Not many people were surprised when Dr Mahathir Mohamad revived his Look East policy. He has always admired the Japanese work ethic as well as the way they were able to rebuild their nation after the devastation of World War II. Of course, Japan’s accomplishments have been phenomenal and there’s much we can learn from them.
Corrupt officials with name tags
Cynics will, however, wonder whether anything qualitative has come out of the whole effort to learn from the Japanese, at least in so far as the civil service is concerned.
Civil servants come to work on time with the clock-in system and are readily identifiable by their name tags, but has it made them more productive, more committed to public service, less corrupt? Judging from Mahathir’s own harsh remarks about the civil service, it would seem that the answers to all these questions are a resounding no.
In fact, successive prime ministers have complained about the civil service but all have been quick to also praise them (and raise their salaries) for fear of antagonising an important vote bank.
We also spend millions, year after year, on civil service training programmes, and send civil servants abroad to study. Much of it is simply a waste of time and money.
Clearly, transplanting Japanese work ethics into the civil service, if it’s at all possible, is going to take a lot longer to realise. However, the experience of other countries when it comes to the civil service may be instructive: where there is uncompromising enforcement of rules and performance standards and a really transparent and competitive promotion system, public servants tend to perform better. The prospect of losing their jobs or being denied promotion is a powerful incentive to keep civil servants honest.
Thus far, there have been lots of complaints about the civil service but little sign of a serious attempt at reform. The rot has spread so wide that no one seems to know where to begin. The recent appointment of a new chief secretary is a step in the right direction but unless there is a commitment to undertake a radical overhaul of the civil service and the way it operates, we are not going to see the kind of qualitative improvements that our nation desperately needs.
Why Look East?
But why look East and not within in the first place?
In his speech to the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industries of Malaysia (ACCCIM) in July, Mahathir himself noted that “the Chinese were the driving force behind generating wealth in Malaysia”. He went on to say that, “Our country is what it is today because of the contribution from the business community, especially the Chinese community because they are dynamic in many ways.”
He then called for a collaborative effort (presumably with ACCCIM and the Malaysian Chinese business community) to lessen income disparities so that everyone could share in Malaysia’s prosperity. It was not the first time that Mahathir has mooted such an idea.
Is renewed interest in the Look East policy a reflection of Mahathir’s disenchantment with the inability of Malaysian businessmen to work together? Is he looking East because he has not been able to look within?
It’s a provocative question, no doubt, but it deserves some attention. In the past, such collaboration may have been difficult – you can’t demonise a community and then expect it to be helpful – but with a new government in power it might be time to seriously look at ways to get more Malay and Chinese businessmen to work together. The government’s plan to privatise some of the GLCs might, in fact, provide opportunities for such collaborative efforts.
Waiting to be wooed
In the meantime, buoyed by Pakatan Harapan’s election victory and hopeful of a more inclusive future, many Malaysians are returning home. We must find ways to tap the expertise, skills and connections of all Malaysians wherever they are.
Some Malaysians living abroad, however, are waiting to be wooed. One group of them recently urged the government “to form a special panel to woo those living there to return home and join government-linked companies to contribute to the development of a new Malaysia”. They also asked the government to “provide incentives and remove certain restrictions to encourage them to come back”, to quote one report.
If they need to be “wooed” to come home or if they need “incentives” to move back (and to work in GLCs at that), they are better off staying where they are. After all, thousands of Malaysian students return home each year without asking for incentives.
Just ask Yeo Bee Yin, our impressive minister of energy, green technology, science, climate change and environment; she didn’t need incentives to come home to serve her country. It is good that she is now in a leadership position.
This is the eighth article in a series on Malaysia-China ties.
Part 1: 33 years after Dr Mahathir’s first visit to China
Part 2: 33 years later, China’s rise to power
Part 3: The 33 ‘lost years’ in our ties with China
Part 4: China’s technology vs Malaysia’s durians
Part 5: From Proton Saga to Geely: A Malaysian failure
Part 6: Divided we stand
Next: The challenges ahead
Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.