Malaysiakini Letter

Ministerial responsibility in New M'sia - shining light or Stygian gloom?

Calvin Sankaran  |  Published:  |  Modified:

LETTER | Since May 9, 2018, the public's expectations of good governance has risen. Malaysians are no longer willing to accept sub-standard performance, lack of accountability or opaqueness in public governance.

A critical element of good governance is the ministerial responsibility – a key pillar in a mature parliamentary democracy. 

It is the cornerstone upon which good governance is built. Inadequacies in the discharging of ministerial responsibility will invariably lead to poor governance.

This principle has two components – collective cabinet responsibility and individual responsibility. 

The collective cabinet responsibility holds that ministers must publicly support all governmental decisions made in cabinet, even if they do not privately agree with them.

Should a minister be incapable of doing this, they are expected to resign. If they don’t resign, the prime minister has the right to dismiss them.

The second pillar of the doctrine is the individual responsibility – ministers should accept responsibility for the actions of their department, behave appropriately in their personal life and be competent.

Numerous issues and controversies in the last 15 months have given us a treasure trove of data to evaluate the performance of our new Pakatan Harapan federal and state cabinets vis-à-vis ministerial responsibility.

Let’s start with the khat issue. Let’s leave aside our opinion on this contentious issue and look at it from the perspective of the ministerial responsibility.

Firstly, the Education Ministry failed to engage the stakeholders or prepared the ground before the announcement on the implementation of khat lessons for vernacular schools. 

The minister did not have a well thought out communication strategy or clear explanation on the need for such lessons for non-Muslim students. 

The education minister, already a deeply unpopular and divisive figure, appeared to be completely unprepared to answer the numerous questions that the media and the public bombarded him with.

Despite apparent consensus within the cabinet on khat implementation, several ministers broke rank and disagreed with the decision in public. 

Instead of presenting a unified stance and assuage public concerns, these leaders exacerbated the situation by failing to discharge their ministerial responsibility. Instead, they placed the blame squarely on the previous government and the ministry.

The education minister, who was expected to take charge of the situation and represent the government, meanwhile inflamed the situation further by issuing highly misleading and confusing statements. 

His deputy brought the level of incompetence to a new high with her bizarre actions and press statements. At times, the pair looked like a couple of actors in a Monty Python skit.

The shocking lack of leadership and moral cowardice was exemplified by another minister who was caught issuing a press statement opposing the cabinet decision in the vernacular press, while saying otherwise to the English and Malay language media.

Lynas is yet another controversial and emotive issue that required careful handling by the new cabinet. In their election manifesto, Harapan had promised to close down the Australian rare earth plant due to serious environmental concerns and vehement protests from the local community. 

In fact, 13 members of the current cabinet even once signed a pledge to shut the facility down.

However, for some opaque reasons, the cabinet chose not to honour their manifesto and instead they decided to allow Lynas to continue with their operations. 

Despite their personal pledge and constituents’ strong opposition, ministers opposed to Lynas neither stood by the cabinet’s position nor resigned in protest.

The Dr Zakir Naik episode offers yet another case study in the dysfunctional modus operandi of the cabinet. Despite the controversial preacher’s racially provocative and hurtful statements, the government decided not to deport him. 

It was reported that onlytwo ethnic Indian ministers from DAP spoke up and conveyed their opposition to the presence of this Indian Islamic televangelist. 

It was also reported that the ministers left the matter to the prime minister to decide. A few weeks later, the prime minister casually announced that Zakir will continued to be allowed to stay in Malaysia and won’t be deported back to India where he’s wanted on money laundering charges.

This issue highlights two troubling points. One, the decision-making process in such an important matter was not based on cabinet deliberations and consensus but on the prerogative of the all-knowing and powerful prime minister. 

Secondly, the fact that only two ministers objected while all others kept their silence is rather disappointing.

In the last several months, we have witnessed numerous environmental disasters in several states causing the closure of schools, evacuations and even hospitalisations of hundreds of school children. 

In none of these cases, we have been informed of the root causes or solutions. Neither the federal minister responsible nor the state officials in charge offered apologies or resignations. 

Not a single enforcement officer has been investigated, charged or punished. In meantime, our jungles continue to be cleared, rivers polluted, hills flattened and air pumped with noxious gases.

Several months ago, it was revealed that a number of senior ministers and state leaders had falsified their academic records and lied about their education credentials. This included several senior cabinet ministers and leaders at state level. 

Despite being exposed, none of the leaders in questions admitted to their mistakes and offered to step down.

It must be noted that falsification of education credentials is an offence under Section 471 of the Penal Code. These cases were duly investigated by the police and to nobody’s surprise, none of these ministers and leaders were ever charged.

Unfortunately, the list doesn’t end with abject moral cowardice, blatant lies, gross mismanagement and sheer incompetence. 

A few months ago, a senior minister was implicated in a sex video scandal with a fellow party leader. Instead of taking a high moral ground, the minister in question chose to hang on to his position despite highly compromising evidence and public outrage.

Up north, a state exco plunged the level of good governance to subterranean depths – he was charged with raping his Indonesian maid. 

Despite the seriousness of these charges, he adamantly refused to go on leave until he was forced to do so by the state’s menteri besar.

It would be an understatement to say that the Malaysian public is unimpressed with the performance of the New Malaysia cabinets at both federal and state levels. 

It is self-evident from these leaders’ track records thus far that the five Ps (power, position, prestige, pay and patronage) have clearly trumped and triumphed over the one P – principles.

Back in 2018 we thought the country has hit the rock bottom and things couldn’t go any worse than Najib Abdul Razak’s BN cabinet – but the New Malaysia cabinet has proven us wrong.


The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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