Bodek culture vs. the dignity of public service

Who do we blame for the bloated and deteriorating government bureaucracy in Malaysia? What explains our “bodek” culture? Is there any hope that we can fix things?

Our government bureaucracy is a vast presence that touches all Malaysians in almost every aspect of our life, except perhaps in the bedroom. But if you are a Muslim, it can affect you there too.

It’s a common complaint from coffee stalls to penthouses about the gravity of so much in our country. The truth is, despite terrible predictions, we have not yet collapsed into a failed state. But neither have we reversed our seemingly inexorable slide towards him.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way large human organizations work – or often, don’t. I think all of these organizations are fundamentally dysfunctional. They are best described by the cartoons of Lat or Dilbert than by Harvard Business School or management gurus.

But what about some large organizations – businesses and governments – that seem to be successful? It all depends on the definition of success. If that means meeting all of its stated goals, and ultimately delivering more value than they cost, then those are in fact a minority. The rest simply survive.

The bureaucracy is not under the pressures of day-to-day survival. Businesses can go bankrupt – we’ve seen a lot of them over the past year – but governments don’t. Being able to print money, create debt, or raise taxes at any time protects them from most of the harsh realities of life.

Apparently there is a new argument that there is a social responsibility to protect the jobs of public servants. I find this argument insulting because I don’t remember anyone fighting to protect my parents’ bowls of rice when they, and millions of others like them, fought against poverty, calamity and a society. against them.

Why take the initiative?

While the energy of a private company is often directed at fighting external competition, in a bureaucracy it is often directed internally against its own members, or even against us, the public. Stress at work in a bureaucracy is not about producing results, but about staying on the right side of power.

After all, your superiors can reverse any decision you make regardless of logic or reasoning – only with the power to do so. So why should someone take the risk of showing initiative or being innovative or even working hard given the high risks but poor rewards?

The situation is made worse by our society’s high-power-distance culture, where the weak are ready to let the powerful tread on them. This is our “bodek” culture, and you see it in every other aspect of our lives as well.

Did you know Malaysia has the world’s worst power-distance culture? No other nation comes close. And no, the British left over 60 years ago, and we can no longer blame them for ‘bodek’, if it was ever their fault to start with. We own it, because we created it.

In a vast bureaucratic structure, rigid and hard rules punish deviations – the nail that sticks out is hammered. Not fair? Never mind, don’t complain, pay your dues and serve your time, and your turn will come when you can distribute it to others. The cycle continues.

The outdated system of reward and recognition in a bureaucracy encourages loyalty and obedience – which again is the culture of power-distance and “bodek”. Performance and results almost make no sense. It is laughable to hear ministers talk about achieving 97.5% of their KPIs – do you see anything in Malaysia that is 97.5% good?

Manage the God factor

It is hard enough to manage five people: it is almost impossible to manage 500,000 people. The Malaysian bureaucracy – massive federal and state organizations coexisting and often competing with public organizations such as GLCs, GICs and GLICs – is almost unmanageable.

Throw in this crazy mix of many big and powerful religious organizations funded by taxpayers at the federal and state levels that are only accountable to God, and you turn the dysfunction dial on Maximum Total Havoc Habis.

Such a bureaucracy inevitably becomes political. Politics here, which I define as a second but hidden and more powerful agenda, requires survival first and foremost. “Berkhidmat Untuk Negara” is the official agenda – but survival is the news. You can’t win if you’re out of the game, so you survive at all costs.

Yes, there are exceptions. My passport was renewed within an hour on a Sunday morning – well done to the immigration department. Taxpayers are also incredibly efficient. And there are always individuals who seem to care enough about serving. But these days, those are the exceptions rather than the norm.

Some nations succeed by keeping their bureaucracy small and highly accountable, and also by keeping it decentralized and constantly checking and balancing. And what is very important is that they keep the government away from the business sector.

Countries like Singapore, Norway and Japan seem to be doing a good job of preventing politics from infecting bureaucracy. The best and the brightest seem to revolve around government service. They have problems, but wouldn’t we like to share our problems with them?

Politics, politics, everywhere

In Malaysia, unfortunately, politics is hidden everywhere and behind everything. The bureaucracy becomes highly politicized and is overwhelmed by the usual political illnesses of bigotry, racism, short-termism and outright corruption.

What is the solution? Bring in expensive Mat Salleh consultants and design new logos and play catchy patriotic songs on RTM? You’ve been tried before, and even if you hit 100% of those KPIs, you still wouldn’t change a thing.

Or what about something even more radical? Change the government! We have tried this too, but unfortunately we got too carried away with the changes of government and we cannot stop …

The disorder of today’s bureaucracy is the symptom, not the cause, of the problems in our society. They arose because of the larger issues of loss of transparency, accountability, control and balance, the unhealthy setting of rights rather than responsibilities, the deterioration of the education system and the intrusion of race and of religion in our public sphere.

Until these changes change, nothing else will.

When I asked an old man whom I admire why he worked so long in the government bureaucracy, his answer was: the dignity of the public service.

This man had faithfully served our beloved nation for many years. He retired with pride, albeit a bit early and with a bit of sadness and disappointment as well. He could have gone further and done a lot more.

I can’t imagine that there are many who still see their role of serving their fellow citizens as having any dignity, other than the hope of making it to retirement alive. It’s a shame.

But nevertheless, thank you, Mr. S, for finding dignity in your public service and for sharing your dignity with us.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

About Harold Hartman

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