By TK Chua
The news item “Razak Baginda slams article on civil service” brings forth some interesting points for discussion.

Essentially, Abdul Razak Baginda is not happy with the comparisons made between Malaysia and Singapore in terms of civil service performance and attainment. According to him, a fairer comparison would be between Malaysia and Britain.
For historical and geographical reasons, numerous comparisons have been made between Malaysia and Singapore over the years. Because of our common past, there was rivalry and jealousy as the two countries embarked on our respective modes of development and nation-building.
Is it true that Singapore, as a tiny city state, is much easier to govern? This is Razak’s basic argument: “Managing Singapore is just like managing Kuala Lumpur. You cannot compare oranges and lemons.”
I think if we truly understood the complexity of the problems and challenges faced by Singapore, we would not say things like that. Even for sand used in construction, Singapore needs to scout as far as Cambodia and Myanmar.
To me, if Singapore was not in good hands, it would have lost its independence and become a city slum a long time ago. I am not saying that it is more difficult to manage Singapore, but it is definitely not easier.
Even if we accept that Singapore is just like Kuala Lumpur, the development of Kuala Lumpur is nowhere near that of Singapore today, despite Kuala Lumpur possessing natural “hinterland” much larger than Singapore’s.
I think we must have the humility to learn from others. Being smug will not get us anywhere.

Since comparing ourselves with Singapore is not in our favour, Razak asked that Malaysia be compared to Britain. Can we see the baloney here? It is all right if we can’t match a better competitor – we just need to pick a lesser country and voila, we are no longer the last.
I would prefer that Malaysia is compared neither with Singapore nor Britain. To do so would only bring dishonesty, hypocrisy and hubris into the argument. Malaysia should rightly evaluate its achievements vis-a-vis the resources and enterprise of its people.
I think there are strengths and weaknesses in each country. Each is unique and no two countries are the same.
Each country should ask whether it could have done more and achieved better outcomes. It does not matter if Malaysia is larger and more diverse than Singapore. It does not matter if we have affirmative action programmes while Singapore has its meritocracy. Affirmative action programmes do not ipso facto result in inefficiency in the civil service as claimed; it is incompetency and the abuse of the programmes.
Ultimately, I think it is always capable leadership with integrity in governance and institutions that will decide the fate of a country.
Resources of the country will be squandered if we do not know how to manage them properly. How do we manage our oil and gas resources if we have not learned how to manage our water catchments properly?
The potential of the people will be wasted if we are unable to provide them with competitive education and opportunities. The civil service will be ineffective or in disarray because there is no credible leadership at the helm.

Razak talks about the civil service in Malaysia having its “own mind” when it comes to implementing government directives whereas in Singapore, the civil service acts in unison with its political masters. Is this the fault of the civil service or the political masters?
The civil service will have its own mind if policy decisions are irrational, contradictory and of no benefit to the public. The civil service will be ineffective if political leadership is not credible. The civil service will be corrupt if political masters show no good example and no political will to tackle corruption without fear or favour.
Sometimes a think tank is just a tank with no think in it.
TK Chua is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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