Negara-ku: May 13, Masjid Jamek and ministerial multiplication

Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan is the person we most associate with Bersih, the Malaysian movement for free and fair elections. On July 10, while introducing Negara-ku (My Nation), she said “Now every time someone says May 13, you can respond with July 10.”

Negara-ku’s Chairman is Zaid Kamaruddin, Secretary General of IKRAM, a Muslim NGO. Negara-ku’s patrons include national laureate Pak Samad and Tan Sri Simon Sipaun, the retired state secretary of Sabah who continues to serve us in many royal and civil society appointments.

More and more Malaysian Civil Society Organizations are endorsing Negara-ku, a non-governmental movement for moderation. As I see it, Negara-ku serves two purposes.

First, it creates a platform for moderate citizens to exhibit our views in solidarity with others.

Second, it promotes an alternative agenda for our nation.

An agenda is being set for our nation by extremists urged by persons with vested interests. This is crystallized in a Negara-ku video shown at the launch yesterday.

The video includes a clip of Penang State Assemblyman RSN Rayer’s alleged “Damn Umno” remark in the Penang State Assembly in Penang in May this year.

The public spaces are filled with reports of expressions of outrage by Umno members over Rayer’s words; scant attention is given to the context of Rayer’s words.

Rayer spewed “damn” at 3 Umno leaders over their role in a rally which included a banner which read, in Malay, “May 13 was caused by DAP leaders, want more?”

(The 3 Umno men are Kepala Batas MP Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina, Tasek Gelugor MP Shahbudin Yahya and Penang Umno deputy chief Datuk Musa Sheikh Fadzir.)

Talk of May 13 has been relentless. The usual belligerents include Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who just days ago said “another May 13 is not impossible.”

The spectre of May 13 is constantly raised by Umno, the dominant member in the coalition which governs Malaysia. May 13 is raised in order to incite submission.

What the Bersih protests have shown us is that despite relentless ethnic-baiting by the race-based parties which form the ruling coalition, a sane middle-Malaysia has emerged.

Nowadays, when I have foreign visitors, I take them to the point of origin of Kuala Lumpur, “the muddy confluence” next to Masjid Jamek. I point out with pride the mosque which reinforced my view of “Malays.” Holding back my tears, I recount stories I have read of how non-Malays and Malays were urged to shelter there from the chemical laced water and tear gas shot at them by order of the government.

But the government ignores the evidence of Bersih. This evidence includes magnificent race-blind acts of helping of each other against the police. This evidence includes the impartiality with which members of the Malaysian Islamic Party’s Unit Amal dispersed tension and maintained order during the Bersih protests.

The government ignores the evidence and continues with an agenda to invoke fear of uprisings and insecurity. The government defends, promotes and encourages those who sow hatred and fear – Perkasa, Isma, Umno Youth and many others.

The national agenda is set by the government, because we have delegated agenda-setting to our elected representatives. But they are setting the wrong agenda.

What does good citizenship require us to do if the agenda they set is geared towards entrenching themselves instead of defining and meeting the people’s aspirations?

More evidence of the wrong agenda is found in the “Cabinet reshuffle” announced by our Prime Minister on 25 June, when our Cabinet was bloated to 35 Ministers.

The “reshuffle” (no roles were rotated) was the subject of a public discussion in KL yesterday.

The panellists were Dr Wong Chin Huat (Fellow, Penang Institute), Professor Dominic Lau Hoe Chai (Gerakan VP) and Mr Liew Chin Tong (MP for Kluang and Johor DAP Chairman).

Prof. Lau made a valiant attempt to defend the changes. I am grateful for his attempt; however, since I am not convinced by it, I shall not repeat it.

In recent decades much research has been done into organizational effectiveness (OE). Based on the research, OE gurus recommend organizations to have no more than fifteen persons reporting to anyone. Fifteen is generally considered the most effective span of control, though eighteen is often accepted.

So, it’s quite shocking that thirty five Ministers now report to the Prime Minister, in addition to all the other administrative people who report to him. And that’s before including those who report to him in his role as Finance Minister.

Debates over the optimal number of direct reports have raged in boardrooms and the business press in recent decades. The consensus is that effective leaders are relentless in their quest for ways to reduce the number of people who report to them.

Stock holders routinely ask whether both a President and a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) are needed. Whether a COO (Chief Operating Officer) and a CEO are needed. Whether more people shouldn’t be “double hatting,” i.e. leading more than one department. Whether enough young people are being groomed for top positions.

One question which is never asked is “When will you do away with the CFO (Chief Financial Officer)?”

The CEO and the CFO have different roles. As Mr Liew pointed out, the CEO’s role is to spend. The CFO’s role is to vet spending.

To cause a riot amongst stockholders, all a board has to do is combine the role of CEO and CFO. Yet, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib not only has too many people reporting to him, he is both CEO and CFO. He both spends and vets spending! Can he be effective?

According to Dr Wong, Australia with a population only slightly less than Malaysia’s has only 13 Ministers; India, with a population forty times larger than ours, has only 23 Ministers.

In Australia and India many Ministers have more than one portfolio. Conversely, in Malaysia, several Ministries have more than one Minister.

Our government’s agenda is clearly to treat Ministerial posts as political rewards, not nodes of accountability and action. Consequently the Cabinet is made so large that it can do no more than rubber stamp the Prime Minister’s edicts.

My Negara-ku agenda includes replacing talk of May 13 with July 10 and with Masjid Jamek. My Negara-ku agenda also includes reducing the number of Ministers. What does yours include?

Rama Ramanathan maintains the blog Rest Stop Thoughts

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