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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The first big step is a small cabinet

APRIL 8,2009 – malaysianinsider

Scepticism comes naturally with broken promises. Due to disillusionment among far too many individuals under the previous administration, the words of a Barisan Nasional-led administration are close to worthless nowadays.

It is, therefore, not hard to prove that the window for sloganeering for the new Prime Minister is extremely narrow. What really matters now is action, and the first step in breaking that scepticism is by assembling a Cabinet worthy of trust.

The window for sloganeering should have been shut completely if not for the role of slogans in clarifying any agenda. While catchy slogans still have a place, the agenda must first be set straight and right. In this era of extreme scepticism, doing otherwise invites disaster.

Questions on the slogan will be raised and convincing answers will not be forthcoming exactly because the slogan lacks substance. That will create disappointment, reinforcing pre-existing skepticism.

Mixing scepticism with further disappointment is a surefire recipe for cynicism.

Being a sceptic, it is not hard at all to turn myself into a cynic, especially with the mainstream media acting the way they do at the moment.

The mainstream media – the major printed and broadcast media – are obviously oblivious to the reason why they lost their credibility in the first place. Their coverage of the three just-concluded by-elections continue to prove that they are nothing more than individuals typically found in the dark back alleys with scant ersatz clothing soliciting for clients of dubious taste.

So early in days of the new administration, there are little clues to the actual agenda of the new Prime Minister, save an unclear slogan with no concrete definition.

“One Malaysia”, for instance, is amazingly opaque despite the untrustworthy mainstream media parading the slogan as a sign of change.

Change is not about slogans but the mainstream media would have all of us believe otherwise.

There appears to be some effort by the Prime Minister to elaborate on that slogan on a piecemeal basis but, so far, it is all wishy washy.

It is there in the air, warm and fuzzy but nobody can really see it. Considering that, the new Prime Minister has not communicated his message clearly.

This has made his own slogans open for a gamut of interpretations, making blowback a real possibility.

Already “One Malaysia” is seen by some as a repackaged Malaysian Malaysia, striking fear in the hearts of conservative Malays. On the other side, “One Malaysia” suggests intolerance for civil dissents and a return to Asian values where unity is promoted at the expense of liberty.

In absence of clear message, one has to look somewhere else to ascertain the agenda of the new administration. The opportunity to do just that is coming with the expected formation of a new Cabinet. The size and the membership of Cabinet will shed light on some of the new prime minister’s agenda.

The size of the new Cabinet will indicate whether the same path of big, ineffective and wasteful government is the order of the day. Under the Abdullah administration, there were 33 individuals with a seat in the Cabinet by virtue of being ministers; there were 27 ministries of various kinds.

It is easy to digest how the number of the ministries translates into a big government. The greater the quantity of ministries is, the greater the requirement for civil servants. Tremendous resources are required just to keep a bloated government running.

A large number of ministries not only suggests the large size of government. It also suggests that the role of government is wide; wide enough to smother the life of private citizens, not only with respect to civil liberty, but also in the areas of business where multiple permits and licences are required by different ministries, as each ministry tries to justify its existence.

At the back of my head, there is a nagging feeling that these ministries were created to satisfy political demand for positions and power rather than accommodating national needs.

At the very top, having 33 decision makers in the Cabinet makes the decision-making process cumbersome. In a country with limited empowerment as evident through the lack of local elections and in effect unresponsive local government, far too many decisions eventually go back to the top.

When such top-down statist set-up is coupled with a cumbersome cabinet, it is little wonder that the government is ineffective.

Adoption of organic – or bottom-up – approach can solve that problem. One example of that is by returning the power of local government to the people through reintroduction of local government.

With active local government, many functions of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government can be made irrelevant as the decision-making path length is shortened. Greater democratisation itself can eliminate the need for the Ministry of Federal Territories completely.

Regardless of democratisation, what exactly does the Ministry of Federal Territories do that the local authority, like the City Hall of Kuala Lumpur, cannot?

A new cabinet must address the problem of big government that has been strongly identified with the past administration. The new administration has to forcefully break from the past.

Inevitably, that means embracing a limited but effective government led by a small but capable cabinet.

Functions of ministries need to be streamlined to address the problem of overlapping turfs, ministries have to be merged to reduce the scope of government, and excess positions within the government need to be removed to address more than a decade-old fiscal deficit, which is an indicator of the size of government.

These actions, to me, will produce a very strong signal indicating a change from the malaise Malaysia suffers.

That will help in convincing me – and probably others, too – to cut down on my scepticism and to give the new administration a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, elimination of excess positions within an already bloated government might not happen. The mini-budget specifically called for absorption of the unemployed into the government. In other words, past promises are tying the new Prime Minister’s hand.

Nevertheless, reducing the size of government cannot be done in a day. It has to be done in a gradual manner.

Yet, gradualism is not a luxury the new administration can afford. Given the urgency and the gravity of the need for change, the only quick big punch to the prevailing scepticism relates back to the size of cabinet and eventually, the size of government.

The composition of the cabinet is as important as the size. Still, even the question of composition necessarily leads back to the size.

The pool of Members of Parliament available to the new Prime Minister contains a limited number of qualified individuals with intact credibility.

A large Cabinet will more likely than not absorb individuals who do not command confidence from the public, which is exactly what the new administration needs badly.

If the new administration wants to earn confidence from the masses, a large Cabinet is not an option.

Having said that, it must also be stressed that a small cabinet does not guarantee a smooth ride for the new administration. The size is a mere symptom of the agenda and a small cabinet only suggests that the agenda is on the right track. It says nothing of the agenda itself.

A failure to form a lean cabinet will, however, make the years of the Najib administration a hell for Barisan Nasional.

* Hafiz Noor Shams explains minarchism at maddruid.com

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