The Star Online > Election2008
Friday February 15, 2008
In the front row of decision-making
Minister Effendi Norwawi bids farewell, saying one should not overstay and must make way for new blood and talent.
ELECTION’S coming. I’ve just turned 60, and I’m retiring. I’ve served the Cabinet for over six years now. I’m often asked what it’s like to be in the Cabinet.
Here’s my memory of it – a kind of a backstage tour. I have to be careful when doing this so as not to breach the Official Secrets Act. I must also state upfront these views are strictly mine and do not represent those of the Government.
If only the fly on the wall could talk. Firstly, there’s never a dull moment in the Cabinet. It can be intense, feisty, yet hilarious and boisterous at times.
All the ministers have their individual style of humour. They all seem to have the natural gift of being funny, yet can still be serious. I think they do this as a matter of sanity.
How else can you last three to four hours of gruelling intense meetings every Wednesday morning?
An unforgettable incident for me was on my second Cabinet meeting. Thanks to a JKR traffic diversion, I arrived at the meeting half an hour late! You can imagine how nerve-racking it was for me, creating such a poor impression on only my second meeting.
I remember (then prime minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) stopped the meeting and looked at me as I tiptoed in.
Everybody froze, especially me. And then, in typical Mahathir dry humour, said, “You can now stand at that corner”.
Everybody had a good laugh. But that is how it is in the Cabinet. It has a clever way of relieving itself of tension.
The first thing that struck me as a newcomer (incoming rookie Cabinet members be forewarned) is the mind-boggling volume of decision and information papers that hits you for this weekly Wednesday encounter.
The minutes alone can go up to 160 pages, and 5cm thick! There could be 30 to 40 decision and information papers.
When I was first given the large briefcase (the ones that pilots use), I thought it was just to impress our officers or the public. But very often even this huge bag was not large enough to carry all the papers!
One of the things that really amazes me – and I think they are our unsung national heroes – is how the Cabinet secretariat somehow manages to write all these incredibly exhaustive, complicated, convoluted discussions, and decipher them into logical and accurate minutes (imagine having to make out what’s being said between 31 very vocal politicians).
And they virtually have to do this in one day! (The minutes must be out by Friday.) A big salute to (Deputy Secretary-General – Cabinet) Datuk Mazidah (Abdul Majid) and team.
The meeting itself is interesting to watch. Can you imagine 31 expressive and opinionated individuals trying to come to a consensus?
I have great admiration for Pak Lah, listening patiently to arguments and opinions coming from all corners of the room.
Yet, nobody is ever denied the floor. Believe it or not, most of the time, a consensus is reached. Only once in awhile, when continuing dissension persists, that “His Master’s Voice” from the chair will firmly settle it.
Don’t ever get the impression that this Cabinet is a stroll in the park. It’s tough to be there (see the real-life evidence of how battle-worn my abang (Datuk Seri Dr) Lim Keng Yaik is after having been there for 22 years!).
Incidentally, he is one of those I respect for achieving the stature of self-expression – he speaks and acts without fear or favour.
The meeting doesn’t end there. All the ministers (including the PM himself) conduct post-Cabinet meetings, usually on the same day, after lunch, with their ministry officials.
Cabinet decisions are conveyed to the respective secretaries-general and team to implement. After that, they are under the watchful eye of the Chief Secretary to the Government (KSN).
And believe me, this guy doesn’t miss a thing. And some officers have experienced his displeasure for not living up to his mark.
So, my dear fellow Malaysians, when I leave the Government, I know there’s a sound time-tested system of administration that goes on ticking with an almost Swiss clock-like precision that keeps our country going (and often we take this for granted).
Pak Lah chairs his Cabinet meeting in a very business-like manner. Which brings me to this point – more corporate citizens should volunteer to join the Cabinet, especially those who have “arrived”, are financially sound and independent, and have gained the stature of self-expression, and have no personal and business agenda to promote.
Except for me and (Second Finance Minister Tan Sri Mohd) Nor Yakcop – who by the way is as sober and sound as finance ministers come – the Cabinet is, by nature, made up of politicians mainly.
Most of them do an excellent job representing their particular interests – whether it’s their party, constituency or their portfolio.
For many years, long before the Hindraf issue, I’ve always told friends that the person I admire most, the fiercest fighter for his community, is (MIC president Datuk Seri S.) Samy Vellu.
He is fearless and relentless. He’ll take on the whole Cabinet if he has to. If only the Indian community could see him in action in the Cabinet!
(Datuk Seri) Ong Ka Ting is an elegant leader. He is someone you know who’s thought through his case thoroughly and intelligently. He always makes very good sense, and he is so well-balanced.
We pray that there will be more MCA leaders like him in the pipeline. For me, he’s the benchmark.
Well, in case you think otherwise, Cabinet meetings are much, much more complicated and complex than any business board meeting. The Cabinet meeting covers everything under the sun. And for sure, it would debate any pressing national issue at the time.
These meetings cannot afford to produce less than the highest quality output – or the country and the community could be at risk.
So the quality of the Cabinet is probably the most important prerequisite of an excellent government. I believe it would be healthy for the Cabinet to be regularly infused with new blood, new talent.
I’m leaving, as I believe there’s always someone who can do a better job and wants to serve. I’ve had my turn.
(The Star Group Chief Editor Datuk) Wong Chun Wai is right. I quote, “For a start, those who have overstayed must know when to leave” [Sunday Star, Feb 10].)
The risk of being there too long is that one could get dogmatic and become less open to new ways. As a minister, I also always worry about being isolated from the pulse of what’s really going on.
It is so easy for a minister to be surrounded by his officers and a few regular contacts, that he loses touch with the real world out there.
A wonderful exception to this is (Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri) Shahrizat (Abdul Jalil).
She interacts diligently with almost every non-governmental organisation in her field. She is warm and friendly, treats everyone with respect and dignity. She meets all her stakeholders and listens to them so genuinely – and efficiently follows up on all issues.
She’s got a dream team of equally passionate officers. And she is a beguiling, persuasive member of the Cabinet. She’s got it all. We should have more Shahrizats!
For me, I think I have accomplished most of what I set out to achieve when I rejoined the Cabinet in February 2006. We have re-branded the Economic Planning Unit. I believe it has now regained its stature as a trusted, independent key unit of the Government.
Its new organisation structure established new strategic departments like the MDI – Malaysian Development Institute (a full-time team of economic experts charting future economic directions of the country), PPP – Public Private Partnership Unit (to develop stronger, effective mechanism of collaboration and partnership between the Government and private sector) and the specialist private financing initiatives (PFI) unit, and a more structured and stronger Bumiputra Commercial and Industrial Community unit.
I was allowed to select my own team and (EPU director-general Datuk Seri Dr) Sulaiman Mahbob and team are some of the best professionals in government service today that I’ve had the pleasure to work with.
I am also hoping that more corporate citizens will join the Cabinet. After all, 60% of the country’s economy is to be driven by the private sector. So, to those capable corporate citizens, please step forward, you have a chance to make a difference.
To quote (NBC managing editor and news anchor) Tom Brokaw, “It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.”
I promise you it is rewarding. I know my children and grandchildren will be proud that their dad/ granddad served in the Cabinet, the highest executive decision-making body in the country.
Meanwhile, my family is so looking forward to welcoming me back to our normal life. Dani, my eight-year-old boy, is looking forward to cycling with me again, and to play more golf and tennis together.
Mila, my 11-year-old daughter, is already planning our family picnics in all the places where she can spend hours painting (she’s an amazing artist!).
And I can finally be the super dad that I’ve always wanted to be, who can attend all their school productions, concerts, competitions and activities.
And (wife) Tiara is waiting to drag me to get into her world of arts and charity (maybe we’ll do another film or two and perhaps a couple more stage musicals).
And there’re my two grandkids Elyca and Mecael waiting to be spoilt!
Oh, did I mention I’m going back to the University of Tasmania to read History and perhaps give lectures to the future leaders of this country? So life will have a new beginning for me and I still get to do my bit for the country in a different capacity.
As (American clergyman) Harry Emerson said, “Don’t simply retire from something, have something to retire to.”
I’m comforted that this country is in good hands. And this is coming from someone who has been there, in the front row.
Datuk Sri Mohd Effendi Norwawi was Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in the Cabinet, responsible for the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), the National Economic Action Council (NEAC) and the Department of Statistics (DOS).
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