Ministers mustn’t make policy on the run

Ministers mustn't make policy on the runBy T K Chua

Were I to say that the Cabinet meeting is held every week, chaired by the PM (or in his absence, by the DPM), many might think I was raising a non-issue. But it is not.

We have an elaborate system of government in Malaysia, but sometimes I think we have lost track of our system and even cabinet ministers are in dire need of a reminder.

The Cabinet is the apex of executive power. Major decisions and policies are deliberated, considered and made at its meetings. The Cabinet is the conduit that provides coherence and unity of government decisions and policies across ministries and agencies.

The current controversy about whether to allow property developers to extend loans to house buyers would not have arisen if ministers fully understood their roles and responsibilities under our system of government.

Ministers are entrusted with policy making responsibility but not without proper consultation and collective Cabinet decision. Ministers pronouncing policies at their whims and fancies can cause a lot of anxiety and apprehension among the people.

Ministers are not expert at everything. They are politicians first and foremost. That is why they need specialists and civil servants at the ministries to help them.

Perhaps it is opportune to remind our ministers that they have not become more knowledgeable or more clever at the moment they were appointed to the Cabinet. It is always better for them to seek consultation and advice. For more complicated policy proposals, they should in fact direct the professionals to do the study first.

In our system of government, ministers do not make policy decisions unilaterally. Usually, a Cabinet paper spelling out the background, proposal, justification and the “prayers” sought will be needed. It is for the Cabinet to jointly and collectively decide whether the decisions or policies sought are to be accepted or rejected.

It would be neater for the ministers to play by this “rule of engagement”.

Shooting from the hip will only bring them embarrassment, and cause confusion and anxiety among the people. After the damage has been done, it would be quite useless for a minister to claim that the proposal was only a suggestion or that he had been misquoted.

T.K. Chua is an FMT reader.

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