Innovating Cabinet: Getting Malaysia’s best to work together

What criteria should be used to convene the best possible team for Malaysia?

30 Nov 2022 08:09am
Anwar Ibrahim, who is PH chairman, after the Mesyuarat Majlis Presiden Pakatan Harapan at PKR HQ on Nov 28, 2022.
Anwar Ibrahim, who is PH chairman, after the Mesyuarat Majlis Presiden Pakatan Harapan at PKR HQ on Nov 28, 2022.
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All eyes are on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, to see who he is going to pick for his team.

This applies most obviously to his cabinet, but people are also watching to see who he picks as key staff.

It’s an exciting time, as I have always felt that Malaysia is home to a pool of immense talent. Is this finally time for the very best to shine?

This article is an exercise in thinking about what criteria and principles could be productively applied to choosing the best possible team.

Let’s start with the Cabinet.

The big question most are debating is of course whether Umno President Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi should be named to the cabinet - with some suggesting he should even be made Deputy Prime Minister.

Maybe asking whether Zahid should be a minister or not is not asking the right question. What if there were workarounds to this dilemma?

One major innovation in terms of criteria for cabinet would be deprioritising political positions as a criteria for a cabinet post.

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In the past, an individual’s position in his or her political party was one of the biggest determining factor in the cabinet selection process.

This is deeply problematic on at least two levels. The first obvious one is the lack of proper qualification and expertise.

The skills needed to rise to a high position in one’s political party are probably extremely different from the skills needed to run a given ministry well.

The second level is perhaps even more important. When cabinet appointments are very closely related to political positions, this creates the wrong kind of incentive for people to pursue high political positions within their parties.

In the past, people have pursued such positions so as to ensure a big ministerial portfolio, which in turn comes with the power to award big contracts. The kickbacks from these contract awards were then pumped back into party elections to ensure retaining that high political position and subsequent cabinet posting.

Decoupling this would lead to a much more professional cabinet, and possibly go a long way to eliminating money politics.

Needless to say, from a democratic point of view, it can reasonably be argued that those with high political position in ruling parties should be allowed due influence with regards to government policy.

Perhaps a good solution is to make amendments to establish non-ministerial seats within the cabinet specifically for top leaders of political parties, so they can have the ability to give their views within cabinet.

This might also solve the Zahid dilemma.

In a similar spirit, increasing the number of ministerships given to non-political technocrats instead of parliamentarians may also be a good idea. The reasoning behind this is the concept of choosing the best possible Malaysian to lead a given ministry, and one who is truly a leading expert in the relevant field.

In terms of a match between skillset and duties, elected representatives who have a lot on their plates serving their constituencies may be particularly well suited to contribute to ministries in advisory, oversight, and check and balancing roles - fulfilling their duties to their constituents by helping ensure that ministries function in the interests of the people.

Another key balance to navigate with regards key positions both inside and outside the cabinet is the balance between the old and the young, between insiders and outsiders, and between warriors and peacemakers.

I must note briefly that there may be the some perceived bias with regards to some of my views and vested interests; this is a reasonable criticism.

A victory like Anwar’s can only come about with key roles being played by top lieutenants. Surely it is only fair that those who have stood by Anwar every step of the way (something I would certainly never claim to have done) be maintained in some key positions in his administration.

Loyalty must be valued.

The notion of ‘balance in all things’ may however be applicable here as well. It is worthwhile avoiding surrounding oneself only with loyalists, and the age-old advice of not surrounding oneself with yes-men is likely to apply.

There is also something to be said for fresh perspectives. Diversity of opinions can be challenging to manage internally, but the rewards of doing so successfully is impossible to understate. (An interesting and relevant read may be Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Lincoln, “A Team of Rivals”.

The skillsets that are most useful for being in the opposition are not exactly the same as the skillsets that are most useful for being in government. Often times, the former needs warriors, whereas the latter needs peacemakers.

For better or (more likely) for worse, the office of the Prime Minister of Malaysia is one that wields immense power. Decades of damage done to other democratic institutions have weakened their ability to provide appropriate checks and balances.

I am optimistic that the Pakatan Harapan government will take at least some steps to rectify this state of affairs.

Nonetheless, in the meantime, what this means is that a great deal of vital decisions will be made from and through the Prime Minister’s Office.

Thus, the people staffing this office will be running the very nerve centre of the country for the near future.

In Malaysia’s current context, I would guesstimate that the most important attributes and skillsets of this group of staffers would be: a sharp ability to understand Malaysia’s big picture context and long term needs, cool-headed emotional intelligence that informs an ability to work well with others, an approach to politics that is nuanced and innovative, and a steadfast allegiance to principles and values more than feudal loyalties.

Past political leaders may have seen some of the above attributes as liabilities more than assets, but I think this goes a long way in explaining the fates they met.

Choosing more wisely could mark the beginning of an entirely new era of vibrant democracy for Malaysia - one where we are finally able to tap the immense pool of world class talent that has always been bursting at the seams, waiting for the opportunity to serve and make Malaysia all it can truly be.

NATHANIEL TAN is a freelance strategic communications consultant who works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. Twitter: @NatAsasi, Email: [email protected]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.