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Dubious justifications for ministerial advisers

If ministerial advisers are needed, there must be a framework governing the scope of their role.

Kua Kia Soong
4 minute read

Judging from the outcry over the nepotistic appointment of his daughter as his financial adviser, we wonder how many more mistakes Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is going to make before his first 100 days are up.

It was Anwar’s nemesis, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who set a bad example for him. In 2018, Mahathir hogged the finance ministry again as he had done during his first tenure as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. He mansplained that he only stepped in as finance minister while he was helming the country because he "needed time to find a good candidate”.

As a nonagenarian, it could be argued that he would need assistance in handling two portfolios. He did form an unelected Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) headed by Daim Zainuddin. Daim was, of course, to be more than an adviser to Mahathir, with his track record of being a "fixer". He went on to fix the multi-billion-dollar pipeline projects and the proposed East Coast Rail Link entered into by the previous Najib Razak administration which were suspended by the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in 2018. 

You can imagine that Daim came under attack from several political factions in the new government (including Anwar?) because of the sweeping clout he enjoyed as head of the CEP. Mahathir’s plans for the privatisation of GLCs included restructuring and management changes at state-owned entities to benefit his coterie of supporters and business associates. Daim, the prime minister's adviser was apparently to fix all these for Mahathir.

As the prime minister's adviser, Daim went further than any "terms of reference" for the job. On June 10, 2018, former Federal Court judge, the late Gopal Sri Ram, claimed that Zainuddin had called for the resignations of then chief justice Md Raus Sharif and Court of Appeal president Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin. Gopal told Malaysiakini it was "an open secret" that this had occurred during a meeting at Daim’s private office, but that it was unclear when the actual meeting took place. Gopal said that Daim should not have done so as it was unconstitutional for anyone other than the prime minister to summon the head of the judiciary.

Obviously, Nurul Izzah Anwar was not appointed to be Anwar's "fixer", but what other purposes does Anwar have for her? Does she have the credentials to be a special adviser to the finance minister and prime minister? We know that she needed a job after losing her seat in GE15.

Apart from the prime minister's advisers after PH won GE14 in 2018, we saw the creation of a post for Tian Chua as "adviser to the minister of works" in the last days of the PH government in 2019/20 when he was an unemployed politician. How was that post created? What credentials did Tian Chua have to be an adviser in that portfolio? Was merit a criterion in his selection? Was this in line with the "reformasi" ideals of PH?

These questions are also applicable to the appointment of Anwar’s daughter as the prime minister's "financial adviser".

The example of Daim, Mahathir’s adviser in 2018, illustrates the dubious justifications for appointing "ministerial advisers" – the blurred boundaries of the appointments and the risk of the politicisation of the public service. As we saw, there was little transparency and low accountability.

For a start, if ministerial advisers are needed, there must be a framework governing the scope of their role. For example, they must not ask civil servants to do anything which is inconsistent with their obligations under the Civil Service Code, never mind interfere with the judiciary; they cannot authorise the expenditure of public funds or have responsibility for budgets; or exercise any power in relation to the management of any part of the civil service.

PH rode to power at GE14 on a groundswell of disgust against the blatant scale of corruption committed by the former Barisan Nasional (BN) regime. While PH targeted Najib and the 1MDB scandal in its campaign strategy, the coalition was fully aware of the fact that corruption extends beyond barefaced kleptocracy. That is why the PH manifesto in GE14 decried the patronage practised by BN in appointing politicians and their partisans to state institutions.

It is time for all Malaysians who had hoped for a "new Malaysia" to call for a halt to this "moneyless form of corruption" and to restore merit-based criteria for entry into state institutions. This "moneyless form of corruption" that Transparency International calls "patronage" is important and insidious, where the state appoints friends, relatives, and political supporters including NGO activists to public jobs which, without the official’s influence, they would not have obtained. Thus, without hiring/appointing personnel on the basis of merit, such placements ensure that society as a whole suffers as Malaysia has suffered all these years.

Nepotism and cronyism are practices of partiality in awarding jobs and other advantages to friends, family relatives or trusted supporters regardless of their qualifications. This includes doing favours for partisan organisations, and giving desirable ambassadorships to exotic places.

The 1997 World Development Report emphasised the important link between merit appointments and bureaucratic capability. The report delved into the depth of political appointments in government departments. It stressed merit-based appointment as a plank in anti-corruption strategies. Merit can be defined as "the appointment of the best person for any given job". It is well known that in any organisation, good selection methods lead to the subsequent high performance of staff and the organisation. A visible merit-based appointment system, where breaches of good practice are self-evident, clearly makes it easier for citizens to hold the government to account in this area.

We need a politically neutral, merit-based career civil service, not dubious political appointments such as so-called "ministerial advisers".

Kua Kia Soong is a human rights activist.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow. 

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