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Civil service needs MAS-like turnaround

 | February 18, 2017

Does the BN government have the political will to do it?

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When Second Finance Minister Johari Abdul Ghani spoke of Malaysia’s bloated civil service, he didn’t say anything most of us did not already suspect. What we want to know most of all is what the government will do about it.

Do you remember Christoph Mueller, who was brought in from Germany to prevent MAS from going bankrupt?

One of Mueller’s first tasks was to ascertain the number of middle managers in the airline. We’re told that he asked Khazanah Nasional Berhad, MAS’s owner, for the figure. Apparently, no one in Khazanah had a clue.

Mueller was unable to formulate a survival plan until he knew the size of middle management and the exact nature of the chain of command.

It wasn’t just the number of middle ranking managers that was the problem. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Mueller claimed MAS had thousands of suppliers before his arrival. He said these suppliers were bleeding the airline dry by inflating costs by 20% to 25% above the market rate.

MAS insiders alleged that many of the middle managers had friends with fake companies supplying the airline with bogus services or goods. By the time of his early departure from MAS, Mueller had trimmed down the number of suppliers from 4,000 to 2,000.

Perhaps Mueller’s biggest headache came from having to deal with the cabin crew. The National Union of Flight Attendants Malaysia (Nufam) was incensed when it learned that Mueller wanted to get rid of 6,000 MAS employees. He said these people “had nothing to do” and some were seen literally sleeping on the job.

Nufam accused Mueller of failing to appreciate the Malaysian work culture. One of its officials said, “He needs to understand the workers in operations work.” He claimed that they were often exhausted for having to work round the clock. “Sleeping is not an excuse for a company like MAS to sack workers,” he added.

Today MAS is in better financial shape than when Mueller first arrived. He was not afraid to take drastic action because he wanted to save the airline, but some people are not prepared to do the right thing.

A consultant who specialises in turning companies around was once asked if it was possible to sack the deadwood and unproductive workers in the civil service.

He said, “You have to deal with two huge beasts, namely Cuepacs (the civil service workers union) and the government. This will be close to impossible unless the country gets into such a deep financial crisis and is forced to do it.”

Does Putrajaya have the political will to deal with its bloated civil service, or will it be afraid of committing political suicide? Just like Sarawak and Sabah, the civil service functions as a vote bank for Barisan Nasional.

Will we be stuck with unproductive Little Napoleons or will we demand action from Putrajaya?

Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

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