Cobwebs in our Cabinet

The cabinet of Tunku Abdul Rahman had only 13 ministers. The word 'deputy minister' was unheard of until Tun Razak formed the first Barisan Nasional cabinet after the 1974 election with 22 full ministers and 16 deputy ministers.

Liew Chin Tong, The Malaysian Insider

Speculation is rife that the Cabinet of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak will be leaner, meaner and slimmer. Or will it?

Inefficiencies caused by a bloated government stop the nation from moving forward, add cost to doing business, and makes life harder for ordinary folk. Thus, it goes without saying, that a smaller Cabinet will be well received. 

In a normal competitive democracy, governments change hands every now and then. For instance, in Australia, a government averagely lasts for eight years.

New governments are often lean and slim as they re-examine past arrangements and set new priorities.

By the time they get bogged down by vested interests of their own, the voters will throw them out of office.

Malaysia has had no change of government since independence in 1957, thus there is hardly any impetus for major shake-up of the system.

Whenever a new leader takes office or a political leader needs to resolve a certain problem, layer after layer of bureaucracy is added on without removing redundant ones.

Najib has his fair share of the blame. For example, when he took over the finance portfolio last year, a project management unit (PMU) was formed in the Treasury; presumably the Implementation Coordination Unit (ICU) of the Prime Minister's Department had failed the task of dishing out contracts to Umno cronies quickly.

It is doubtful how lean and mean Najib's cabinet can be, given that the prime minister is governing through a grand coalition that has many powerful ministerial aspirants.

The cabinet of Tunku Abdul Rahman had only 13 ministers. The word 'deputy minister' was unheard of until Tun Razak formed the first Barisan Nasional cabinet after the 1974 election with 22 full ministers and 16 deputy ministers.

When Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad left office in 2003, his front bench has 76 members.

Tun Abdullah Badawi's post-2004 election saw a 93-member administration – the largest ever in history.

Although he managed to slim down the obese cabinet and its deputies, it was still a bloated 67-member bench.

There are several issues Najib should take into account if he were to build a 'world class' – (among the many over-rated terms in the country) team for a better Malaysia.

First, the spirit of checks-and-balances is essential to any democratic system. The prime minister in the Westminster model is supposed to be 'first among equals' and not a king or president with absolute power.

One important convention is that the prime minister does not hold concurrent finance portfolio as the latter's brief is to safeguard state funds while the top man's job is to spend.

Najib should relinquish the finance portfolio and appoint a full-time minister. 

Second, there is a tendency to seek prime ministerial attention on everything, resulting in a huge prime minister's department covering everything from Islam to maritime enforcement.

It's time to rationalise the messy puzzle.

Many agencies currently placed under the prime minister's department should have been independently run and answerable to the Parliament such as the Election Commission, the Public Complaints Bureau, the Istana, and, ironically, the parliamentary service itself.

Third, partisan or 'cronistic' interests should not be built into ministerial arrangements.

Institutional integrity and efficiency supersedes all private profiteering considerations.

A case in point is public transport.

Not many people realise that the transport ministry has no say over public transportation. The Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board is the turf of the Entrepreneurial and Cooperative Development Ministry, with the objective of using public transport licensing power to build a Bumiputra commercial and industrial community (BCIC).

Another example is the governing of licensed money lenders, who often double-up as loan sharks.

Strangely, money lenders, who form  a kind of financial institution, are under the local government and housing ministry, not finance ministry. The only explanation I can think of is that the money lenders, and by extension, the loan sharks, are more often than not, MCA supporters.

Finally, racial division of labour is not needed in an urbanised modern world.

Prior to 1970s, it is easy to segregate spatial existence racially, with most Malays living in the kampongs, Indians in the estates, and Chinese either in the urban sectors or new villages.

After half-a-century of formation, National and Rural Development Ministry still handle affairs of Malay villages while Chinese villages' affairs by MCA's Local Government and Housing Ministry.

Labour is still seen as an Indian issue, thus a MIC minister is tasked to oversee it.

Malaysia is now an urbanised nation with at least 65 per cent of its multiethnic population living in the cities. Their basic needs, such as transport, housing and jobs, are similar regardless of race and religion.

A 'new deal', as hyped by the media of Najib's premiership, must clean the cobwebs in our cabinet from the start.

Liew Chin Tong is the DAP MP for Bukit Bendera.