the ministries.
Ministries are now responsible for areas in which they have no natural expertise, which makes administrative competence nearly impossible to attain.
For example, the Finance Ministry (MoF) runs public transport in Kuala Lumpur. It operates the public bus service and controls the issuance of taxi licenses. One would think these are best handled at local level by Kuala Lumpur City Hall, or, if at federal level, by the Ministry of Transport or the Ministry of Federal Territories and Urban Well-being.
Also, amazingly, the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) is under the purview of the prime minister! Is it any wonder that our public transport system is in such a mess?
Or consider the matter of contractors. It is the MoF that licenses contractors from Class F to Class A, not the Ministry of Works.
When the financial whizz-kids at the MoF consider themselves competent to license contractors, is it any surprise that the roof of the Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium in Terengganu collapsed embarrassingly just a year after its official opening by the Sultan himself?
What is of even more concern is that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government is in charge of licensing money lenders and pawnbrokers.
Besides the question of competency, there is also a huge conflict of interest in such a situation.
The ministry is responsible for providing affordable housing, but ironically, the money-lenders it regulates would prefer an environment of high speculation and rising prices!
Is it any surprise then that weak administration and incompetence is the order of the day? How can any government administration be effective when housing pokes its nose into finance, finance into construction, and the PM’s department crosses into transport, creating conflicts of interest across the board?
PEMANDU merely adds another layer of bureaucratic fat …
Prime Minister Najib set up PEMANDU, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit, in 2009, to oversee 1) the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) that aims to improve public services and 2) the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) to transform Malaysia into a high-income nation by 2020.
Sadly, PEMANDU has turned out to be yet another expensive layer of fat in the government, creating more duplication and bureaucracy.
As part of its GTP responsibilities, PEMANDU has various units including, among others, Education, Crime and Public Transport.
How these units interact with the various ministries is not always clear.
For example, it appears PEMANDU’s Education GTP unit contributed little or no input to the important Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 which sets out the Education Ministry’s plans and strategies for the next decade.
Even more appalling, this powerful agency within the prime minister’s department has lied to the Malaysian public and its expensive staff and consultants have made massive calculation errors.
Lies as audacious as claiming “100%” credit for the “construction” of a RM1.9 billion wafer-fab plant that does not exist, and errors resulting in projected national income contributions being slashed by 45% - nearly half! - cast serious doubts over its ability as a Performance Management & Delivery Unit.
Time to rebalance … trim the Cabinet, beef up Parliament
It is self-evident that we cannot reliably evaluate our own performance.
It is an issue that goes beyond trust. Even the most honest individual is susceptible to unconscious bias.
Hence, it is necessary for a system of checks and balances to be in place to ensure accountability. In an examination, invigilation is essential, and third-party validation is often called for. In a business, shareholders insist that the company, in addition to its own internal controls and audits, has its accounts verified by external auditors.
In this regard, in our system of Westminster-style democracy, the role of Parliament is to act as sentinel, checking and balancing the government administration.
Unfortunately, while our administration has grown corpulent, Parliament has been left with scraps.
Our parliament has just 298 staffers and a mere RM82 million budget, while the prime minister’s department alone has 29,444 members of staff and RM15 billion of allocations.
The lack of parliamentary resources and poor oversight over the ministries has allowed a culture of complacency, and perhaps even arrogance, to develop in the government administration.
* In the next Focus Papers in this series, we shall suggest how the number of ministries can be streamlined, and their resources allocated to more effective uses in Parliament. Acknowledgement
This Focus Paper draws heavily from the report “http://refsa.org/others/a-comparative-study-of-cabinet-structures-and-parliamentary-oversight-across-australia-india-the-uk-and-malaysia/” A Comparative Study of Cabinet Structures and Parliamentary Oversight across Australia, India, the UK and Malaysia, commissioned by REFSA and undertaken and completed by Marie Tan Kiak Li on 6 Feb 2011. The study is available for free download at www.refsa.org.